REPORT ON DFW AREA VISITOR ATTRACTIONS
VIA Rideshare Experiment in Arlington
The subsidized service could reduce car ownership and alleviate traffic, but it has some problems

August 26, 2019


What is VIA?

Via is a rideshare service. However, Via Arlington works differently than its services in other cities, as Arlington riders pay a flat fee per ride, and the City of Arlington and the U.S. government subsidize the service.

The City of Arlington pays Via $995,000 and the federal government pays Via $800,000. Via riders are expected to pay $300,000, making the total budget for the year $2,095,000. The per-ride cost would appear to be quite high.

Via reported delivering 85,000 rides in its first year of operation in Arlington, from December 2017 through December 2018.

The service model could potentially remove large numbers of cars from roads and driveways in most communities, antiquate car ownership for many people, and even reduce the need for short-run buses in major cities, but it also has many drawbacks and doesn't serve all local transit needs well.

As a test case that is reportedly very successful, more needs to be known about Via and publicized in thorough media reports.

In the future, the service model could operate without company ownership, or without drivers, or both (lowering costs). There is a lot to consider. But, reducing cars on roads and further eliminating the need for car ownership is its immediate potential. It is important to know if the Arlington model of the Via rideshare service can spread to more towns and cities.



Background

In the 2010 US Census, with more than 365,000 people, Arlington was the 50th U.S. city, ranked by population. It was the only city in the top 50 that did not have any form of public transportation.

In 2018, with an estimated population of just under 400,000 people, Arlington ranked 48. It is in the size range of Oakland, CA, Minneapolis, MN, and Tulsa, OK, and it is larger than Tampa, FL and New Orleans, LA. All the cities of its size have bus systems and most have light rail or street cars. Via is considered Arlington's public transportation system, as it does not have trolley or rail lines, or buses. And Via does not serve all of Arlington or operate on all seven days of the week.

Via operates on a contract-by-contract basis with the city, so it is not necessarily a long-term solution. If each contract is not extended, public transit in Arlington will end unless another option is quickly available. Via can be problematic for users. And, while it allows users to get around in parts of Arlington, it does not integrate with surrounding communities (as it has only one connection point to other transit systems in the Metroplex) and drivers can not pick up or drop off outside its limited service area. Arlington continues to be a major obstacle in the Metroplex, forcing transit systems to bypass it (as existing ones do, to the north).



The MAX

A limited bus service, the Metro Arlington Xpress (MAX), was tested from April 2013 to December 2017. The route(s) faced its own problems: Many riders (most of them students and sports fans or employees) only used the bus service seasonally; and, the route was poorly planned, particularly following a change to the route and schedule for its last year of operation.

From the MAX's connection to Dallas and Fort Worth on the Trinity Railway Express (TRE) at Centerport Station, north of Arlington, the bus traveled eight (8) miles south to its first stop on N. Collins Street near a Walmart, Lincoln Square Shopping Center and the AT&T (Dallas Cowboys) Stadium, and fairly close (under one mile) to Globe Life Park (the Texas Rangers Stadium). The MAX traveled two (2) additional miles to downtown Arlington and the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA). It returned students, visitors, Entertainment District employees and others on the same path to Centerport Station. Passengers were able to use a pass from DART (Dallas Area Rapid Transit) or Fort Worth's Trinity Metro, so its cost was built in to their total transit costs, whether passengers were coming from Dallas or Fort Worth (including their ride on the TRE), or going into the Dallas or Fort Worth transit systems. At the time, passengers could buy a 2-hour pass for $2.50, or an all-day pass for $5. Today, a commuter using Via and DART to travel back and forth for a typical workday will pay $12.

