The principle is simple: Because all taxpayers underwrite public transit, all taxpayers should be able to access the system.
It’s part of the Civil Rights Act, too. Just as public schools make sure that under Title IX girls have similar access to sports programs as boys, public transit agencies make sure there is equitable access under Title VI. In practice, Title VI helps protect low-income neighborhoods from losing the service that connects residents to economic opportunities.
“In general, cutting service for lower-income areas and adding it to higher-income areas, that’s a violation,” said David Bragdon, executive director of Transit Center, a national foundation that works to improve public transit.
Boutique travel options, such as hailing a ride with Uber or Lyft with a smartphone, eventually could pose fresh questions about access under Title VI, experts say. But that concern has not deterred the Denton County Transportation Authority from embracing an increasing number of ride-hailing options in its system in the past year.
DCTA President Raymond Suarez declined to be interviewed for this story after the agency asked the Denton Record-Chronicle to submit questions in writing.
To answer whether DCTA was concerned about compliance, the agency submitted a prepared statement from Michelle Bloomer, vice president for operations, that read, in part, “When implementing a new service, DCTA seeks to ensure that [when] it is implementing the best service model to meet the specific mobility needs in that area that does not create a disparate impact or disproportionate burden. Our goal is to provide more flexible, convenient and seamless service options for the same or less cost and make it affordable for everyone.”
DCTA underwrites riders who use Lyft in Highland Village and parts of Lewisville. It also contracts with Lyft for late-night service at the University of North Texas. Beginning Monday, DCTA launches new service in the Lewisville Lakeway business park and makes permanent its service in Denton’s business park in the Denton Enterprise Airport area. Instead of setting up fixed routes, DCTA bus drivers will be dispatched by the riders themselves, using ride-hailing apps.
For all of the service changes coming Monday, DCTA sought a Title VI review through its consultant, the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, according to agency documents. The consultant said DCTA’s changes to the regular bus system were too small to require an equity analysis.
Route 7 in Denton and Route 21 in Lewisville were cut, but not enough to create Title VI worries, the consultant said. Route 21 cut stops on Lakeway Drive, making way for the ride-hailing-style service.
None of the ride-hailing-style additions to DCTA were reviewed for Title VI. The consultant noted a federal exception for “on-demand” service, according to agency documents.
The Federal Transit Administration oversees Title VI compliance. The agency published rules that typically don’t require on-demand service be analyzed. On-demand service can help with Title VI compliance, giving seniors better access to transit, for example. On-demand service carries fewer riders and is expensive to operate compared to big, fixed-route buses.
Putting private companies, like Uber and Lyft, into a public mix of service could have other implications, experts say. For example, the two companies face criticism for underpaying drivers. In December, New York City adopted a minimum pay rate for Uber and Lyft drivers.
“Using public money to pay substandard wages, that’s a real problem,” Bragdon said.
In addition, riders must use a smartphone app to access on-demand rides. Americans least likely to own a smartphone include seniors, people of color and people with low incomes, according to a February 2018 survey by the Pew Research Center.
DCTA discontinued its on-demand service in Highland Village in favor of offering $10 discounts on Lyft.
Any rider in the Highland Village city limits and parts of far northwestern Lewisville — what DCTA calls the Highland Village Lyft Zone — can use the promo code with Lyft to get across town or get to the A-train station essentially for free.
With dwindling ridership, DCTA has faced increasing questions from the three cities that fund it: Denton, Lewisville and Highland Village.
Transit experts say increasing the service coverage area doesn’t always increase ridership. Few expect “microtransit” — the umbrella term given to ride-hailing technologies and service companies — to affect ridership numbers in a big way since those services typically serve few people.
But those services are competing for the same limited dollars meant to move as many people as possible, Bragdon said.
“There’s a certain amount in the budget and you are diverting one from another,” Bragdon said.
In the past, on-demand service has been viewed as lower quality because people had to call ahead and schedule their bus ride, sharing the ride with others who might not be on the same schedule, said transit expert Christof Spieler.
Spieler is an urban planner who served on the Houston METRO board from 2010 to 2018. Houston is among a handful of transit systems that have bucked recent trends and increased ridership, particularly bus ridership.
Smartphone apps have changed the expectations of on-demand service and made certain kinds of trips better, Spieler said.
In other words, in places where ride-hailing technology changes the on-demand ride from a lower quality to a premium service, the “where” and the “how” matter. Should transit agencies be asking about that equality?
“That’s the bigger question,” Spieler said.