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No Rider Left Behind - How to Mitigate Canceled Service

Cancellations are a moment of truth for transit agencies and their riders. Suppose you are waiting at a bus stop to pick up your kids at daycare. All of a sudden, your phone buzzes to tell you that the bus was canceled due to a driver shortage and the next scheduled bus won't come for at least 45 minutes. This is dreadful because the kids will be hungry and tired, plus the daycare charges a $50 penalty for late pickups. In this circumstance, would you prefer:

A. To receive a credit for a free future bus ride as an apology for the inconvenience?


B. To immediately get free rebooking on Uber or Lyft to get you to the daycare on time?

Both gestures are appreciated, but many riders will pick option B because it goes beyond an apology to actually solve the problem.

With ride-hailing services, transit agencies can now easily provide customers with alternative transportation in the event of canceled transit service, and transit agencies are beginning to take advantage of this option.

A man opening the door to an Uber or Lyft vehicle.

Unfortunately transit service cancellations have become more common in recent years. Bus operator or equipment shortages cause bus service to be canceled, and rail services experience planned disruptions due to construction or renovation work. But if transit agencies get customers to their destination on time even when service is canceled, it increases customer trust in your brand and shows them that your agency cares.

Two agencies that provide customers with Uber or Lyft rides in the event of cancellations or service disruptions are Metrolink in Southern California and MARTA in Atlanta.

When Metrolink experiences service disruptions, they try to arrange for substitute bus service (bus bridges) when possible. For unplanned service disruptions, they also often distribute "vouchers" that are valid for an Uber ride up to $50. The Uber vouchers are sent via text messages, Tweets, Facebook posts, and/or through the Metrolink website.

a Tweet that provides information about a Metrolink delay and provides a free Uber voucher for up to $50.

Customers download the Uber app (if they don't already have it on their phone) and click on the voucher to access the discount.

smartphone screenshot confirming that the voucher has been applied to your Uber account and providing instructions on how to book your trip.

A few important details: Uber programs their system with "geofencing" to limit vouchers to times and locations where the service disruption occurs. Also, if the cost of an Uber trip exceeds $50, the customer pays the incremental amount.

In 2023, Metrolink awarded a total of 6,607 Uber vouchers at a cost of $270,043, which represents just 0.8% of annual revenue. While the cost is a small portion of overall revenue, the feedback from customers has been very positive and the program builds trust among Metrolink riders. When they board a train, they can be confident that if they encounter a service disruption, Metrolink will provide an alternate service that minimizes the delay or even gets customers to their destination on time.

As a side benefit, the program gives Metrolink information on the costs required to mitigate particular types of service disruptions, such as trespassers or track maintenance issues, so that they can focus efforts on remedying the issues that cost the most money in terms of bus bridge and voucher costs.

Moving on to the MARTA voucher program in Atlanta...

MARTA has a system, called MARTAConnect, that enables them to offer Uber and Lyft credits in the event of a planned or unplanned service disruption. This could be activated, for example, when bus bridges aren't possible due to driver or vehicle shortages, or as a supplement to bus bridges. The Uber and Lyft credits give customers an alternate option to get where they need to go. MARTA has also used Uber and Lyft credits to mitigate the impact of temporary service cutbacks on routes impacted by staffing shortages, and to help riders impacted by elevator outages. 

The MARTA program is similar to Metrolink, but they offer credits up to a limit that typically ranges from $5 to $15, reflecting the shorter trip lengths of a more urban system. Depending on the time and location of a service disruption, they customize credit amounts and offer them through Twitter, email, text messages, the website, the MARTA On the Go mobile app, and/or QR codes posted at bus or rail stations. The MARTA Customer Service department assists customers that need help with using the credits.

MARTAConnect has usage rules that are similar to Metrolink. In addition, the credits are non-transferrable and have a limit of two Uber or Lyft rides per person.

In 2023, MARTA awarded 85,000 rides at a cost of $713,000, which is just 0.9% of annual revenue. As with Metrolink, MARTA rider feedback has been very positive. Riders are thankful that MARTA looks out for them!

a social media post thanking MARTA for a free voucher to get them to work in spite of a system delay.

Both Uber and Lyft offer geofencing to help manage these types of programs. Transit agencies can set limits on the value of the credit, days of use, times of use, number of rides, and even types of vehicles for each Lyft pass and Uber Voucher. The agency can pre-select those parameters for planned disruptions or set them up in the moment when an unplanned disruption occurs. 

CX Tips - If you develop a voucher or credit program:

  • When a service disruption occurs, assess the number of riders impacted before offering vouchers or credits - to avoid overwhelming Uber or Lyft capacity. For high volume situations, bus bridges may provide a better option. In low volume situations, vouchers or credits may offer a higher quality alternative at lower cost.

  • Assess the ride hailing services available in your geographic area relative to your riders' needs. In some cases, taxi services may be more available or offer a better match for riders.

  • Define an efficient process to activate the voucher system so that decisions can be made quickly, and designate staff with authority to activate the system.

  • When communicating about the program, educate not only riders, but also all customer-facing staff including bus and rail supervisors, security staff, ambassadors, and customer service staff.

  • Obtain User Experience (UX) feedback from riders who receive voucher offers to discover any pain points and opportunities to refine the process. Pay attention to any areas of confusion or difficulties in taking advantage of the program. Also, survey riders who receive voucher offers to understand the impact on perception and trust in your brand. Refine how you communicate the vouchers to maximize these benefits.

Opportunity for further innovation: In the future, could transit agencies use App and GPS technology to automatically identify customers stranded at bus stops or train stations due to service disruptions and target the delivery of service advisories and voucher offers to those impacted customers? Technologies to support this concept already exist but would need to be prototyped in real world conditions with riders who opt-in to the privacy permissions that would be required.

In summary, no matter how well transit operates, at least once in a while there will be moments of truth. Bus operators may be late to work due to freeway closures, people may wander onto trackways, vehicles may experience unexpected failures, or service may get held up due to security incidents. When these things happen, it is helpful to have an alternative you can provide to your customers to get them where they need to go quickly and conveniently. So, if you haven't done so already, add Lyft and/or Uber mitigations to your Customer Experience tool kit. It's relatively easy to do at a reasonable cost. Moreover, it can help you build loyalty in your brand!


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