Ride-sharing apps provide a lift to Pittsburgh's underserved neighborhoods
February 29, 2016 12:00 AM
Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters illustration
By Daniel Moore / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When Kayla Chemas took a job about a year ago at Crazy Mocha on the North Side, she knew it would involve a commute: She lived in Allison Park at the time, far from any bus line.
She then moved to Allentown, a South Side community, where buses regularly barrel through. But because she unlocks the coffee shop doors at 5:30 a.m., she didn’t feel comfortable waiting at a bus stop in the dark morning hours.
Uber was the answer she needed. She uses the ride-hailing app to get to and from work, Monday through Friday. And during her time in Allison Park, her significant other gave her a ride to work and she used Uber to get home.
“Uber has been a great fit for me,” Ms. Chemas said last week while serving a line of customers.
PG graphic: Waiting for a ride (Click image for larger version)
Her experience highlights the potential for ride-share companies like San Francisco-based Uber and Lyft, as well as YellowCab of Pittsburgh’s zTrip, to expand transportation options to neighborhoods that are traditionally underserved by public transit and where, for whatever reason, taxi cabs are rarely seen.
It also shows the limitations of the app-based services — an expensive alternative for low-income residents to taking the bus — to completely fill the transportation gaps. Ms. Chemas estimated she spends $70 a week on Uber, a cost that fluctuates greatly during times the company raises or “surges” prices because of high demand.
In interviews, riders and drivers said they believed the ease and flexibility of hailing a ride within minutes has generally helped more people move around the Pittsburgh region’s neighborhoods. The smartphone apps connect people in need of a ride with drivers in their own cars who have signed up and have the app turned on.
In 2015, the average wait time for an Uber around Pittsburgh was 5 minutes, according to data the company released earlier this month. Average wait times in any part of the region did not exceed 9 minutes, the data showed.
“Drivers who partner with Uber are completing a staggering number of trips to areas underserved by public transit,” Spencer Fertig, Uber’s general manager for Pennsylvania expansion, said in a statement.
The ride-sharing services are lobbying for permanent authority to operate in the state. They are operating under temporary licenses.
Where drivers choose to drive
In 2015, one in six Uber trips began or ended in one of 17 neighborhoods the company identified as traditionally underserved by transportation services. The company said it made that determination by speaking with local contacts on public transit options in low-income neighborhoods.
Drivers often can’t see where they are going until the rides begin, a fact that Uber said eliminates the potential for discrimination that drivers may have against a certain destination or rider profile. There’s also a likelihood that drivers can get another ride request notification quickly through the app, instead of hoping for someone to hail a cab on the street, the company said.
According to Lyft, 37 percent of its rides in the Pittsburgh market start or end in a neighborhood that is defined as a low-income area by the federal government.
“Many drivers live in these neighborhoods and provide rides within miles of their own homes to meet new neighbors and help the community while earning some extra money,” Lyft spokeswoman Paige Thelen said.
Drivers tend to agree — to an extent. Though the apps might not allow drivers to reject trips by seeing where a passenger wants to go, drivers can still decide against going somewhere to pick someone up.
Chris Ritter, a Lawrenceville resident who has driven for Lyft since August, said he turns on the app right when he gets off work from his office job around 2 p.m.
His strategy is to drive in a circle around the East End neighborhoods. He gives most of his rides there.
“If you’re 20 minutes out, there’s no way I’m making that trip,” he said. “It’s just not worth it.”
Still, Mr. Ritter said he has a friend who lives in Monroeville and gives people rides through Lyft as he commutes to his day job in the city.
John Allan, a Mount Washington resident who drives 40 hours a week for Uber, said he has seen taxis that simply won’t show up to calls if they involve going to certain neighborhoods. His passengers routinely express gratitude, he said, as he has given rides to nurses going in for a shift at a hospital, teens working at McDonald’s and even children going to school.
“I’ll go anywhere. The thing doesn’t stop beeping,” Mr. Allan said, referring to the trip requests on his phone. “The trips are just as long, and just as good.”
There is no company-issued training requirements or reviews of individual driving patterns, and route preference varies widely among drivers.
Mr. Allan said he will receive requests from riders miles away, which means several drivers closer to them had turned down the request. Ride-share drivers also can be seen huddling near hotels, airports and nightlife districts, he said, not unlike taxi drivers.
An Uber driver who lives in Scott said he has given rides in areas he feels are underserved: Carrick, McKees Rocks, Mount Washington and Mount Oliver. But the driver, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he usually won’t willingly drive through other areas where he’s seen reports of violent crimes.
“Uber is not worth putting myself into an area I probably wouldn’t drive through on my own time,” the driver said. “This job is risky ... so if something seems unsafe, I don’t blame anyone for not going there.”
Then there’s the issue of cost. In low-income areas far from bus lines, many residents may not possess bank cards or smartphones to use ride-hailing apps.
Uber driver Mike Maiolo said he’s gotten “relatively few” trip requests from the neighborhoods Uber identified.
“Not sure what it is ... maybe because people don’t have a credit card to sign up on the apps, or maybe they can’t afford it, or maybe they just don’t trust it,” Mr. Maiolo said.
Ms. Chemas, the coffee shop manager, said price surges — which occur when rider demand outnumbers drivers on the road — are common and unpredictable early on a weekday morning.
She wishes the apps would offer deals for frequent riders or at least ways for daily commuters to avoid surges.
Daniel Moore: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-2743 and Twitter @PGdanielmoore.
Correction, posted March 1, 2016: A previous version of this article incorrectly described how Lyft defined its rides from low-income areas.
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