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Pace bus tests partnership with ride-hailing services

Could it be a long-term solution to help some riders with last-mile connections?

An image of a blue city bus with a domed building in the background.
A Pace bus.
Photo by City of St Charles

Pace is the Chicago suburban area’s bus and paratransit provider—it serves 210 municipalities from the southern tip of Will County to the northern edge of McHenry. The agency operates fixed bus routes, vanpools, paratransit, and an on-demand vehicle fleet. And now, it will test out a partnership with a ride-hailing service to help riders with that last mile of their trip.

Two of Pace’s fixed routes will be part of a pilot program that will subsidize an Uber, Lyft, or a taxi ride in order to help late night and third-shift workers on their commutes.

For the O’Hare area, the agency plans to have trips pick up and drop off riders at one of four locations in the South Cargo Area and would connect them to the Rosemont Blue Line station. The other bus line getting tested is Pace’s only 24-hour bus in Harvey, Route 352.

“Right now, it [Route 352] connects to nothing because there’s no other service at that time. That’s one of the biggest challenges, is that last mile. We can get people back, but we’re not getting them that connection that will get them home,” said Maggie Daly Skogsbakken, chief communications officer for Pace bus.

Some of Pace’s fixed routes are expensive to maintain because of low-ridership. The board of directors was planning to eliminate certain routes due to the poor performance, but after public feedback they postponed that decision until the agency could figure out other ways to maintain pubic transportation in those corridors.

It wouldn’t make sense to operate another large bus for two to three people, Skogsbakken said. Adding up costs for operators, maintenance, fuel, and time—it could end up costing the $100 per passenger. Instead, it makes more sense to find other solutions.

“How can we modify service for those people and still be good stewards of the taxpayer dollar?” she said.

A partnership with Uber, Lyft, or taxi companies is one alternative transit model the agency hopes will be successful. It’s a plan they’ve had in the works for years, but only recently received enough funding to try through the Regional Transportation Agency and a grant from Cook County totaling to $250,000.

At this time, Pace is reviewing proposals and will likely select one company as a partner for the pilot, said Skogsbakken. Logistics like how riders will pay and make a reservation are still being worked out—it’ll depend on which company is selected and their capabilities. The price for a ride will be in line with a Pace bus fare, which is $2.25 in cash and $3 with a Ventra card.

Active Transportation Alliance, an advocacy nonprofit, supports Pace’s pilot and effort to support people’s access to public transit but had reservations about the program.

“This likely isn’t feasible as a long-term solution. Regionally, we need stronger and more consistent investment in the transit infrastructure and policies necessary to connect all residents to opportunity,” said Kyle Whitehead, a representative for Active Transportation Alliance.

Pace disagrees, and ideally envisions expanding this type of offering to its other struggling routes. It pointed to a successful program in Florida that launched in 2016 and used a partnership with ride-hailing service to boost its public transit’s declining ridership.

“We hope it is one of many long-term solutions,” said Skogsbakken. “This might not be a solution for every route, but we do think it will help coverage or frequency challenges.”