For its last year of service, the route was changed and it proved much worse. Its first stop was moved to about one mile east of Globe Life Park (the Texas Rangers Stadium) in an industrial area, making it two miles to Walmart and the AT&T (Dallas Cowboys) Stadium, and two and a half miles to the Lincoln Square Shopping Center. And it used the highly congested Highway 360, rather than N. Collins Street, so it frequently experienced delays. The schedule was also changed and made much worse. It was often scheduled to arrive at the TRE Centerport Station within just a few minutes of departing trains, so that if it ran even four or five minutes late, passengers sometimes missed trains and had to wait almost an hour for the next one. It was scheduled to arrive at Centerport Station so close to the time of the last departing train of the day bound for Dallas that it frequently missed it. MAX ridership on the route that was used in its last year of service (using Highway 360) was much lower than on the previous route (using N. Collins Street).

When the route changed, there were some new riders (it seemed they had not used the MAX on its older route) traveling to and from a very small satellite location of Everest College and the Arlington General Motors (GM) Plant (near the new bus stop that replaced the stop on N. Collins Street). There were, however, fewer riders overall. Ridership declined immediately as the new route started. As many of the new riders experienced the new route and found it to be unreliable, ridership declined further. A crucial problem was that the last MAX bus of the day often arrived at Centerport Station too late for the last TRE train bound for Dallas. For those who knew that DART would take passengers on to Dallas on the bus, even going so far as to send out another bus if necessary, the problem was just a nuisance. DART went so far as to deliver tourists to their hotels and area employees to their homes in Dallas and its suburbs. But the situation caused panic for students, employees and visitors to the stadium events, and left them stranded if they weren't able to contact DART. Some late-shift GM workers walked two miles to the 24-hour Walmart to wait for morning MAX bus service.



Via's Success

Arlington residents greatly needed transit options beyond the limited stops of the MAX. And once visitors came from Dallas or Fort Worth on the MAX, there were few options or accessible places to visit outside its two stops in the Entertainment District and downtown near UTA.

Via serves a portion of northern Arlington (its service area has gradually expanded south to Interstate 20) and it takes people on trips that range from about 4 to 16 miles between north and south points in its service area to Centerport Station (the city's only public transit connection to the rest of the Metroplex).

Media reports about Via have been scarce, but what little news coverage the government subsidized rideshare received has basically reported that the service has been good, some even proclaiming it a great success. Ridership is very high (85,000 rides in the first year) and going up, and the government funding, from the City of Arlington and the federal government, is increasing. Its contract was extended.

"We have hit on something that is tremendously successful that is getting the ridership we've all been hoping for -- at a fraction of the costs of traditional transportation like buses or light rail," said Mayor Jeff Williams at a Nov. 27 (2018) council meeting. (Reported in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram https://www.star-telegram.com/news/local/arlington/article222789835.html)

Journalists rarely, if ever, talk to riders or drivers to report broader aspects of Via. Articles don't explore what its success could mean for other communities in the future. As noted above, less car ownership, autonomous (driverless) cars, no company ownership, replacement of short-run bus service (those that are taking riders just two or three miles), and other possibilities are the subjects that need to be covered. Reporters need to ask if other similar models can be subsidized in other communities that have need, as it seems it should be happening right away, but if not, why? Is it less expensive than buses, especially in a relatively small and linear community like Arlington? Are Via drivers paid better than public transit bus drivers? Do drivers earn enough from the government subsidized service to justify the use of their own cars (after the cost of vehicle operation, insurance and maintenance)?

Arlington is a different kind of case than many other places. It has purposely segregated itself from the cities around it. A model similar to Via could function across lines in an area like Garland-Plano-Richardson much better, because distances covered by the service can be limited (to about 4 or 5 miles) and riders can tap into the rail network at many stations to travel long distances. Via transports some users as much as 8 to 16 miles to the only train station it serves (Centrport Station). Via drivers and riders can't reach other DFW connection points by making shorter trips.

Towns and small cities of just 50,000 to 400,000 that stand alone (rather than bordering other cities) and may not have public transit could certainly benefit from a service like Via, using Arlington's government subsidized model. However, subsidized service may one day require proof of low-income status or its ridership may exceed its capability.

