Will Uber and Lyft also disrupt transit planning?

The disruption that Uber and Lyft have wreaked on taxis could soon affect MARTA as well, according to a recent Morgan Stanley report.

The report describes how ride-sharing services could be friend or foe to public transit systems, specifically mentioning Atlanta as the kind of southern metropolis most likely to be upended by shared mobility trends. The impact of ride-sharing is already being discussed internally by MARTA, which is gearing up for a $2.5 billion referendum to expand Atlanta's transit options.

“We fully understand that transportation is evolving rapidly,” Keith T. Parker, MARTA’s general manager and CEO, said Monday in an emailed statement. “Instead of denying that these changes are coming, MARTA is identifying new partnerships and new opportunities that will enable us to do a better job of serving our customers now and in the future. In fact, we’re looking forward to helping to drive those changes.”

The two analysts behind the report stress that their findings are best used as an investor guide, but the message to transit policymakers is clear -- integrate ride-sharing into your transit plans or find yourself in a "fight for survival."

When accentuating the positive for public transit, the report states that ride-sharing could bring more riders to transit stations, solving what it calls the "last-mile problem" of getting more people to and from existing transit stations. Another plus -- creating an alternative to car ownership for many riders. And as another recent study by the American Public Transit Association also noted, ride-share users also tend to use transit more frequently.

MARTA spokesman Lyle Harris noted that as part of a pilot project last year, MARTA and Uber collaborated on a partnership in which the transit system included a link to the service on its “On-The-Go” real-time app. Customers who used a special code that MARTA promoted received a one-time, $20 discount on their first Uber ride. Although the promotion has ended, Uber customers can still book their trips directly from MARTA’s app.

A third possible "synergy" between ride-sharing and public transit would be building fewer transit stations. The idea here is that if the "last-mile" problem is solved, public transit stations could be spaced farther apart. Fewer stations would mean faster train times and presumably less public money spent on building stations.

That suggestion flies in the face of one of MARTA's biggest wish-list items -- placing infill stations at three possible locations. One, called "Armour," between the Arts Center and Lindbergh stations, would be the terminus for the planned "Clifton Corridor" project. Other possible infill locations would be between Ashby and Bankhead stations ("Boone") and between West End and Oakland City stations ("Murphy Crossing").

MARTA's spokesman, however, pointed out that during this year’s legislative session, Luke Marklin, Uber’s Atlanta general manager, supported successful legislation allowing Atlanta to levy an additional half-penny sales tax to expand MARTA’s footprint within the city’s limits, a ballot measure that’s expected to go before voters in November.

So would fewer stations farther apart improve our commutes? Kari Watkins, a professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Georgia Tech, is skeptical. While she agrees with the report's authors that ride-sharing would likely make transit stations more accessible to riders, she finds the authors too quick to dismiss infill stations. Infill stations, she says, spur more density where vehicles aren't necessarily needed. "In those cases it's easier to walk, and that's more efficient than calling an Uber or Lyft," she says.

Watkins also stresses a point that's generally missing in the report -- that what's needed most critically are more ways to get around the congestion. Dedicated rights of way do that (think rail tracks or bike lanes) but ride-sharing does not.

In other words, Uber and Lyft could leave you stranded in the same traffic as if you were driving alone.

"We don't have a huge transit network in Atlanta," she says. "What we desperately need is a way to give people who are willing to use less space an advantage."

Atlanta's meager transit network is exactly what makes it more susceptible to disruption from ride-sharing and autonomous car technology, according to the report authors. "Southern metropolitan areas tend to be dense enough to support the economics," they say, "but not too dense to the point that mass transit (i.e., rail) is a better option."

Kelly McCutcheon, president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, agrees with the report. "Rapidly advancing autonomous car technology will be a game-changer for cities like Atlanta that lack the density required for rail-based transit," he says. "Metro Atlanta's expanding managed lane network coupled with strategic investment in above-grade, dedicated autonomous vehicle lanes could extend high-quality, low-cost transit throughout the metro area sooner rather than later." In other words, stick with road-based efficiencies if you're looking for low-cost solutions.

The message was much different at last week's Advance Atlanta event to explain MARTA's expansion plans. During that public meeting, Ryan Gravel explained that great cities have "layered systems" of transit that integrate bus, light and heavy rapid rail. Gravel, whose master's thesis led to the creation of the Beltline, still envisions light rail running alongside today's Beltline joggers and cyclists. That rail would be "traffic-free transit," he said. "This is not going to be stuck in traffic."

Whether Atlanta's transportation solutions are to be found on roads, rails or other rights of way, MARTA advocates would agree with the Morgan Stanley report's No. 1 recommendation: Pursue new tax and finance possibilities. For Atlanta voters, that train is on its way.