Cities using ride-sharing services to supplement mass transit

Several pilot programs in American cities take advantage of the rise of ride-sharing companies:

Transit agencies, perennially strapped for cash, have embraced these pilot programs as a way to save money and, potentially, provide better service. Outside Tampa, for example, the East Lake Connector bus cost the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority about $16 per person per ride. Riders paid $2.25 each. That route has since been discontinued. In its place, starting this month, riders will pay $1 for an Uber, Lyft, or cab ride from anywhere in the county to the nearest bus stop. The transit agency will achieve the low fare by providing a $5-a-head discount.

And here is some criticism for such efforts:

There are serious concerns with such programs: For starters, the savings are in part derived from trading public-sector employees like bus operators for low-wage stringers like Uber drivers. For the most part, though, the partnerships have made bad service a little better. In Pinellas, for example, the program emerged in response to a 2014 referendum in which local voters declined to adopt a 1 cent sales tax in support of transit.

But now that chain of cause and effect is being reversed. The rise of ride-hailing companies is increasingly viewed not as a fix for bad service but as its justification. It is invoked, as you might expect, in bad faith by conservatives who have advocated against public investment for decades. But even pro-transit politicians and officials have begun to see ride-hailing services as an acceptable substitute for public transit. As a result, cities across the country are making important decisions about transportation that treat 10-year-old companies as fixed variables for the decades to come…

We’ve known for a while that Uber is unprecedentedly unprofitable, its $60 billion-plus valuation notwithstanding. But as we begin to make policy decisions based on it and its competitors’ impact, we have to recognize that this state of affairs can’t last. It is not just the taxi cartel that makes conventional cab rides cost more than Uber rides. It’s the patience and optimism of Silicon Valley investors. Maybe Uber will continue its shift into shared rides, which (as a prior generation of transportation operators learned 150 years ago) are more profitable. Or robot cars will eliminate driver jobs, dropping the marginal cost of providing rides (though adding billions in capital expenditures). But in any case, whether it achieves its desired market share or not, the company will have to start raising prices.

This criticism makes sense: mass transit is all about economies of scale and having large numbers of people following more fixed routes. Failing to build infrastructure now means there will be reduced mass transit options in the future.

But, I think there may be a larger issue that undercuts this criticism: what if large numbers of Americans don’t want to use mass transit, either when given other opportunities or they have enough resources on their own to get where they want or they don’t want to pay for it through taxes and municipal funds? Even with plateauing driving in recent years, this doesn’t necessarily mean Americans want to sacrifice their mobility or personal space to use mass transit more. If this is true, perhaps driverless cars are the true answer for individualized mass transit – not ride-sharing – as they would offer personal space and mobility but without the hassle of driving oneself. Of course, this could also destroy mass transit as we currently know it…

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