Wear: Cap Metro dabbles in ride-hailing with new 'Pickup' service


Highlights

Starting Tuesday, the transit agency will have two minibuses on call in a limited Northeast Austin area.

The free curb-to-curb service, available only within that area, will run Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Cap Metro is partnering with a New York-based company that created the app and runs the service elsewhere.

Have you heard Capital Metro’s new Pickup line?

“Capital Metro is bringing ride hailing to public transportation,” the agency says in a brochure that showed up at my Mueller neighborhood home last week.

Well, yes and no.

The agency on Tuesday will debut a new service, called Pickup, where you can download an app and use it to arrange a ride. Sounds like ride-hailing, yes. Best of all, it’s free! At least for the next 12 months.

But there are a few details that shave some notable edges off that description. Suffice to say that RideAustin, Fare, Fasten, Lyft and Uber aren’t trembling over the entrance into the market of this new, tax-subsidized competitor.

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First of all, the service will be available only three days a week — Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday — and even then only from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. And the rides, both the pickup and the destination, must fall within a 12-square-mile piece of Northeast Austin roughly bounded by Interstate 35 on the west, Airport Boulevard and Manor Road to the south and Little Walnut Creek on the east and north.

So if you want to go from the Mueller area to Reagan High School on Thursday about noon, for instance, or from St. John’s to Capital Plaza or Bartholomew Pool on Saturday afternoon, you’re golden.

As long as you don’t mind waiting up to 15 minutes for the ride and sharing it potentially with eight other people on a small bus. And, by the way, at least initially Cap Metro will devote only two vehicles and five drivers to the service, which will be using drivers who the rest of the time work for the agency’s special door-to-door MetroAccess service for people with disabilities. For those without smartphones, you can also call 512-369-6200 to arrange a Pickup. Old school.

So, ride-hailing lite. Very lite.

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“This is really a technology pilot,” said Jane Schroter, Cap Metro’s director of transit systems and project management. “We have a lot of questions: Will the technology work? Will customers use it? Is this something that can be used for first- and last-mile service?”

Pickup replaces a service that ran for the past eight months in more or less the same area of Austin, a fixed route that Cap Metro called the Upper Eastside Flex. Under that venture, people could call in if they lived in that service area but weren’t near the listed route and, within two hours, the bus would deviate from its route and pick them up. It didn’t really work.

Tony Lynch, a lead mobility specialist with Cap Metro, said that on average only one person a day was calling the line (there was no smartphone app for the Flex). About 40 people a day were using the buses in all, he said, with the rest of them just catching the bus at stops along the listed route.

Then Cap Metro heard from Via, a New York-based company that operates what amounts to app-based carpooling services in New York, Washington and Chicago, as well as in France and England. The company and the agency decided to create this Austin experiment, which Capital Metro spokeswoman Mariette Hummel says makes it the first transit agency to offer ride-hailing. Again, as I said above, on a very limited basis.

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Schroter said Via is providing the app at no cost. Capital Metro already owned the two minibuses it’ll be using for Pickup, and the drivers work for a contractor on the MetroAccess service. About the only real extra cost will be the fuel — Lynch said the buses, which get about 9 miles per gallon, will be parked when there is no live call for service. There is minimal financial exposure, in other words.

If, unlike the earlier service, people flock to Pickup, Lynch said that other MetroAccess drivers could be trained and more existing minibuses converted to Pickup. And, after a year, perhaps there would be a fare.

This isn’t the first time, by the way, that Capital Metro has offered rides at no cost for an extended period. In fact, in 1989, with the agency’s sale tax providing more than enough revenue to run its operations, Capital Metro decided to drop fares entirely. Ridership jumped more than 70 percent over the next year, indicating that “free” is very attractive price.

The agency reinstituted fares about a year later, at more or less what they had been before the hiatus, and boardings dropped only 12 percent. Score! On the other hand, the now-dead Dillo shuttles downtown were free for much of their history, but use was still light because taking a Dillo was often only slightly faster than walking.

We’ll see what happens with Pickup. As Lynch pointed out, much of its service area has inadequate regular bus service now and, in the case of Mueller, transit-friendly folks who might be inclined to use Pickup. Other parts of that area have a lot of people with low incomes who already use buses a good deal. Getting them to take Pickup might be mostly a matter of effectively getting the word out.

But it’s difficult to see the end game of this pilot or the potential for Austin in general.

My wife, Kristy, and I were eating dinner at a sidewalk table on Congress Avenue about a week ago when, being a transportation nerd, I decided to count Yellow Cabs and (lime-green) ATX Coop Taxis going by for the next half-hour or so. I just wondered if Yellow Cab had lost as much market share as it seems.

I know: sad, and my wife’s cross to bear.

Anyway, aside from the taxis (Yellow won 20-13, with a couple of white Austin Cabs thrown in as well), I noticed at least 20 red Bike Austin users cruise by, dozens of pedicabs, three electric cabs (those golf cart thingies) and more than a few cars with RideAustin or Fare logos slapped on them. A few days after that, Uber and Lyft re-entered the market. And of course, there were all the privately owned cars moving past, and a steady stream of pedestrians.

I saw only one Cap Metro bus, by the way, which makes sense because the agency has moved almost all of its downtown service off Congress and onto Lavaca and Guadalupe streets.

The point is, there are innumerable ways to get around Austin, including genuine ride-hailing service that is available all the time, every day, all over town and shows up quicker than within 15 minutes. You can’t blame Cap Metro for trying, and you never know what will stick when you start throwing things at the wall. And for the people of Northeast Austin, particularly those without the means to pay $7 to $15 for a ride-hailing service, Pickup could be a very good thing for the next year.

But “free” as a marketing strategy would seem to have its financial limits. Even for Cap Metro.



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