Need a lift to the airport or Mall of America? How about a Lyft instead?
Some users of SouthWest Transit’s popular, on-demand, point-to-point ride service called SW Prime will have the ridesharing company called Lyft as another option because of a pilot program approved March 2 by the SouthWest Transit Commission.
The program, which will go into effect this spring, will allow persons scheduling SW Prime MSP Airport or SW Prime Edge services to see a Lyft option on their device while using the SW Prime software application, or “app.”
The app will show how quickly SWP Prime and Lyft rides are available, and at what cost, then allow the user to book one or the other.
Eden Prairie-based SouthWest Transit has budgeted $15,000 for the partnership, enough for about 1,200 rides. But, if the trial program proves successful, it might stick around or even expand to SW Prime rides in SouthWest’s core service area, where the majority of the rides take place.
“It’s really about providing different options to people,” said Matt Fyten, the chief operating officer and interim CEO of SouthWest Transit.
“It could be a new way of going about public transit that could be used elsewhere,” he added. “Anything that gives the public or the user more options is positive. We believe it has a chance to be successful. Should it prove successful, I could see us continuing to show it as a model, really, for across the country.”
The partnership is a good deal for area residents because it offers more transit options. SW Prime MSP Airport service and SW Prime Edge – which is transportation to Shakopee, Mystic Lake Casino, the I-494 corridor, Edina, and Mall of America – are available to riders from Eden Prairie, Chanhassen, Chaska, and Victoria.
It’s also a good deal because it helps SouthWest Transit meet the growing demand for SW Prime services and possibly lower customer wait times as the agency endures a long pause for additional buses because of supply-chain issues.
While the express bus service provided by SouthWest is still struggling to get to pre-pandemic levels, the Prime services are a success story, with use growing to an average of about 525 rides per day, about 20% higher than before the pandemic’s onset in 2020. (By comparison, ridership for express bus service is also growing but still 60% below the pre-pandemic levels as work-at-home vs. commute-to-work situations evolve.)
“Prime” is the umbrella name for on-demand, point-to-point, mini-bus service, but specialty services falling under that umbrella include SW Prime MD (rides meeting non-emergency medical needs within SouthWest’s service area) and SW Prime Essential (rides to grocery stores and pharmacies), in addition to SW Prime MSP Airport and SW Prime Edge.
The Lyft partnership is possible because the international, Vancouver-based company that provides SouthWest Transit with its micro-transit software – Spare Labs, Inc. – already has a partnership with Lyft and can easily add the Lyft option to the SW Prime app. Without that technology, SouthWest would need to invest in dispatchers and other costs that would make the subsidy cost too high for the agency to bear, and riders wouldn’t have comparable information at their fingertips.
Previous SouthWest Transit attempts to partner with Lyft have involved vouchers and other tools, but Fyten said the rider experience was “clunky” and not up to SouthWest’s standards.
“It’s Spare that really brings the customer experience on the technology side,” he explained.
SouthWest Transit has worked with Spare and legal counsel to ensure that the new partnership meets transportation regulations, and that it operates only when SW Prime can provide a handicap-accessible option. Any rider choosing the Lyft option while on the SW Prime app will be required to accept legal terms and conditions – in effect, “opting out” of a SW Prime ride – before the ride is arranged.
All bus rides are subsidized at one level or another. SW Prime rides that cost a user $5 or $10, depending on the service requested, are subsidized about $13-$15 per passenger on average, which Fyten says is the lowest subsidy in the region for an on-demand ride system.
The subsidy for the Lyft rides will be up to $10 per ride – SouthWest has fewer costs for these rides, including fuel and driver – and so Lyft choosers will pay the usual $5 or $10 (again, depending on the service) and also whatever Lyft charge is beyond the $15 or $20 fare-plus-subsidy price. They may end up paying Lyft a couple of dollars more than if SW Prime were chosen. Fyten estimates that the agency’s cost to provide service, whether the rider chooses SW Prime or Lyft, will be about the same.
He predicted that the Lyft option would be available starting in April.
SouthWest Transit has been a pioneer in the on-demand, micro-transit service arena, and Fyten suspects it is the first transit agency in the state and probably the Midwest to test a Lyft partnership of this specific type.
Demand for Prime has been so great over its seven years, particularly since the pandemic that “we can’t generally meet the demand that’s there, effectively,” said Fyten. Average wait times are 20-25 minutes, he added. That’s below the target of 30 minutes, but the agency would like to reduce the wait to 20 minutes or less.
“That’s where we feel this will help us,” Fyten said about the Lyft partnership. “It’s not that ineffective and inefficient service is being provided now. We have good service. Hopefully, we’ll bring that average wait time down to create a better experience, and just offer people more options.”
About 45% of SW Prime users are making trips to work or back, according to a ridership survey from October 2022. Other purposes are to reach recreation, social events, school, medical appointments, or make transit connections, among others.
The two largest age ranges using the service are 18-24 (more than 18% of riders) and 25-30 (nearly 12% of riders).
SouthWest Transit has grant funding to purchase nearly 30 more of the small, Prime-ready buses before the end of the decade, but is having trouble getting the vehicles. Securing transit vehicles has become a national issue related to COVID-19’s disruption of supply chains, said Fyten, with the time it takes to get a new vehicle increasing from the normal six months to more like 18 months.
“The cavalry is coming, it’s just going to take a while,” he said.
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