ST. PETERSBURG — Riding the bus in Pinellas County just got a whole lot easier.
Transit agencies have always struggled with what's known as the "first-mile, last-mile" problem — how to get riders from the bus stop to their final destination, whether it's their home, the office or even the grocery store.
The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Agency will attempt to meet that challenge with a new county-wide partnership with Uber, United Taxi and Wheelchair Transport that was announced Thursday. The bus agency will help subsidize those services to take people from the bus stop to their final destinations for about a $1.
PSTA said it is the first transit agency in the country to partner with a ridershare company in this manner.
"This is the future of transit," PSTA CEO Brad Miller said.
The program, known as Direct Connect, is an expansion of a pilot project PSTA rolled out last February in East Lake and Pinellas Park. The pilot was successful enough that PSTA will now subsidize Uber and cab rides for bus patrons throughout the county.
Those who don't want to take an Uber can call United Taxi. Wheelchair Transport is also part of the program, making it accessible for people with disabilities.
Here's how it works: The county is divided into eight zones. Each one has a designated stop that is a transit hub for multiple routes. Trips must be within the zone and start or end at the designated bus stop, which is usually within five miles.
People can access the discounted ride directly in their Uber apps. If they're already at the station, they'll type in their destination, and if it's within the zone, the PSTA discount will be the first option that pops up.
If they're on their way to the station, they'll initially see traditional options on the app such as UberX and UberSelect. But swipe to the right, and the PSTA fare will appear.
Warning: The app will tell riders the fare before the discount, usually around $5.95. But if they pick the PSTA option, the bus agency covers the first $5, meaning most people will pay about a dollar for their ride.
"It's been a God-send, really," said Sue Keating, who has been using the program since the pilot started last year. "Not having to muscle groceries and things like that while walking 15-minutes in the summer heat has been so nice."
Her son Kyle Keating, 32, sometimes uses Direct Connect to get home when he works late. Instead of having to walk a couple miles or paying $8 to 12 for an Uber to get home from work, he can take the bus to Pinellas Park for $2.25 and then grab a $1 Uber ride home.
Miller is hoping Direct Connect will entice more people who to use the bus who don't normally do so, but are also looking for a cheaper alternative to Uber or a taxi.
"It's a whole new market of potential bus riders," Miller said. "We want a way to attract people who were just planning to use Uber but want a cheaper way to get there. Can I get a discounted Uber ride combined with the bus to save money?"
The program also allows PSTA to expand its coverage without the additional expense of adding bus routes. PSTA has allocated $100,000 for the first six months of the county-wide program. By comparison, the old East Lake connector cost $150,000 to run plus the cost of the bus. But that low-performing route was replaced in February by the pilot program.
Transit agencies are increasingly investing in these kinds of private-public partnerships to help alleviate their constrained budgets and reduced federal funding. This is especially problematic for Tampa Bay's transit agencies, where two transportation sales tax referendums have been defeated since 2010 and a third couldn't even make it onto the ballot last year.
"It just does not make sense to run an $800,000 bus to every corner of Pinellas County," Miller said. "If we can work out these arrangements with Uber and taxi companies in more suburban, low-density areas ... then we can run the buses we have on the major corridors of Pinellas County."
Across the bay, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority is also working to provide a first-mile, last-mile solution for its riders, known as HyperLINK.
For a $3 flat fee, riders can take a van to a designated bus stop within a 3-mile radius. The pilot program currently operates with three stations: the University Area Transit Center near the University of South Florida, a stop at W Fletcher Avenue and N Dale Mabry Highway stop and one at the Westfield Brandon mall.
Contact Caitlin Johnston at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3401. Follow @cljohnst.