Can Uber help fix Greater Cincinnati's transportation problems?

New approach coming for SW Ohio transportation
Posted at 9:50 AM, Jan 30, 2018
and last updated 2018-01-30 18:52:14-05

CINCINNATI -- After losing a bid for one huge tech company, Greater Cincinnati leaders are looking to another tech giant in hopes that won't happen again.

And the plan could set the region apart when it comes to transit and transportation.

The Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber held a news conference Tuesday when city, chamber and transit leaders announced a partnership with the rideshare firm Uber to launch the Cincinnati Mobility Lab. Representatives from the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority and the Transit Authority of Northern Kentucky also gave remarks.

The idea is to use Uber's expertise in transportation data and technology to make traffic and public transit better here.

The plan includes:

  • a look at key sites around Downtown, to make sure public transit has the space it needs; 
  • use of Uber's Movement data-sharing platform to analyze how people get around;
  • bringing in employers to help shape the future of regional commuting; and
  • a first-of-its-kind transit study with SORTA and TANK to help them develop their strategies.

"This is the first time we're bringing together so many different aspects of ways we can serve cities," said Arathi Mehrotra, a representative from Uber.

SORTA CEO Dwight Ferrell predicted the study's impact on Cincinnati Metro bus service will be "groundbreaking."

"It'd be great if somebody could take out their phone and plan their trip, and in that, part of it be bus, part of it be Uber -- and being able to do that all on the same platform," Ferrell said.

"That's a different kind of way to be able to deliver transit. If we're able to do that through our partnership with Uber, then we will have gone light years ahead of anybody else in the industry," he said.

Public transportation can be spotty in southwest Ohio, and traffic congestion is aggravated by the outdated Brent Spence Bridge over the Ohio River. It’s deemed functionally obsolete, but lacks funding for a replacement. Metro is on the cusp of a massive overhaul in its operation strategy as it faces a looming budgetary shortfall that threatens to cut service and raise fares.

Tuesday's announcement was just a few weeks after the city learned it wouldn't be home to Amazon's second headquarters; in fact, Cincinnati didn't even make the first round of cuts, while peer cities in the Midwest did.

RELATED: Why we missed the cut on Amazon's HQ2

Amazon put a heavy emphasis on transportation, and Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber CEO Jill Meyer agreed that gave Columbus, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis an edge. Columbus offers free bus rides for downtown workers. Indianapolis passed a regional transit tax in 2016 to expand bus service. Pittsburgh is a test city for Uber's driverless rideshare service.

"It's a ripple effect that impacts so many people," Meyer said during Tuesday's news conference.

Northern Kentucky is home to one of the region's biggest job hubs surrounding the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, where Amazon already has operations.

The potential for helping Northern Kentucky employers has TANK General Manager Andrew Aiello hopeful.

"Our interest in this study springs directly from the interests of our employers," he said.

As for cost, Mehrotra wouldn't go into specifics behind what these new efforts will cost the rideshare giant, but she said, "We are making a significant investment both in the studies and in the people we have here on the ground."


Pat LaFleur reports on transportation and mobility for WCPO. Connect with him on Twitter (@pat_laFleur) and on Facebook.

WCPO's Dan Monk and Dan Sewell of the Associated Press contributed to this report.