THE BUZZ: Beyond Uber and Lyft

By on March 8, 2017

Can a commuter rideshare program reduce travel time and cut down on one of the valley’s key problems?

When big city traffic changes the pace of a small town, will rideshares be the answer?

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Close on the heels of the launch of Uber and Lyft, a new commuter rideshare app will arrive this spring in Jackson, and its creators are hoping to make a dent in workday traffic. Teton Rideshare is a new enterprise that encourages commuters from Teton Valley and Star Valley to carpool rather than drive solo to jobs in Jackson.

“The number of cars on the roads is a major challenge facing our community,” said Max Ludington, Teton Rideshare co-founder. “People are starting to feel it in a variety of ways and there is an impending sense that something needs to be done.”

Teton Rideshare utilizes the smartphone app “Duet,” which works by matching drivers and riders with similar commuting patterns in regional towns. Users sign in to Duet and create their commuter profile, indicating if they wish to be a driver or a rider. The more people in a town or region who sign up, the better the matches and the more user-friendly the program becomes.

One of the appealing aspects of the program is that travel costs are reduced for both drivers and riders. Riders reimburse drivers for a portion of the cost of the ride— Ludington estimates that a trip from Victor to Jackson costs slightly under six dollars. Riders benefit because the cost of riding is cheaper than the cost of gas, plus there is less wear and tear on their car. For the initial test phase of the partnership between Teton Rideshare and Duet, Duet will not take their standard percentage of ride fees.

Like Uber and Lyft, Duet is cashless. The app charges the ride to a credit card linked to a rider’s account.

Traffic problems drive a new notion

The idea for Teton Rideshare originated a year ago at the 22 in 21 conference hosted by Jonathan Schechter of the Charture Institute. The one-day conference takes a look at overarching issues facing the valley and serves as a platform for innovative solutions. Ludington attended the 2016 conference where traffic was a resounding theme. When someone in the audience asked, “Why isn’t there a rideshare app?” Ludington had an “Aha” moment.

He teamed up with Zach Smith, the mayor of Victor, Idaho, at the time, and began looking at options. They knew about Uber and Lyft, but those services are used as an alternative to taxis for short-distance travel. Ludington and Smith wanted something that would work for long-distance commuting.

“Our approach is really aimed at community and setting up carpools,” Ludington said. “Our target audience is commuters.”

They secured a seed grant from 1% for the Tetons and began shopping around for a rideshare app company that would fit the region’s needs. They settled upon Duet, which has users in a variety of metro areas including Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington D.C.

According to Jing Zhu, Founder and CEO of Duet, the Teton area appealed to his company, even though it isn’t a metro area. First of all, a traffic problem exists, thus there is need for improvement and demand for alternatives like Duet. Secondly, the road system and traffic patterns in the Tetons are “more desirable” than most urban areas, from the company’s standpoint.

“There are only three paths going into Jackson, and they’re not quite interchangeable, unlike those in the other metros,” Zhu said. “It’s a limitation to commuters but it works well for building a carpooler network as the potential carpool candidates or network is naturally defined and confined. For example, if someone goes from Driggs to Jackson, he has only one route: Driggs-Victor-Wilson-Jackson, and potentially he can pick up and drop off people along this route. Whereas in big urban areas, a person can have two or three different routes to take and nowadays people always optimize the route choice based on the real-time traffic.”

Zhu said Duet was also impressed by the smartphone savvy of residents in the area. Plus Duet was inspired by the Teton Rideshare team’s enthusiasm and dedication to the cause.

“We took off our fees so that it can be a nonprofit program,” Zhu said. “We worked with them on their grant application, setting up the program, and marketing. We will continue supporting them to make sure the program is successful and making a positive impact on the communities there.”

Teton Rideshare vs. Uber and Lyft

Focusing on carpooling, Duet is distinctly different from taxi-like transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft, which both launched March 3 in Jackson. Those companies wasted no time after Gov. Matt Mead signed the so-called “Uber” bill into law Friday. The bill, HB80, unanimously passed the Senate February 24. Sponsored by Sen. Affie Ellis-R, Cheyenne, the bill provided a regulatory framework for rideshare services.

Ellis said she sponsored the bill for two main reasons: to provide more taxi alternatives and to provide more employment opportunities for Wyomingites.

“This diversifies our economy and provides new jobs,” Ellis told PJH. “People can supplement their income or being a driver can be a primary source of income for some households.”

To craft the bill, Ellis had conversations with rideshare company proponents, and also worked extensively with the insurance industry, the Wyoming Department of Workforce Services, and even airports to design a bill that would address a range of concerns. The bill spells out the insurance requirements must have to operate in the state. It ensures that any potential rider has information about their driver and an estimated fee. And the bill addresses concerns on behalf of airports that any agreements with rideshare companies will have parity with similar agreements with taxi companies.

