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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