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Is ridesharing the future of public transit systems, or the failure of them?

Peter Faris, shown here in Washington DC, is an independent driver who works with Uber, a technology firm that has created a mobile app that allows consumers to use their device to request a nearby taxi or limousine.
Peter Faris, shown here in Washington DC, is an independent driver who works with Uber, a technology firm that has created a mobile app that allows consumers to use their device to request a nearby taxi or limousine.

Businesses aren’t the only interested parties in the guidance that public utilities regulators will provide about ridesharing services such as Uber, Sidecar and Lyft.

Transit policy experts, advocates and environmentalists are watching what happens too. They’re divided about what impact ridesharing will have on the market for mass transit, and by extension the market for fossil fuel-combusting cars, the kind that still dominate the auto industry.

RELATED: State utilities commission to weigh in on ride-sharing services (Poll)

The group Move LA was created five years ago to advocate for sales-tax transportation funding and the passage of Measure R in Los Angeles County. On a recent visit to Atlanta, Gloria Ohland, the group’s communication director, used both Uber and the heavy rail system, MARTA. Her experience there, she says, exemplifies her belief that having choices is good. She says she favors a mass transit system that is “species rich.”

“When we share cars in a way that is as convenient as this, using smartphones and apps and GPS to get us where we need to go when we need to get there, not only is it a smart use of resources, it also becomes more feasible and attractive to not own a car,” Ohland points out. “And any and all incentives to reduce car ownership are good!”

But Move LA’s Executive Director, Denny Zane, questions whether these ride-sharing companies are going to “skim off” choice, young, affluent riders — leaving cab companies with older customers, and possibly starving public transit’s fan base, which is presently growing.

He argues that private taxi businesses achieve some public environmental benefits. Franchises minimize idling by taxicabs, promote good maintenance for cabs, and require drivers to be trained and bonded, according to Zane. “It’s about safety, reliability and avoiding excess,” he says. “So if we do away with that business model, we’d better be sure that those public objectives will otherwise be met.”

Whether these benefits or others materialize is as yet hard to assess. The California Air Resources Board researches the environmental consequences of transportation and land use planning as part of requirements under SB 375, a five-year old law that promotes "smart growth." That includes gauging how strategies to discourage car trips work, and evaluating the Expo Line's impact on travel for people living nearby. 

So far that doesn't mean research on ridesharing. But the ARB is interested in what happens. According to agency spokeswoman Melanie Turner, air regulators like voluntary online and smartphone-related tools that promote fuel efficiency and better route planning for transit. Regional planners at the Metropolitan Transportation Commission in Oakland are including car sharing among a menu of strategies that aim to cut greenhouse gas emissions, and members of the state's air resources board are monitoring how that works. 

Dan Sperling is a longtime member of the Air Resources Board, and the founding director of the  Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis. He didn't tell me what he thinks of Lyft and Sidecar specifically. But he observes via email that phone apps and web services are helping the development of "dynamic ridesharing (ie smart carpooling), demand responsive transit (ie, a modern version of 'dial-a-ride'), smart car sharing, and peer-to-peer car sharing." 

Among transit geeks, there's a broad consensus that, as Sperling says, getting away from single-occupant car travel "means less vehicle use, which means less pollution, less energy use and less greenhouse gas emissions." Surveys by ridesharing companies promote the idea that their service complements mass transit; Sidecar found that, after ridesharing, 53% of people who use its service also use public transportation — almost double the response for cars.

And the south part of the state might signal the importance of ridesharing and other recent market developments. Like the folks from Move LA, Sperling says Los Angeles is a burgeoning market for these new choices on the transit menu.  "The L.A. metro area is becoming too dense for cars and not dense enough for conventional transit," Sperling says.