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Uber is experimenting with a phone dispatch system

A Florida pilot program aims to bridge public transit gaps — and let customers dial for a car

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Uber is experimenting with a decidedly retro service: a telephone dispatch system that would allow people without smartphones to call a hotline and order an Uber ride, according to a transit official in Pinellas County, Florida. The system is being tested as a pilot program in conjunction with the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, which plans to launch it on July 18th. The call-in feature is part of a local program that will grant publicly subsidized Uber rides to low-income residents who do not have cars or easy access to the area’s bus-based public transit system, according to Christopher Cochran, senior planner at the PSTA.

The call-in feature signals that Uber is looking not only to expand its clientele beyond its smartphone wielding, tech-savvy customer base, but also that the ride-hailing giant hopes to be taken more seriously by public transit agencies as a complement — or even alternative — to existing mass transport options.

The ride-hailing giant hopes to be taken more seriously by public transit agencies

"What this reflects is that as Uber moves more into the public realm and begins offering its services to a broader audiences, it will have to evolve in a way that will move it away from its roots as a tech company," said Jacob Anbinder, a spokesperson for the TransitCenter, a foundation dedicated to expanding urban mobility. "The more that you involve yourself in public policy as a company, the more you’re going to have to expand your offerings to reach people who don’t have smartphones or don’t have the Uber app."

In February, Pinellas County became the first transit agency in the country to subsidize Uber rides (as well as those from a local taxi service) to and from designated bus stations, in an attempt to make its transit system more accessible, according to Christopher Cochran, a senior planner at the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.

Under the new plan, "transit disadvantaged" residents, including those without the Uber app, will be granted a taxpayer-subsidized Uber ride each month to anywhere within the service area during daytime hours in the case that they are facing an urgent situation requiring transit, according to Cochran. The dispatcher will have the discretion to determine whether a situation qualifies as urgent and "life sustaining," and the program will cover things as minor as grocery shopping and as major as a medical emergency, Cochran says.

"What we're doing now is a proof of concept."

"This is going to dramatically change the efficiency with which transit-disadvantaged people can access the system," Cochran says. "There is no question that this is going to be much bigger than what there is now — what we're doing now is a proof of concept."

With the pilot project, Cochran says the dispatch center will be run and funded by the PSTA, which last week received a $300,000 state grant that will subsidize Uber rides. Uber will provide call-in software that will enable dispatchers to send Uber drivers to call-in customers, says Cochran. The county plans to pay Uber directly for the ride subsidies, which will cover everything beyond the three-dollar flat fee that qualifying riders will pay.

Uber declined to provide any specifics in response to to a request for comment. "We are always exploring ways to make the Uber experience better for riders and drivers," an Uber spokesperson said in an email. "At any given time, cities pilot various features in an effort to improve how people get from A to B."

The dispatch center will be run and funded by the county

Cochran says that his agency turned to Uber after failing to pass a local one-cent sales tax that would have expanded traditional mass transit options by increasing bus service and creating a light rail system. The defeat of the penny tax also required the agency, facing a budget shortfall, to cut back existing bus service. Turning to Uber represented an opportunity to fill such gaps but also held the potential to reach new potential riders while also providing access to those without the Uber app, according to Cochran, who says that a similar Uber program has been previously utilized by businesses.

For Anbinder, adoption of dispatch software could represent a consequential shift in Uber’s business model as its competition with the traditional taxi industry matures.

"What you’re seeing essentially is the convergence of two ends of this market where in places like New York and DC you’re seeing taxi companies adopt Uber-alternative apps that allow you to use your smartphone to hail a taxi on demand," said Anbinder. "And now you’re seeing Uber also move toward the middle by offering services that work like the taxis we’re used to."