Ridesharing in Birmingham: 15 years and growing
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama -- City council adopted a revised transit code Tuesday that officials have said will allow app-based companies to do business in the city.
Representatives with one app-based commuter service company, Uber, have said the revisions make it difficult for them to operate.
While it isn't clear whether new rules would prevent Uber from ever coming to Birmingham, figures show the metro area's 15-year-old public ridesharing program is growing.
About 20,000 people who live or work in Jefferson and Shelby counties now participate in CommuteSmart, which began in 1999 and is administered by the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham.
Modified programs also exist in Huntsville, Mobile and Montgomery.
CommuteSmart matches riders with similar commutes to take advantage of alternative transportation including carpools, vanpools, bus rides and biking to reduce the number of vehicles on roadways.
Riders work out travel arrangements among themselves and share the costs of their commutes. CommuteSmart is a public service and participants aren't paid.
Compensation has been at the heart of a nationwide discussion in recent years about whether services such as Uber, with paid drivers, count as ridesharing programs.
Changing the definition, some say, would have unintended impacts on public programs by adding requirements for participants.
CommuteSmart is funded through the Federal Highway Administration as a ridesharing program.
Riders can keep track of their alternative commuting miles and earn incentives. Costs are shared among vehiclepoolers. For vanpools, that includes insurance for the vans, which are provided by a contractor who performs background checks.
In 2013, the Birmingham-area program added more than 4,000 new riders, growing by about 20 percent figures show.
In fiscal year 2013, the program reduced vehicle miles in the metro area by 15.2 million -- about 10.5 million through alternative forms of transportation and about 4.7 million through vanpools, records show.
The figure translates into about $6.3 million in savings and a carbon dioxide emissions reduction of about 6,000 tons, according to program figures.
The added benefit is that vanpool miles are reported to the National Transit Database, a national logbook used to allocate Federal Transit Administration funds said Scott Tillman, planning and operations director for the regional planning commission.
The planning commission gets a reimbursement for vanpool miles. That money is used for area transit, Tillman said.
Last year, the reimbursement totaled about $400,000, he said.
If the ordinance had changed -- especially grouping Uber under the rideshare definition -- planning officials fear that would have made it difficult for participants to continue using CommuteSmart.
Those changes, Tillman said, would have required drivers to get permits, business licenses and extra insurance.
Tillman said companies such as Uber are helpful because they add options for commuters.
"We are all for different transportation options as long as they fall within the guidelines of city codes," Tillman said.