Mitchell Chapman: A car-less commuter assesses county transportation issues

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PITTSFIELD — Not having a car in Berkshire County is often seen as a social and professional death sentence, especially if you live in the hill towns. While the reality is far less harsh, there are major holes in the Berkshire public transportation system that need to be addressed.

The Berkshire Regional Transit Authority, which runs the county bus system, is the lifeblood of the Berkshire public transportation system. With its maximum system-wide fare being $4.50, with buses running for the most part every hour, it is the cheapest and most convenient way of getting around the Berkshires if you don't have a car. An Uber and Lyft ride can easily cost close to $30 to get to the same BRTA bus stop, with that figure easily reaching $40 if you take a taxi.

However, there are major gaps in the BRTA's hours of operation, which leaves car-less commuters scrambling for alternatives.

Gaps in coverage

You will not find a bus after 7 p.m. in Berkshire County. Neither will you find one Sunday, as this is when the BRTA is closed.

As a commuter without a car, this leaves you with three options: get a ride from a friend (if you're lucky), find yourself an Uber or Lyft driver for a modest fee, or order a taxi. You can also walk, but this isn't always feasible, especially if you have to travel across town lines.

Uber and Lyft, while still new to Berkshire County, are good alternatives to paying for a taxi, due to their convenience and competitive pricing, but suffer from the same Achilles heel the BRTA does; lack of coverage and hours.

What makes Uber and Lyft so convenient for drivers employed by them - being able to choose their own hours, and being able to drive where they want - are those services' greatest weaknesses. There are certain hours and days that you won't find any Uber or Lyft driver online in Berkshire County, even in the heart of Pittsfield. Being able to choose their own hours allows drivers to not work hours that are inconvenient to them, which coincidentally might be when commuters are in the greatest need. Furthermore, these apps do not allow for much communication between drivers, so coordination in a way to maximize coverage and reduce competing drivers is almost impossible.

In many Berkshire towns, such as Windsor and North Adams, there is also an odd Catch-22 where, due to the sparse number of riders, drivers have gotten used to not finding riders and therefore stopped making trips to these towns, and riders have gotten used to not finding drivers and have therefore stopped checking the app.

But there are riders in these towns, albeit they are more sparse and less consistent than those of Pittsfield. This is proven by the taxi companies that service these areas, which have a leg up on Uber and Lyft in the regard that one needs only to call a phone number to order a cab, as opposed to downloading an app that can alienate those not used to smartphones, or cut off those who lack one. County taxi companies also cover far more shifts than Uber and Lyft drivers do, meaning when the BRTA closes down and no Uber and Lyft drivers are online, your local taxi company is your only option for a ride.

If Uber and Lyft are to answer Berkshire County's public transportation woes, there needs to be more coordination between Berkshire County drivers and riders, to accommodate for the shortcomings of the app and lack of support from Uber and Lyft's corporate offices. This could come in the form of a third party committee, which would research where and when Uber and Lyft drivers are needed on a town-by town basis. This committee could also coordinate with Lyft and Uber drivers and develop some form of a pledge program, in which certain drivers can pledge to be online and physically present in certain towns, which would be released to the public.

There are many problems with creating a third-party committee to subsidize and support Uber and Lyft, one being that Berkshire County might not have the Uber and Lyft workforce to fully service towns and hours outside of the BRTA's operation, but it worth considering as both apps continue to grow in the region.

The likely solution

Night and Sunday buses would solve the temporal problems commuters face. Even though buses may or may not come every hour, like many of the BRTA's day buses do, it would give commuters something to coordinate around.

For towns outside of the BRTA's area of service in the county, a pilot program with smaller, feeder buses could be tested out. This would be less of a financial risk for the BRTA, and would allow them to see what the public transportation needs of these towns might be.

These proposed scenarios are all reliant upon acquisition of funds and resources, but — if executed properly — could change public transportation in the Berkshires for the better.

Mitchell Chapman is an Eagle staffer.




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