The lines are blurring between mass transit and sharing. Good for you.

For travelers such as Vicki Rosenzweig, there’s a bright line between mass transit — a bus, train or ferry — and ridesharing, carsharing and bikesharing.

“Uber isn’t public transit,” says Rosenzweig, an editor who lives in Arlington, Mass.

Or is it?

Don’t look now, but the line has been blurring, and this year, it may all but disappear. Visitors are starting to think of ridesharing services and mass transit interchangeably thanks to new “first-last” mile partnerships that connect visitors with traditional public transportation. So are experts and local governments. Knowing about it could change the way you get around on your next vacation or business trip.

The very definition of public transportation is “fast changing,” says Kajal Lahiri, an economics professor at SUNY Albany. New ridesharing options aren’t necessarily supplanting other forms of mass transit, he says. “They are complementary.”

Why aren’t travelers seeing it?

“Mass transportation is an old-fashioned way of talking about transportation supply,” says Matt Caywood, co-founder of TransitScreen, a mass transit technology company. “It’s defined as a type of transportation that carries a lot of people. But that’s not the perspective of the tourist, who’s just trying to get somewhere in a new city.”

Here’s what’s happening: Instead of adding bus lines or building train tracks, cities turn to the sharing economy to build out their transportation networks. Diana Mendes, a senior vice president for HNTB, a Kansas City-based infrastructure firm, tracks public-private ventures all over the country. They include the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, the Dallas Area Rapid Transit Authority and the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority.

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Mendes says it’s an unexpected combination between traditional established mass transit and innovative technology.

“The winner,” she says, “is the consumer.”

How do you win? It starts with changing the way you think about mass transit, says Jeff Schramm, a Missouri University of Science and Technology expert on mass transportation and technology. Public transportation can be anything that gets you where you’re going — whether it’s on rails or hailed through an app.

“Think of mass transportation as part of the vacation,” he says. “It’s a way to experience a new place and learn about it and the people that live and work there.”

Be open to possibilities, even when you aren’t the target audience. Consider the Go Centennial project in Colorado, in which the city of Centennial teamed up with the Denver South Transportation Management Association to fund a pilot to connect residents to the Dry Creek Light Rail Station.

Commuters can take Lyft at no charge to and from their homes by using the Go Denver or Lyft apps. Matt Darst, a vice president at Xerox, which works on the pilot project, says the way to discover such programs is through a ridesharing or mass transit app. “I met a tourist just last month who told me he would not have known about L.A.’s trolley service — or saved time and several dollars taking it — had he not used the app,” he says.

Maybe there’s a term to be coined here: transit-agnosticism — the idea that when it comes to getting around, everything from bikesharing to the subway will do. It’s something I experienced the last time I visited Washington, when I noticed that tourists used Metro and Uber interchangeably, as if they were almost one and the same.

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Shirley Kroot, a retired teacher from Tucson, says she no longer bothers to distinguish between mass transit and ridesharing. On a recent visit to San Diego, the easiest and most efficient way around was Uber; in Paris, she relied on the Metro. “We had no problems,” she says.

To many, including myself, wrapping our heads around the idea that mass transit is no longer just mass transit is problematic. The rewards are considerable for people who do. Imagine being able to visit any city without having to bother with a pricey rental car.

Or, says Doug Kaufman, CEO of TransLoc, picture a fully integrated transportation network. “You could look up and book on one platform the best possible way to your destination — whether that be public transit, an autonomous vehicle or other mobility option,” he says.

The sooner we can imagine that world, the sooner we’ll get there.

Where rideshare is mass transit

• Altamonte Springs, Fla. The city covers up to 25% of your Uber fare to or from the city’s commuter train station, or 20% of the fare for using Uber on all trips that begin and end within Altamonte Springs. The program recently expanded to Lake Mary, Longwood, Maitland and Sanford.

• Dallas. Dallas Area Rapid Transit and Lyft have partnered to offer a “first-last” mile program for mass transit users. Riders can use the Lyft mobile app to connect with a driver, then connect to a bus or light rail. DART has a separate agreement with ZipCar.

• Summit, N.J. To alleviate parking congestion, the city subsidizes ridesharing for a group of residents on a limited basis. It aims to save the taxpayers $5 million over the next two years, or about the cost of building a parking lot.

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at Read more of Christopher's articles here.

  • sirwired

    Personally, I find referring to Uber, Lyft, et al, as “ridesharing” or “the sharing economy” to be rather grating. Except for the minority of people that use the “pool” variants, there’s no “sharing” going on. In their most widely-used form, they are livery-cab services dispatched via app where the driver uses their own car. No more, no less.

  • AJPeabody

    Traditional mass/public transit, including cabs, must satisfy safety and insurance standards and employee screening. Ride-sharing, not so much. I know if I am injured while using traditional transit, there will be insurance. I know that a bus driver with a 3 drunk driving convictions won’t be driving a bus. I know a diabetic with an uncontrolled seizure disorder won’t have a taxi license. Uber?

  • Jeff W.

    Uber and Lyft, while convenient is not mass transit. Very rarely is it “mass”. You order ride, driver picks you up and then drops you off. Not really different from a taxi, just cheaper and cleaner.

    If you want to classify the two as mass transit, then they must serve ALL communities in an area, which includes the inner city that is not necessarily the downtown area. And they must also accept all passengers, including those with wheelchairs.

  • Alan Gore

    I’ve been waiting for this to happen! I would like to see ridesharing apps that check for the presence of a mass transit link as part of a given ride request, with users being able to compare the cost and convenience of Ubering to a transit station, riding the train, and Ubering for the last part of the trip vs. Ubering the whole distance vs walking between one or both ends of the trip and transit stations.

    Such an app would give cities fine-scale information about how potential users perceive their transit options, the information they crave to locate future lines and stations. Cities would cooperate because they would be getting free usage information they pay consultants for now, and rideshare companies would cooperate because their total user pool in cities is increased.

  • JewelEyed

    The problem I see with this is that I have already read articles suggesting that cities may adjust their budget for transportation maintenance and improvement based on the assumption that ride sharing companies will continue to succeed. If they fail, getting around may become a nightmare.

  • Alan Gore

    If ridesharing services fail, then existing mass transit still exists, for better or worse. I don’t see the problem.

  • JewelEyed

    You’re not looking at the future. The MTA and other similar systems have to plan way in advance for expansion, repairs, bus schedules, purchasing new buses, etc. As stuff breaks down and populations increase, existing mass transit doesn’t necessarily keep pace with need if they’re counting on rideshare companies that might fail to handle a lot of the increased need for transportation. That could be a major issue.

  • Alan Gore

    Ridesharing will compete with different modes of transit in different ways. If a city is crowded enough to have built subway service, I don’t see ridesharing cutting into the vast numbers of people that can be moved on trains, though iy can be a worthy way of extending transit trips into the suburbs where there are not as many stations. There just isn’t enough physical street capacity for cars to replace established trains. I have lived in a city of over thirty million that was set up this way.

    But now consider a small town with the sort of minimal bus service that most towns of under 50,000 has. Ridesharing might well wipe out transit as an option by being able to serve point-to-point.

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