The Student Government Association is finalizing details with Uber to replace the KnightLynx Green Line with subsidized rides in an effort to address low ridership numbers.
READ THE UBER PUBLIC RECORDS: Proposed Contract Terms | Emails 1 | Emails 2
Discussed in hundreds of pages of e-mails, slideshows, and proposal documents sent between SGA representatives and Uber marketing representative Sofia Navia and obtained by Knight News, the pending agreement proposes a semester-long pilot of the ride-sharing company’s Student Safe Rides program, which provides subsidized rides to university students on weekend nights. Under the plan, UCF students will have access to a 50 percent subsidy on all rides within a coverage zone and between certain times agreed upon by both parties.
Uber declined to comment for this story while negotiations with SGA are ongoing. Robert Sells, SGA’s transportation coordinator, spoke with Knight News under the condition that he be accompanied by campus life director Emily Dovydaitis.
Both sides assured that the final contract will be signed and released to the public in the coming weeks.
The idea for the agreement originally was part of Chris Clemente’s platform in his ultimately successful campaign for SGA president. His administration’s online platform tracker shows that creating the agreement became a priority. Negotiations with Uber began in October.
Part of the agreement is to eliminate the KnightLynx Green Line, which has already been done according to an updated map on Lynx’s website. The route covered Gemini Boulevard heading east from the CFE Arena, traveled from Alafaya Trail to Rouse Road via University Boulevard, and made stops at Knights Circle as well as the housing complexes along McCulloch Road and Alafaya Trail down to Central Florida Boulevard.
The discontinuation of the Green Line came following dismal ridership numbers — an average of a little more than 90 riders per month from August 2015 and September 2016, according to official figures given to Knight News. Last September, the last month for which the figures were provided, saw only 81 riders. The Blue and Red lines saw 429 and 274 riders in the same month, respectively.
“I think convenience is the major reason why people haven’t been using the Green Line,” Sells said. “The Green Line was mainly servicing apartment complexes rather than, say, the Blue Line which goes out to Waterford [Lakes]. Most people would rather just drive or take an Uber.”
The Green Line’s route also included the areas near Knight Library and Knight’s Pub, two places where Uber drives often pick up riders.
Two maps detailing similar options for a potential coverage zone were shown on a document outlining proposed terms. The first zone only covered the discontinued line’s route while including the interiors of the housing complexes to which it made stops as well as the west side of campus. The second zone, which is the one expected to be covered under the new contract, includes the housing complexes beyond Central Florida Boulevard via Alafaya Trail down to SR 408 as well as Waterford Lakes.
The times the subsidy will be accessible to students, Sells said, has been determined to be Friday and Saturday nights between 8 p.m. to 3 a.m., the same times when the Green Line would run. The option would only be available if the user is located in the coverage zone.
“Once you get access to the program — either through swiping your ID or e-mails or whatever we decide on — during those times, a button shows up on the Uber app, a UCF button, you press it, and you’re good to go,” Sells said.
Should students decide to travel outside the coverage zone, he continued, the remainder of the trip is not covered by the subsidy. He admits, however, that because the contract has not been finalized, he cannot confirm that information.
It is unclear how much money the Uber partnership will cost SGA, which could be a concern given that it is funded using the Activity and Service Fees paid by UCF students. A slide created by Uber that provided a cost analysis of an eventual agreement estimates that it will cost between $5,000 to $8,000 a month if the subsidy is to be used from Thursday through Saturday nights from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m.
Also unclear is how much it will cost to maintain the Green Line. UCF has yet to respond to a request for those numbers as well as any relevant invoices issued in the last semester.
How much the program will actually cost will depend on how often students apply the subsidy. One slide included heat maps detailing where customers typically used Uber in the UCF area, showing that the major hotspots are within the proposed coverage zones. The slide also mentions that it takes an average of four minutes for a customer to “tap a button and receive a weekend late night ride on campus,” according to Uber’s calculations. The average fare for that ride is $5.
“We want to make sure we aren’t spending too much on this program that it takes away from other SGA programs,” Sells said. “We’re trying to keep it around the same cost as KnightLynx was, and maybe a little more because we are hoping it will be serving a lot more students.”
It is impossible to plausibly guess how much those figures will change, if much at all, now that the Green line has been discontinued. But — as Dovydaitis, the campus life director, said — the goal is to gauge the practicality of the program and not necessarily the cost.
“Even though it is a higher cost, you’re spending less per student and there’s a lot more utility in our purchase,” she said. “As opposed to putting a few students to ride one green line for thousands of dollars a month, you can have hopefully thousands of students utilizing the Uber program for a similar cost.”
Overall, to SGA, the end result is to provide a quality product.
“The goal of the Uber program is to get students home safely and to have better utilization of SGA services for students,” Dovydaitis said.
She later emphasized: “We’re not taking away services, we’re just revamping them to fit new technologies and the new processes in the sharing economy that benefit students. This is just one of the ways.”
There are still some issues that have yet to be negotiated. For instance, there has not been an agreement as to how Uber will be sure that only UCF students are using the subsidy. In e-mails between Navia, the Uber representative, and Sells, Navia proposed that Uber have a collection of students’ e-mails and phone numbers, but that in itself could present a possible security risk.
“What if Uber gets hacked and then all of our students’ e-mails get leaked?” Sells told Knight News. “We want to make sure there’s as many students who can have access as possible, but we also want to make sure we won’t be posing any security risk to student information at the same time.”
Besides the danger of a security breach, how the data will be collected while protecting students’ privacy rights under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act remains a major concern. While e-mails and phone numbers are considered “directory information” and thus can generally be disclosed to third parties without consent, students, students can restrict the release of that information. This begs the question of whether students who prefer to keep those records private will be able to access the program at all.
The issue was discussed further in e-mails between Navia and Shane Juntunen, the director of the Office of Student Involvement. While he leaves open the possibility of allowing Uber to collect student e-mails, he mentions the need to provide a security rider in the contract.
The data, he proposed in an e-mail sent on January 6, is to be owned by UCF and could not be reused for “other purposes” or shared with third parties. Students that have a FERPA block or a Chapter 119 exemption, the latter of which applies in part to law enforcement employees, would be excluded from the program.
Alternatively, Juntunen proposes using students’ UCF identification numbers as a code to access the subsidy. But a significant question left unanswered by the e-mails is what the policy will be in the event of a security breach. He does, however, mention the need for Uber to take responsibility.
“Contract should have a clause on handling security breaches,” he wrote in a January 6 email. “In the event of a breach, we should have the leverage for the vendor to cover breach notification, etc.”
Further details discussing security and privacy concerns do not appear in the obtained e-mails and will not be known until the contract is finalized and released. One stipulation which is likely to appear was mentioned: all the student data is to be purged from Uber’s archives once the contract ends.
Uber’s university partnerships are nothing new. The slides attached to the e-mail conversations boast of multiple success stories like the University of Florida. That program, which was in place in the 2015 spring and summer semesters, similarly offered a 50 percent discount for students and faculty using a “[p]romo code [that] unlocks a UF button visible only on campus that goes live during active hours” — between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. on Wednesday through Saturday. The slide said that UF is “exploring a longer term program.”
UF did not immediately respond to requests to confirm that information.