Here are some downsides or potential drawbacks to consider:

A smartphone and app are required. If a would-be rider doesn't have a phone and a working data connection, or if theirs breaks, runs out of battery power, or experiences trouble with the app or their payment method (functionality has been a problem), they will not be able to use the service. Via will accomodate riders who are without the app, but they must contact Via by phone and have an account and payment method set up in advance.

Where most public transit systems offer payment options, such as cash on board, or passes purchased at machines, or rider cards (like GoPass) purchased at grocery and convenience stores, or passes secured online by using an app, Via is only accessible by using its app attached to a bank account with a debit or credit card. This has posed a problem for international visitors who often need wifi and may not have an out-of-country data plan, and who cannot set up the app with their banking information instantaneously while away from their home country.


Via App screenshot
The Via app and rideshare service is not always convenient. It may cause delays or even leave riders stranded when a driver cancels near the end of Via's service hours.


There have been problems with reliability. A driver might not pick up a passenger (which happened to a customer who requested and was assigned a ride about 15 minutes before the end of the service hours, as the driver didn't go to the passenger pick-up location and instead logged out for the day at the end of the service hours, so Via left the passenger stranded with no other options or even anyone at Via to communicate with). Via will not say if there are any negative consequences for drivers who fail to complete commitments to customers, and there may not be any repercussions to them (as the driver mentioned continued to work for the company), since the drivers are independent contractors, rather than employees.

The app will occasionally switch a passenger waiting to be picked up from one driver to another and cause a long delay for the passenger. It isn't clear or known how often these types of service breakdowns happen, though other riders have shared similar stories, since media hasn't covered user experiences, or reported on any aspects of the drivers and their relationships with the company.

Ride times are becoming longer as the service area expands and more users want to travel farther. Since Via picks up how many ever passengers request rides and can fit in the available vehicles, a passenger may ride alone or with others. Drivers sometimes must wait for other riders or even drive around to find them, which adds to the duration of the ride.

There is no Sunday service and no service after 9 pm on weekdays and Saturdays, which renders the Via operation useless for many of the events in the Entertainment District (like baseball and football games) and downtown (like Levitt Pavilion concerts and UTA events).

Though the service is intended to operate somewhat like (in cost effectiveness) and take the place of public transit, drivers want passengers to give them tips, as is usually done with non-subsidized rideshare companies (like Uber and Lyft). The app asks the user to leave a tip for the driver and some drivers have posted signs in their vehicles reminding passengers to tip, one sign even indicating the tip revenue went to a charitable cause. It wouldn't seem unusual to tip a rideshare driver using his or her own vehicle, except that Via drivers are sometimes driving the vans provided by Via through the subsidies paid by Arlington and the federal government (which is the way most early users believed the service would operate). But drivers who use their own vehicles say that the contract terms are better for them because they don't lease the vans from Via, so they earn more (indicating their pay may also be tied in with the subsidies; so Uber and Lyft drivers might be interested to be in the program to extend its capability in the future). Should they expect tips and receive the benefit of subsidies?

The service is the only public transit option for most users and many of them use it for financial reasons. Public bus systems don't expect low and moderate income users to tip drivers. The base fare for Via rides basically doubles the cost of transit fares for many users who connect through DART or Trinity Metro, and tipping would generally about triple their commute costs. It may seem reasonable for travelers who are on vacation or out having fun in Arlington, but it is extremely prohibitive for most commuters who come for the kinds of service industry jobs Arlington employers offer. Paying $3 to DART and $6 to Via costs many users about 1/3 to 1/4 of what they earn to work during entertainment events in Arlington.

While the flat fee (currently $3 per ride) could be considered reasonable or high, depending on the rider and their individual circumstances, it is definitely higher than the cost of riding buses and trains in most public transit systems. With Via, two rides in the same day are $6 and three are $9, each ride being $3. Whereas, using DART the cost for equivalent service would be about $2 or $3 (depending on the time of day), with unlimited rides over the entire day maxing out at $6. In Fort Worth, unlimited rides in the service day cost $5 and in Oklahoma City, the cost of rides taken in 24 hours is $4. Though Via offers some other multiple ride plans (a weekly rate) that make the costs more reasonable and on level with other systems for riders who need to use Via up to four times per day across the week, most riders will have less structured needs and will pay $3 through their Via app per ride.

