Irony! The Best Way to Buy RTD Tickets Is From Uber

David Reich, Uber’s head of transit, discusses the company's partnership with RTD at Union Station Tuesday. Also pictured: RTD General Manager Dave Genova and Jonathan Donovan of Masabi, the company that makes RTD's mobile app. Photo: Andy Bosselman
David Reich, Uber’s head of transit, discusses the company's partnership with RTD at Union Station Tuesday. Also pictured: RTD General Manager Dave Genova and Jonathan Donovan of Masabi, the company that makes RTD's mobile app. Photo: Andy Bosselman

It’s been a few months since Uber started allowing people in Denver to plan transit trips and pay fares through its well-designed app. Few people have taken advantage of the service so far, and the ride-hail company recently admitted that it needs to poach huge numbers of transit riders to make a profit. But the Regional Transportation District counts its recent partnership with the ride-hail company a success. 

“We view companies like Uber as collaborators,” said Dave Genova, RTD’s general manager, at a press event this morning at Union Station. Standing in front of a commuter train covered in Uber’s signature black color with text reading, “This train, now available on Uber,” Genova added that the app is a marketing tool. Potential riders “… have been made aware of our transit services.”

 Since May, Uber sold 1,217 RTD tickets through its app, according to RTD. The number is small compared to the agency’s 97.6 million annual boardings. But with an attractive, easy-to-use interface, Uber is selling 40% more RTD tickets each week. Another Uber feature allows users to plan routes that include RTD, which led to an 11.6 increase in the number of Uber trips that start or end at a transit station, according to the company. But RTD could find itself outfoxed and losing riders to the Silicon Valley Goliath whose drive for profit aligns poorly with the goals of the region RTD serves.

Dave Genova, RTD’s general manager, at a press conference Tuesday.

Ahead of its IPO, Uber filed a document with the Securities and Exchange Commission that listed mass transit as a “competitor.” Uber wants to move huge numbers of transit riders into their cars, a strategy they called a “massive market opportunity.” After transit advocates expressed alarm, the company tried to walk back its desire to kill public transit, finely-tuning a new message of collaboration that it emphasized today. 

“Uber and RTD share a common objective,” said David Reich, Uber’s head of transit. “Which is to make individual car ownership a thing of the past.” 

But reducing car ownership is only a small part of the region’s mobility goals. The real objectives of mass transit are to safely and efficiently move large numbers of people while reducing traffic congestion, shrinking air pollution, and eliminating emissions that contribute to the climate crisis. Ride-hailing services like Uber have been shown to cause more traffic congestion and increase the number of vehicle miles traveled.

Despite the problems with ride-hail services, the company has brought one important benefit to RTD riders. The Uber app is the most user-friendly way to pay a fare. But the company’s achievement highlights how bad the agency’s own payment options are.

Just 10 percent of RTD’s fare revenue comes through its awful mobile app and 2.6 percent is generated through its pitiful MyRide tap-to-go card. That leaves most riders paying with 19th-century technology: flashing paper passes and fumbling for cash. In the Bay Area, 53% of transit riders pay fares with a Clipper Card, which is integrated across more than 25 transit systems, according the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.  

When pressed about RTD’s awkward relationship with a predatory company, Genova doubled down. 

“We’re getting a lot more awareness of transit in the Uber app,” he said, arguing that when people see transit options in the nearly ubiquitous Uber app, they will choose to ride the region’s buses and trains.

“A person who gets to DIA, opens up the app and sees, ‘Oh my goodness, there’s a transit trip.’ And ‘Oh my goodness, it’s the same amount of time.’ And ‘Oh my goodness, it’s a third of the price.’”

But unlike the people who run RTD, Uber is counting on the same thing. When users see how time-consuming, cumbersome and costly it is to ride RTD, many will click Uber instead.

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  • Ryan Keeney

    I don’t think Uber will ever capture many work commute trips though. Ten rideshare trips a week is far more expensive than RTD.

  • TakeFive

    It’s both funny and sad when Urbanists resort to obfuscation and distortion in order to demonize private sector companies because transit can’t compete. Methinks you are indulging in ‘scapegoating;. Let’s see if LazyReader stops by to offer his “productivity” vs taxpayer ripoff POV.

