PhotoPublic transit is beloved by policy wonks and generally hated by those who use it, especially in smaller cities where buses don't run very often or in cities like Washington, D.C., where older parts of the fabulously expensive Metro system have deteriorated even as the system is being built into far-out suburbs. The answer, a growing number of towns think, may lie with Uber and Lyft.

A Bloomberg report finds that a growing number of smaller cities are cutting deals with Uber and Lyft to provide rides for residents who would otherwise take the bus or, in many cases, be stranded in lightly populated outlying areas.

It costs a lot of money to run public buses and an enormous amount of money to build, maintain, and operate subway systems. Early experimenters like Pinellas Park, Fla., and Centennial, Colo., are betting it will cost a lot less to let needy citizens summon a car when they need to go somewhere.

It might sound like an expensive giveaway to private industry, but it's worth noting that local bus service is often subcontracted to private companies which, upon further investigation, frequently turn out to have undisclosed ties to local politicos.

“This is an area that has the potential to be a very significant part of Lyft’s work in the future,” Emily Castor, director of transportation policy at Lyft, told Bloomberg. “How quickly will it progress from small pilots to being institutionalized in transit agencies? I think that’s harder to predict.” 

Hefty fares

There's a lot of money at stake. In 2014, Americans spent $15 billion in fares for rides on the 850 public transit agencies that report their data to the Federal Transit Administration, Bloomberg notes. While $15 billion is a handy sum, it didn't begin to cover the $42 billion it cost to operate local transit agencies. 

The remaining $27 billion came, of course, from taxpayers. This doesn't count capital expense -- the billions spent to build rail lines, buy trains, buses, etc.

While mainline bus and train routes aren't likely to be sidelined, transit planners are increasingly looking at ride-hailing services to fill in on low-density routes that are now underserved, wildly unprofitable, or both.

Local governments already pay for taxis in certain circumstances and most of them have vans that shuttle disabled and elderly riders around. Current thinking is that some or all of those trips could be replaced by Uber and Lyft, although there would be political opposition from entrenched providers.

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