Rural Rideshare: Sustainability Beyond The Pilot

  • Author: Amber Simmons
  • Date: February 17, 2021

Overcoming the Rider Demand Obstacle

No doubt that rideshare is a sustainable, transportation option. All that’s needed is an awesome technology platform that will match riders to an eager pool of drivers and magically, all will be right with the commuting universe. It’s an oversimplification which depends on the assumptions that people desire environmentally friendly, congestion fighting, money saving solutions. Promoters of rural rideshare pilot programs have often held the assumption that “if we build it, they will come”, but that is not necessarily the case.

 “…there is a belief that when there is demand, the supply will be generated automatically. This assumption introduces a risk that a demanded ride cannot be supplied, a risk that can increase when population density is reduced…. For success in new mobility services, we stress the importance of (i) identifying the customer segment and (ii) securing the resources necessary to meet the demand.”

The above summarized conclusion of a study of four Swedish rural pilot projects are spot on. It’s not as simple as great ride matching technology. It’s knowing who the audience is and identifying their needs. Who will benefit from the program? Why would each customer segment want to use the technology?

Simply introducing technology, when rural residents tend to rideshare through word-of-mouth, is not necessarily the best way to gain participation. Typically, rural rideshare has been an organic process of neighbors and friends helping each other. This form of ridesharing is virtually impossible to track and people may not be willing to divulge why they share or need shared rides.

I participated in a rural rideshare pilot where program success was impacted by assumptions. A correct assumption was people who did not have vehicles would benefit from the empty seats of those commuting alone and an incorrect assumption was there would be enough people willing to provide rides. During multiple outreach events, it became clear that while those without vehicles saw the benefit of rideshare, those with vehicles didn’t believe they needed the service, and there was no immediate benefit for them.

Understanding the intended customer is crucial, since assuming that vehicle owners will add time and/or inconvenience to rideshare, may not be a reasonable expectation. The primary interest in the pilot program was from people who did not own vehicles and needed a ride.

Data from this rural NY pilot was collected from 2014-2018. Most of the funding was spent on outreach and education since the platform was state sponsored. From 2014 through 2017, 362 people registered from three counties. In 2018, a small urban area was added and registration jumped to 813².

Successful Rural Rideshare

So how can rural rideshare programs succeed? First, substantial effort must be made to engage drivers. Rural drivers are not naturally inclined to consider rideshare platforms, they feel they simply don’t need the product. There must be a deeper understanding of all the potential customers for supply to meet demand.

A method to provide a deeper dive into customer understanding is the Design Thinking Process or Human-Centered Design. This method provides a deeper understanding of the potential users by engaging all stakeholders, ultimately unveiling incentives and understanding for success. The National Center for Mobility Management has a number of resources related to Design Thinking and transportation. Additionally, they provide frequent grant opportunities to work with communities on transportation-related issues through the Design Thinking process. You can also find out more about Design Thinking through the company, Ideo. Arguably, the primary benefactor of rural rideshare platforms are those who lack transportation. Rural drivers generally need incentives beyond environmental benefits to consider rideshare programs.

Secondly, the Swedish model mentions the risk that the database lacks critical masses needed to be useful. Once users don’t make a match, they may not return. If it happens twice, it’s likely they won’t use the platform again and will probably tell others, essentially dooming the project beyond the pilot phase. Addressing the realities of sparsely populated areas where critical mass isn’t adequate for the demand, will take some creative thought.

Therefore, when developing rural rideshare programs, spend time to ensure that both riders and drivers want and need the program.  De-risk the solution by utilizing the Design Thinking process.  Rural rideshare has potential for success by offering additional options where transit is not practical, but knowing who all of your customers are, and matching supply with demand is critical to that success. 

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Have more mobility news that we should be reading and sharing? Let us know! Reach out to Kirby Wilhelm (wilhelm@ctaa.org).