    Just this week, Aaron Short/Streetsblog wrote of bus ridership’s “Death Spiral” in L.A.

    Instead, car ownership has been growing, particularly among low-income immigrants and Latinos… The share of foreign-born households that don’t have access to a car fell 42 percent between 2000 and 2015, the study found.

    April 30, Skip Descant at Government Technology Mag addresses the Uber/Lyft issue to wit:

    “There was a degree of TNC… travel increase as well,” said Buchanan, “But really, our survey seemed to indicate that the private car is the most competitive with transit.”

    Buchanan said that while ride-hailing services like Uber or Lyft are often blamed for siphoning ridership away from public transit, they take a backseat to personal vehicles in most locales.

    • TakeFive

      When does Uber/Lyft compete with transit?

      Some will rationalize the cost of Uber/Lyft when they can get to their destination in a third of the time it would take them to arrive by bus including transfers.

      Ashley Dean/Denevrite writes eloquently of the “street harassment” experienced by women (and the LGBTQ community); the same extends to the bus . Women will rationalize the cost of Uber/Lyft so that they can feel comfortable and secure.

      If you’re a group of 3 or 4 friends it’s cheaper to take Uber/Lyft; you pay a ‘trip’ charge, not a per person ticket cost.

      For those who are unbothered by the cost they are choosing Uber/Lyft instead of driving for the convenience, avoiding the parking hassle etc.

    • mckillio

      There’s clearly a correlation across the country between transit ridership decline and the rise of ride share. It’s definitely taken me away from transit multiple times.

      • TakeFive

        I don’t disagree. There’s no question that ride-sharing has been a consumer-driven success. There’s also been this huge migration to urban centers, at least in many places. There’s also a correlation between areas that have gentrified and falling transit ridership.

        • mckillio

          But it’s been a consumer driven success because these companies are losing tons of money to get customers.

          • TakeFive

            They are losing money due to many factors which are unrelated to their ride-sharing business. Too hard to yet untangle but I’ll guess that their ride-share component is very close to break-even at this point.

  • LazyReader

    I’m not surprised, all and all, they’re better, usually faster and more convenient. Monolithic, heavily subsidized, station to station transportation is no match for something that offers door to door service.

    • mckillio

      You’re forgetting that ride share is heavily subsidized.

      • LazyReader

        Yeah Uber is subsidized by venture capital groups and loses 2 billion a year. Where as transit nationwide is subsidized to the tune of 50 BILLION a year and continues to lose ridership, quality……..

        • TM

          Also subsidized by public money as 100% of the infrastructure they use is public, just like any other car.

          • LazyReader

            For a penny a mile…………………Orders of magnitude less than the rail system. In 2016, transit agencies spend $50.5 billion in taxpayer funds carrying
            56.5 billion passenger miles, for an average subsidy of 89 cents per
            passenger mile. That’s 54 times the subsidy to highways if all of the
            subsidies are counted against passenger miles. have to clarify the difference between taxes and user fees again. If a
            user pays a fee or tax and the money goes to whatever it is that the
            user is paying for, then it is a user fee no matter what you call it.
            But when a fee that is dedicated to a convention center is paid by motel
            or hotel users who aren’t going to the convention center, that is a

          • TM

            I don’t really care how much public money is spent on public transit. Providing public transportation is a benefit to us all, subsidizing it is a good thing.
            Subsidizing private companies like Uber is not the same thing. Subsidizing private automobile travel is harmful to us and we should not be spending public money on it.

            Not all subsidies are the same.

          • TakeFive

            All subsidies are decided by the taxpayer-voters. In many instances voters prefer taking on the expensive burden for transit which I’m happy about. Last November, Denver voters decided on a number of things that they wanted to subsidize. It’s how the system works.

          • TM

            I believe I’ve already told you I do not care what you think. Ever.

        • mckillio

          …Because of these company’s practices of losing billions to gain customers. Not to mention all of the other subsidies and lack of correct pricing for cars.

          • TakeFive

            The $billions being lost is due to many unrelated efforts. Yes, they’ve ‘invested’ in growing their ride-share segment resulting in impressive ridership growth. This strategy has played well with most tech Unicorns; Amazon being the poster child.

  • mckillio

    I have yet to see an argument for why Uber offering RTD tickets is a bad thing for RTD.


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