Brookings, Transit Union at Impasse over Rideshare and Paratransit

Uber and Lyft have simultaneously exploded in both popularity and controversy in the recent years, creating new frontlines in the battles over labor, transportation, and social justice policy at all levels of government. 

Cities such as New Orleans and New York have seen their efforts to restrict or regulate rideshare thwarted by vitriolic resistance from residents and Uber’s scorched earth campaign.  Meanwhile, speculation is growing that Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) can move beyond simply transporting millennials from their gentrified neighborhoods and begin rendering transportation solutions that serve all segments of the population through collaboration with local transit agencies and, eventually, deploying fleets of self-driving cars.

In early March, the Brookings Institute released a paper arguing that TNCs like Uber and Lyft could assist public transit agencies in providing demand response (DR) services to persons with limited mobility. 

The authors suggested that transit agencies should consider partnerships with TNCs to reduce paratransit operating costs and increase response time.  They cited reports from the Federal Transit Administration, Government Accountability Office, and American Public Transportation Association to illustrate the high cost of rendering the DR services that are a right – and a vital component – in the lives of individuals with limited mobility. 

The authors proceeded to note that organized labor might oppose the transition away from unionized staff and toward independent contractors.  Furthermore, they acknowledged that: low-income and elderly populations have lower smartphone penetration rates; intergovernmental coordination is already difficult; and TNCs have not proved to be a cost-effective way to reduce the cost of DR services.

The Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) lashed out a month later:

Brookings is not the first, nor will it be the last, to present this kind of inaccurate and shallow “study” as independent research. In response, ATU has published our own paper that relies on third-party data and real-world experiences to illustrate the many ways that TNC-focused paratransit solutions exacerbate the problems faced by public transit agencies.”

Yet the ATU’s paper failed to rise above the very criticism it leveled at Brookings. 

Based on its combative tone and content, a better medium for ATU’s argument may have been an all-caps tweetstorm.  In its efforts to discredit TNCs, ATU presented a surface-level critique of Uber and Lyft – while also admitting that current direct response services are currently inadequate for both riders and employees. 

The authors accused current paratransit services in Washington, DC for underpaying its drivers to the point that one employee and her child became homeless for three months.  Yet, immediately afterwards, ATU proceeded to state that “non-union sources, like the Federal Transit Administration and the Government Accountability Office, have linked abysmal labor conditions to a decline in service quality for paratransit riders.”  (Remarkably, these were the same sources used in Brookings’ study.)

To their credit, the authors bring up an important point: TNCs are not yet a proven solution to the challenges that municipalities face in rendering paratransit service.  Paratransit is disproportionately expensive compared to other modes because it is immensely important to guarantee that its riders are transported as safely as possible to their destination.  This often takes specialized training, quality assurance through careful oversight, and the provision of adequate equipment/facilities – all of which can be costly.  When the medical and safety risks linked to the passenger are closely considered as well, regulatory and legal costs increase even further.

Yet this isn’t a reason to give up entirely on pursuing alternatives to the current paratransit model – quite the opposite, in fact.  ATU took the stage in order to slam Brookings for the mere suggestion of alternative forms of DR services, but it may have been a better use of time to acknowledge Brookings’ authors shared the same misgivings about TNCs. 

Perhaps then, ATU would have found an opportunity to collaborate with Brookings in order to create solutions for drivers and passengers alike, rather than intentionally creating divisions and conflicts.