Taking BT Late Nite for a spin: $1 trip by public bus for ice cream, same $1 for trip with Uber back home

Starting Monday, scheduled bus service on several Bloomington Transit fixed routes are ending a couple hours earlier.

By around 9:30 p.m. on Monday, the big 40-foot buses on Routes 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 had ended their runs for the day.

But Bloomington residents could still take rides using the public transportation system—from 9 a.m. to midnight—through a program that Bloomington Transit is marketing as BT Late Nite.

For areas of the city within a quarter mile of those early-ending routes, BT Late Nite now offers passengers who have a smartphone the option of taking rides using Uber or Lyft—for just the regular $1 fare. BT Late Nite operates Monday through Friday.

The difference between the actual cost of the ride on Uber/Lyft and the $1 fare paid by the passenger is covered by BT. Both ride hailing companies are handling the BT portion of the fare through a voucher system.

After the BT Late Nite test ride taken by The B Square on Monday evening, the Uber fare of $8.90 was still shown on the digital receipt as a “pending” charge against the B Square’s credit card. Based on Uber documentation, that should eventually be adjusted down to $1, with the rest of the amount covered by the BT Late Nite voucher.

The $7.90 that BT will pay for the B Square’s ride—from the Dairy Queen on South Walnut to 6th and Walnut streets downtown—is less than the average cost per rider that BT typically spends to provide late-night service using 40-foot buses.

At this month’s regular board meeting, planning and special projects manager Zac Hunec  briefed the five-member BT board on the typical cost per ride in the late evening, for the routes that that are seeing an earlier end to their regular bus service.

Starting around 9 p.m. the cost per ride using big buses is $10 to $12, but by 10 p.m. it goes up to $13 or $15, Hunec said. After 11 p.m. BT’s cost per ride goes up to around $25, Hunec said.

BT’s subsidy per ride for BT Late Night is limited to $19 per ride. That means if the number of riders stays about the same, BT is not expecting to see dramatically increased overall costs for BT Late Night, compared to the fixed-route service.

The B Square has not tested out the other option for BT Late Night, which is for passengers who need a wheelchair-accessible vehicle or do not have a smartphone. Those passengers are supposed to be able to arrange an on-demand ride by calling BT Dispatch at 812-336-7433.

A big motivation for BT to launch BT Late Nite as a six-month pilot stems from its driver shortage. Because of the shortage, BT has not been able to give its current drivers their earned paid time off—which is crucial for retaining those drivers. BT general manager John Connell has characterized the choice as one between trying out some kind of Uber/Lyft type option, or eliminating all service after 9 p.m.

The B Square’s test run of BT Late Nite on Monday night came after an outbound trip using the fixed route bus system. That meant walking three blocks south to the downtown transit center paying a $1 fare, and riding the 8:11 p.m. Route 1 South bus to the intersection of Winslow Road and Walnut Street, then walking a couple hundred yards north to the Dairy Queen.

The Dairy Queen’s walkup window is closed, so arriving on foot, after a bus ride, meant standing in line with cars waiting in the drive-thru. Without any mishaps, The B Square was able to achieve the goal of the expedition—a vanilla ice cream cone dipped in chocolate.

The Uber driver took about 11 minutes to arrive after The B Square’s ride was ordered. The driver indicated that there was not any kind of flag in the system to alert him to the fact that the ride was getting subsidized by BT. In fact, he was not even familiar with the concept of BT subsidized rides.

The trip back home, straight north up Walnut took about 7 minutes. That compares to about 16 minutes on the big bus for the ride south. The fixed-route bus trip also included some extra time for walking before the start and after the finish of the bus trip.

10 thoughts on “Taking BT Late Nite for a spin: $1 trip by public bus for ice cream, same $1 for trip with Uber back home

  1. Thanks Dave for “testing” our concept. You also point out some things we need to look at. 1) Uber driver was unaware of the project. 2) full fare showed up, not $1.00 are. Good start

  2. Are there any transit options for people who don’t have a smart phone or do not have a credit card required to create an Uber/Lyft account?

    1. Yes, BT has set up an option meant to address that need. “The B Square has not tested out the other option for BT Late Night, which is for passengers who need a wheelchair-accessible vehicle or do not have a smartphone. Those passengers are supposed to be able to arrange an on-demand ride by calling BT Dispatch at 812-336-7433.”

  3. The key passage!
    “…standing in line with cars waiting in the drive-thru. Without any mishaps…”

  4. What about tipping? Are you still expected to tip the Uber driver based on the $8.90 fare, or does the driver lose a tip if they pick up a BT voucher fare? One doesn’t tip a bus driver, because their income doesn’t depend on tips, but Uber drivers do depend on tips. If they learn that a BT voucher fare means no tip, they won’t pick up those people. On the other hand, if you have to pay another buck or two of tip, it’s *not* the same as a bus fare and could really add up for people who have been depending on the bus to take them home from work every night.

    1. Hi Urraca! For a BT Late Nite Ride, the Uber app does show a passenger a popup with three tip options. There’s no explicit requirement to add a tip. I don’t know if Uber drivers get notified that a specific passenger has tipped a specific amount. But if they do get a breakdown of tips, then I think drivers could use that to assign a low rating to the passenger, which would make it less likely that drivers in the future would pick up that passenger.

      I did ask the driver if my ride was flagged in his system as a BT Late Nite ride. Ans: No. He wasn’t even aware of the program. So any bias against picking up BT Late Nite passengers would have to be a part of the regular bias built into the Uber/Lyft platform—which might up being significant.

      It’s considerations like these that I think (hope) BT is monitoring during this six-month pilot so that they can decide whether to keep maintain a third-party approach or to move the on-demand approach for late night service to an in-house arrangement, where BT would use its own drivers and the smaller vehicles that BT now uses for paratransit services.

  5. Dave, you are right. This is something we will have to consider if/when we extend the demo. The tip issue could be a problem for Uber drivers. Thanks to Urraca for raising this potential issue

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