But while Uber and Lyft claim to hold the promise of taking cars off the road, that reality hasn’t panned out in big urban areas like New York City.

According to Bruce Schaller, the former deputy commissioner of traffic and planning at the New York City Department of Transportation and author of Unsustainable? The Growth of App-Based Ride Services and Traffic, Travel and the Future of New York City, on-demand companies are fueling a cycle of increasing congestion and declining transit use.

“On-demand ride companies drove 600 million miles on New York City streets in 2016—more than the same year’s total yellow cab mileage in Manhattan,” Schaller wrote in a recent New York Daily News op-ed. “Most of the added driving is in Manhattan and congested parts of Brooklyn and Queens near the East River, piling more cars onto already crowded streets.”

Schaller says the prompt, responsive, reliable and comfortable transportation provided by Uber and Lyft is causing more travelers—commuters and tourists—to forgo public transit, adding to congestion on the streets.

Teton Rideshare, whose business model did not require legislative approval, is hoping for the opposite outcome. It is currently housed at Friends of Pathways, as a special project of the larger organization. According to Friends of Pathways director Katherine Dowson, Teton Rideshare is part of an arsenal of tools to combat traffic congestion in the region. “It’s an uncomplicated and affordable option for people who have the same travel patterns, and who enjoy a good conversation while getting to work or play,” Dowson said. “Friends of Pathways is all about encouraging ways to move about Jackson Hole that don’t necessitate one person in one car, whether it’s a bike share, a ride share, a bus ride, a pathway or a sidewalk.”

But if you build it, will the people come?

Teton Rideshare has been slowly building a network of users since Ludington started working on the program. They just passed an important milestone when more than 120 users signed up to use the app.

“We’ve been working quietly to build up our network of potential users on the Duet app and have just reached a critical mass,” Ludington said. “With those numbers in place, the app should start to be a viable commuting option for people.”

The next step is to get all the users using the app at the same time, while also increasing the number of users through marketing and word of mouth.

To that end, Teton Rideshare is hosting “Intergalactic Rideshare Week” the first week of April. According to Teton Rideshare program coordinator Shannon Clay, it will be a festive week focused on transit hubs and incentives for signing up on the Duet app.

“We will have events at transit hubs like the Victor Depot and Stilson Ranch Lot during high commute times,” Clay said. “Because the bigger program is focused on getting cars off the road and getting people to commute together, highlighting transit hubs is our focus.”

But Clay said there is no need to wait until April to sign up. Interested commuters can visit TetonRideshare.com and be guided through the app download process from there. Users will be automatically signed up for Teton Rideshare’s e-newsletter and kept apprised of incentives for using the app.

So far, electeds on both sides of the pass are enthusiastic about the program.

Driggs Mayor Hyrum Johnson cites transportation as one of the region’s biggest concerns needing a regional solution. “We are one regional economy spanning two states,” Johnson said. “We must think regionally if we are to solve the problems we face. I see this ridesharing effort as a great complement to the existing transit options.”

Teton County Commissioner Greg Epstein is also a fan of the rideshare concept. He’s happy to see the private sector participating in finding solutions. “Any initiative to reduce the number of cars on the road will help the traffic situation in Teton County,” he said. “For instance, Teton Rideshare can fill in the gaps when START doesn’t run.”

Though there is no formal relationship with START, Ludington considers them to be an important, if informal, partner in Teton Rideshare’s program.

“Our goal is to reduce the number of cars on local roads,” Ludington said. “To achieve that, we recognize that any sort of transportation solution will work best when it can be integrated with other options.”

Teton Rideshare will share data with START on commuter patterns that may help fine-tune and improve bus service in outlying areas. “It is our belief that the better START works, the better other transportation alternatives, like ridesharing, will work,” Ludington said.

An essential ingredient in the alternative transportation stew is changing commuters’ behavior. Ludington thinks that the driving force behind adopting alternatives will be the inconvenience of traffic itself.

“It’s getting to be a worse and worse commute,” he said. “The inconvenience makes people want to explore other options.”

His goal with Teton Rideshare is that it will be so easy to use that it will make that behavior change easy too. The time cost and mental cost will be so minimal, he hopes, that people will quickly gravitate to the new option.

Dowson says it’s as simple as being willing to try something new. “If enough people in the area make small changes in their transportation choice, it will add up to less traffic,” she said. “It’s always good to try new things. It makes life interesting.” PJH

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About Meg Daly

Meg Daly is a freelance writer and arts instigator. She grew up in Jackson in the 1970s and 80s, when there were fewer fences, but less culture. Follow Meg on Twitter @MegDaly1

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