Cape May County gets a boost from Uber for more efficient fare-free transportation

ALISON GRILLO For The Press of Atlantic City, February 7, 2021

     What if your doctor says she can see you today, but your county bus service requires three days’ notice?

     Perhaps it’s something Cape May County residents need not worry about come April 1. On that day, county residents can enjoy same-day service, according to Daniel J. Mulraney, director of the county government’s Fare-Free Transportation program.

     The change will happen due to better scheduling software, said Mulraney, who predicts a reversal of the ridership decline the service has seen over the past five or six years.

     “People don’t want to book a trip three days in advance,” he said. “If they want to go somewhere, they want to go now.”

     The new software comes from Uber, the ride-hailing service. In the face of regulations from state and local governments, and with ride-sharing unpopular during the pandemic, the company has been diversifying. In July, it acquired Postmates, absorbing a major competitor to the food-delivery service Uber Eats. And in the same month, it bought Atlanta-based Routematch, provider of public-transit software for hundreds of systems worldwide.

     One of those systems was Fare-Free Transportation.

     Now the software will carry Uber’s name, and Mulraney said it will have been upgraded to the demands of same-day service.

     “I would say it’s really the best of both worlds,” he said of the change. “It’s the same rides people have come to expect, with the increases in efficiency the Uber platform can bring.”

     The usual 500 trip requests on Fare-Free’s schedule will be much more manageable, Mulraney predicted.

     “We had no-shows and cancellations that were going through the roof,” he said, blaming the phenomenon on the long booking requirement.

     With the new setup, riders will have the option of securing their trips through the Uber app, or with a call to the Fare-Free office at 609-889-3700.

Either way, it won’t be Uber showing up at their door, but the usual county buses, with the same drivers.

     Mulraney declined to estimate the cost of the new software, citing ongoing negotiations between the county and Uber. He did say the county has paid Routematch $51,665 annually for its transit software.

     He said the annual budget for Fare-Free Transportation is $3 million, funded largely through state grants. Mulraney said the current average per-ride cost of $25 likely will decline due to an expected increase in ridership and reduction in no-shows (in which buses use gas to go somewhere and encounter no rider).

     Although a pilot program offering same-day service in Ocean City has been successful, he acknowledged the possibility of scheduling problems when the service goes to same-day on a countywide basis.

     “We’re going to have to figure it out on the fly, and hopefully limit the shortcomings,” he said.

     The service, according to its website, “provides demand-response, subscription and modified-fixed route bus service to senior citizens, persons with disabilities, veterans, individuals of low income and general public on a first come-first served basis.” Reservations are not required to ride buses on any of the eight routes.

     Philip Swibinski, a public relations consultant under contract with Uber, called the new software a potential “game changer” for seniors. He said the county’s transit system will be the first in New Jersey to use the new software and that it will put the system at the forefront of service-on-demand transportation providers.

     “Uber has partnered with municipalities in New Jersey and elsewhere to solve transportation problems,” said Swibinski, chief operating officer of Vision Media Marketing Inc. of Secaucus.

     This partnering comes after years of conflict with state and local governments that have sought to regulate Uber for reasons of safety, workers’ rights and fair competition (such as with traditional taxi companies). In August 2017, CEO Travis Kalanick, the company’s founder, was replaced by Dara Khosrowshahi.

     A client of Swibinski for five years, Uber faced “entrenched interests” when coming to New Jersey, but now its public relations problems are no greater than any big corporation’s, he said.