Before the pandemic, one of the best options for those without cars to get around was to hail an Uber or Lyft, if the bus wasn’t available or wasn’t going as far as they needed.
Several years ago, when I was a student living at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams and working in Pittsfield, I often relied on them to get home and became acutely aware that there were certain hours where drivers were aplenty (usually before 7 p.m.) and other hours when they were scarce (any time after 10 p.m.). I learned quickly that it was a lot easier to get an Uber or Lyft in Pittsfield than it was in North Adams. They were a great option. Not only did their apps give precise estimated time of arrival, but they were also cheaper than taking a taxi.
When Berkshire Flyer service got the green light this week, it seemed a dream of easier rail trips linking New York City with Berkshire County had been achieved. But simply getting to Berkshire County isn’t the whole story for rail travelers. We follow one family trying to get four miles in Pittsfield without a car.
The pandemic decimated the local Lyft and Uber scene in the Berkshires. A recent Eagle article that assessed transit in Pittsfield found both Uber and Lyft drivers were unavailable to transport passengers from Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited on a Thursday afternoon, which is illustrative of the Berkshires’ overall transportation woes. It was also consistent with my own experience trying to find Ubers and Lyfts, even during what were peak hours before the pandemic. This is not to say that it’s impossible to find Ubers and Lyfts in the Berkshires — it’s just hit or miss, and not something you can rely on if you don’t have a car.
So, what happened?
The early days of the pandemic were catastrophic for Uber and Lyft, according to a July 2020 Forbes report. Ride-sharing companies had experienced between a 70 and 80 percent drop in ridership. (Overall, U.S. transit experienced a 90 percent drop in ridership.) Last year, The Washington Post reported that many Uber and Lyft drivers chose to simply not come back after getting a peek at what life could be like without them:
“Drivers said the coronavirus pandemic provided the first glimpse in years at what a life after Uber could look like. For many of them, it was a meaningful reset that gave them a better understanding of the toll the gigs had taken on their bodies, their mental health and their vehicles. It was the push they needed to finally begin their lives after Uber.”
The Post also cited declining earnings and changing business models as major reasons why drivers have not returned nationwide. Both the Post and Forbes noted the breakout success of Uber Eats during the pandemic, and indeed food delivery apps like Grubhub and Doordash were no doubt a more attractive option for drivers looking to make extra income, as they eliminate the risk of catching COVID from a passenger, with contactless delivery being a popular option on those apps.
Food delivery apps also limit how far away you can order food from the app. For example, DoorDash’s default delivery radius is about 5 miles away, but it can deliver up to 30 miles away. Ride-share distance limits are more broad, with Uber capping its trips at eight hours and Lyft limiting theirs to 100 miles. Limiting longer trips inherently locks drivers into a set geographic area, which can have its benefits; one common complaint I heard from my Uber and Lyft drivers over the years who would take riders on longer trips — especially those that took them outside of where Uber and Lyft were reliably used — is that they’d have to take a loss on return trips back to their familiar coverage zones.
MassDOT has offered a $187,300 matching grant to Great Barrington, Stockbridge and Egremont for a test run of a one-year “micro-transit” pilot project. The three towns are getting on board for the ride service available to anyone needs it during designated hours, seven days a week.
The Massachusetts Department of Transportation is poised to launch a “micro-transit” pilot project in southern Berkshire County, which might provide more value to riders given its low fairs ($2.50 for a one-way trip within one of the three towns in its coverage area; $3.50 for a trip to an adjacent town), but it is intentionally limited in scope and requires riders to sign up in advance. Still, if successful, it could create a useful model that could be applied to the rest of the county for those who need consistent, habitual rides outside of the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority’s current coverage areas and hours of operation.
Still, as normal life returns, I think the need for on-demand rides through apps like Uber and Lyft will come back. For those apps to be active again, though, a few things must happen.
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 …
The first is a concerted effort to relaunch them in Berkshire County. I’ve described in previous columns that, for on-demand ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft to work, they need both an active base of customers consistently requesting rides and an active pool of drivers signed on ready to take on them on, and they have to be on the app at the same time or else they’ll miss each other. If this happens enough times, they’ll each ditch: riders will stop requesting rides and consider it unreliable, and drivers will likewise move on due to lack of available work. The pandemic dramatically took riders out of the equation, especially as the country embraced lockdown in hopes of curbing the coronavirus.
Uber and Lyft will also have to find ways to compete with the likes of Doordash and Grubhub, especially in rural settings like the Berkshires. A 2019 Vox report noted that even before the pandemic there was a stark difference in usage in Uber and Lyft between rural and urban communities, with the apps’ business model being more beneficial for short urban rides than longer, rural ones, noting that 19 percent of rural residents use ride-hailing apps whereas 45 percent of urban residents used them.
I think Uber and Lyft deserve to have a comeback in the Berkshires, but it won’t happen on its own or overnight.