Julia Shumway
The Bulletin

Can the city of Bend replace bus service by subsidizing ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft?

That’s a question a new lab at Oregon State University-Cascades will try to figure out this year. The mobility lab received $50,000 from the city and $25,000 from St. Charles Bend this month to test on-demand transit services around OSU-Cascades and Central Oregon Community College, where a bus route was eliminated earlier this year.

That cash would pay for a four- to six-month pilot program, though details won’t be set until after OSU-Cascades picks a contractor.

Passengers would likely pay fees of $1 to $5. Rides could be free in the first month, or when multiple passengers ride together. Students, older adults and riders with disabilities could see lower fares.

Casey Bergh, transportation manager at OSU-Cascades and director of the university’s mobility lab, told the Bend City Council a goal of the program is to pool riders to cut down on the number of single trips.

“When the vehicle is going from OSU-Cascades to COCC, if a student living in that neighborhood also wants to go to COCC, the vehicle could divert within that route as needed to pull those routes together,” he said.

The program will run in the area formerly served by Route 12, a Cascades East Transit bus that served NorthWest Crossing, OSU-Cascades and COCC until June 30. The route had only 7,636 riders — about 21 a day — during the budget year that ended June 30, and the city saved $150,000 per year when it agreed to eliminate the route.

Uber and Lyft rides within the area cost $12 or less, which is about half the cost per ride on the discontinued bus, according to the city.

Both ride-hailing services have supplemented public transportation in other cities. Uber offered discounted rides between five cities in Florida through a pilot project that ended in July. The cities, including Altamonte Springs, paid 20 percent of the cost of rides.

Frank Martz, city manager of Altamonte Springs, said the cities are looking at ways to continue the program. It succeeded in getting government out of private industries’ way, he said.

Lyft, meanwhile, partnered earlier this year with the suburban city of Monrovia, California, to provide transit services. Riders who use the city’s promotional code can pay $0.50 for a ride with the chance of stopping to pick up one or more additional passengers, or pay $3 for a ride with no additional stops.

The ride-hailing service also provides on-demand services for some riders with disabilities in southern Nevada and free or discounted trips to and from trains and bus stations in several cities across the country.

Along with ride-hailing services, OSU-Cascades will consider local transportation providers.

Some companies own a fleet of vehicles, but ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft rely on drivers to use their own cars. That means there’s no guarantee the pilot program will have vehicles capable of transporting wheelchair users or other riders with disabilities.

Cascades East Transit has long provided Dial-A-Ride to people with disabilities, but the services are limited, city Councilor Barb Campbell said. Riders have to reserve rides 24 hours in advance. Drivers give 30-minute windows for their arrival, and the service only runs during business hours.

“There are people who refer to this service like it is just some wonderful gift that we are providing,” Campbell said. “This is a system that allows people to have some interaction with the world, but it is so limited.”

Campbell, the lone councilor to vote against the ride-hailing pilot program, said she liked the concept but couldn’t support it without a requirement on the contractor to provide accessible transportation and treat employees and riders fairly.

She was specifically concerned about Uber, which allows drivers and passengers to rate each other. Drivers can be fired or suspended if they have an average rating of 4.5 or less out of 5, and passengers may have trouble getting rides if their ratings are too low.

“When a business is allowed to rate customers, it’s a really effective, sneaky way to discriminate,” Campbell said.

—  Reporter: 541-633-2160; jshumway@bendbulletin.com