Bus riders are generally familiar with company standards for drivers, and they expect a fairly predictable and uniform atmosphere on city buses and trains, though those standards may be somewhat low due to massive ridership. Bus drivers can enforce noise restrictions more easily than they can enforce rules about food, for instance. With Via drivers, whether using the Via vans or their own cars, music or talk radio in vehicles will vary widely, as will the volume. Most riders may find it interesting, but some riders may find some of the content offensive. Likewise, some Via passengers are not necessarily people most riders want to travel with and they can be challenging for the drivers, too. Most riders are perfectly fine and socially acceptable, and can ride quietly or interact cordially. Via riders sometimes have loud conversations on their phones and drivers allow it, while bus drivers ask passengers to keep their conversations low. Several times, though, Via passengers have felt uneasy or unsafe with other passengers. Drivers mentioned that some of the volatile ones have been banned, but that there are others who just have to be tolerated, as they may be a little unstable, tired or agitated. In one experience, it was hard for the Via driver to know at what point the driver might need to request police help to deal with a passenger and, unless the Via driver has an emergency request button on their app, it could be challenging to know how or when to call for help in close quarters with passengers (especially if the volatile customer is sitting in the front passenger seat). Possibly because of the size of buses and trains, and because passengers also have access to an emergency call app, transit police seem to be summoned discreetly when needed, so as to not escalate a tense situation on a bus or train.

As much as some Arlington residents and political leaders have expressed disinterest in having transit that connects to the greater Metroplex for fear of objectionable people coming into their city, most Via riders, even those who have been troublesome or even disruptive riders, seem to be Arlington residents going to and from their houses and apartments. The former ridership from outside Arlington that came on the MAX (students coming to UTA from outside Arlington, as well as employees and visitors to the Entertainment District) has dropped off considerably. In common times when TRE trains arrived at Centerport Station, 10-25 people usually boarded the MAX bus, while about 1-3 now wait for Via after the arrival of a train.

Whether it is true or not, another reason most believe Arlington has avoided public transit is to help the Dallas Cowboys make the most possible revenue from parking fees. With very few games per year, it may not require many visitors to Arlington to keep AT&T Stadium full on game days. But most all the other businesses - from those with much longer seasons, Six Flags Over Texas and the Texas Rangers, to the many restaurants that are open most every day of the year with an employee payroll to support - badly need ticket buyers and customers all the time, even if they come without a car.



More Questions

There are many other questions media should explore and quite a lot of interests that have not been covered.

Given the reported success, what other cities are working to implement a similar model?

The vans are leased by the drivers (according to some drivers who say that is why they would rather drive their own vehicles), but the vans are purchased through the company's contract with Arlington. And the service is subsidized by the government. Who, then, do the drivers lease the vans from and how does the arrangement work?

Have there been accidents? Drivers say there have been some. As for individual drivers who use their own vehicles, as riders have definitely experienced near accidents, in which the driver would have been at fault had the accidents happened, would the driver or Via be responsible for driver negligence if passengers were injured?

How long do drivers tend to stay with the company? The turnover rate seems very high, but that may not be true. There are limited numbers of vans, and drivers indicate that at times only half the vans in the fleet are operating, so daily users expect to have the same drivers more often than they do, as it was when the service first launched. Now it is rare to ever ride with the same driver twice.

Why does the service use Mercedes vans, which have not proven to be better, more durable or more trouble free than other makes? Why not lease from GM, which makes vehicles and provides jobs in Arlington, or Toyota, which has offices and sponsors events in the Metroplex?

How effective is the Centerport Station drop off and pick up location? As mentioned, Arlington is only connected to most all other Dallas and Fort Worth systems, and even outside modes (planes, trains and bus services) by going through Centerport Station and utilizing the TRE (trains going toward Dallas and Fort Worth, or the shuttle bus to DFW International Airport). How cost effective is this service for Via and how does it work out for Via drivers? Their drive to Centerport Station and back to Arlington often consumes an hour or more of their time (whereas, drivers say they often have six to eight pick ups/drop offs in an hour within closer proximities in Arlington). There are many times that drivers take single riders to or from the Centerport Station, and riders may even watch one or two Via vehicles leave the Centerport Station with no riders before their assigned vehicle arrives to pick them up.

Would a bus or rail line between Centerport Station and the Entertainment District and/or downtown, complimented by Via rideshare service in the city limits, not be better and more cost effective? Many visitors have arrived at Centerport Station from as far away as China and Mexico to find they cannot transfer on a bus or train to Arlington (they are confused partly because it is normally expected that it is possible in any major urban area like DFW, and also because old information about the MAX remains online; while another problem for many of the visitors caught off guard by Via being their only option is lack of wifi connection at Centerport Station).

As the only public transit connection, and given the many drawbacks for one-time or temporary users (since it requires setting up an app and using very different practices than most transit systems), as well as the limited nighttime and weekend hours, will it help attract another Super Bowl, or satisfy the requirements of committees looking at sites to host large international events, or companies considering relocation to DFW? Arlington's transit was a concern for Amazon and Dallas-Fort Worth has not had the success of most other major cities in attracting Super Bowls, Olympic Games and other major international events. Public transit (in fact, mass transit that is able to handle large numbers of travelers) is an important concern in many of the decisions to hold international events in major cities.

How well does Via work for riders? Many riders express complaints to other riders and sometimes even to Via drivers. But there hasn't been much coverage in media about rider experiences. The City of Arlington and the company have said that Via is working out great. Ridership is reported to be constantly increasing. But, in using the app to book rides, there are definitely hitches and delays, and sometimes things that just don't make sense. A driver may cancel his or her commitment to pick up a rider, a booking may be rescheduled to another driver (causing a long wait), wait times may be 1 minute to about 15 minutes, but they have reached 30 and even 45 minutes, and a route may be obviously inefficient (passing right by a customer's dropoff point and having that person wait to be dropped off on the return after several more distant drop-offs).

The latest contract for Via increased the subsidies, but the fleet of vehicles grew only slightly (by two vans), so why are all vans not used, while many drivers use their own cars? Drivers have said that they earn better if they use their own vehicles (making it seem like the vans may be unnecessary) and other drivers have said the vans are sometimes in accidents, or maintenance and repairs are not properly kept up with. The fleet of 15 vans has a rider capacity of 90, where 15 cars contracted by Via has a rider capacity of 45. How many of the 15 vans are operational, how many are on the streets and how many are needed, especially since it is most common to ride with none or only one other rider?

While Via seems effective for riders who need to travel three or four miles in a close vicinity, and it certainly seems like a good value for any rider who purchases a weekly pass for several rides per day, is it cost effective for Via drivers to take individual passengers from Centerport Station 8 or 9 miles to AT&T Stadium, or 10 miles to UTA, or 15 miles to The Parks Mall? It would seem these long-distance runs, especially considering how much time they take using many of Arlington's severely congested streets and highways, must drive up the true cost of rides, which currently appears to be about $20-21 per ride (as its budget of $2,095,000 is expected to raise $300,000 in user fees, which will remain at $3 per ride).


Bankhead Highway marker in Arlington
The Bankhead Highway was once an important connection for Arlington, with commerce and travelers passing between Dallas and Fort Worth. In the modern world, Arlington has remained connected by cars on crowded Interstate Highways and other thoroughfares, but the city has few other transit options. Its Via rideshare is potentially effective to meet many local, short-run transportation needs, but it still leaves the city with only one distant commuter connection and otherwise disconnected from the larger transportation network all around it.




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This page posted: August 26, 2019


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