by James A. Bacon
The Uber/Lyft revolution is beginning to transform public transportation around the country. Other than in Arlington County, where county officials are considering replacing under-utilized bus lines with subsidized Uber service, little of this dynamism seems to be seeping into Virginia, however. Too bad. We’re missing a major opportunity.
Reports Spencer Woodman with The Verge:
Both Uber and Lyft have been striking agreements with transit agencies, mostly for so-called “first-last mile” programs — meant to shuttle commuters to bus or train stations. Since last year, Uber has scored public transit agreements with San Francisco, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh among other cities. Uber and Lyft have been edging into niche public transportation services, like transit for disabled people or low-income residents who need rides to work or the grocery store. Last month, officials in Washington, DC proposed having Uber respond to some 911 calls for ambulances.
Even Google’s Alphabet, through its Sidewalk Labs program, has joined the transit bonanza. The company recently offered to overhaul transit in Columbus, Ohio, with a system that sets parking prices based on demand and funnels low-income commuters into subsidized ride-share vehicles.
These companies are arriving at an opportune time for cities, many of which are struggling just to fund existing transit service, much less expand it to meet the needs of growing numbers of urban commuters. Both Uber and Lyft tell The Verge that the past year has seen a surge in public officials interested in giving the companies taxpayer dollars for public transit contracts. … Given the pace at which these partnerships are coming together, it’s possible to imagine ride-hailing companies taking on the role of all-encompassing smartphone-driven public transit providers, one town at a time.
The Uberization of transportation may prove to be a boon to mass transit. But it also raises ethical questions, notes The Verge. Catching a ride on Uber and Lyft requires two things that many poor people lack: a smart phone and a credit card. Shouldn’t subsidies be reserved for the poor, not better-off passengers who can afford iPhones and Capital One cards? Should transit agencies restructure themselves to serve Yuppies at the expense of people for whom mass transit may be their only transportation option?
Those are legitimate concerns, but they shouldn’t slow down the Uber Revolution. The smart phone-driven ride-hailing industry is still in its early phases of entrepreneurial innovation. It is the natural progression of things for entrepreneurs to target the affluent market first because that’s where the money is. As companies gain experience and establish economies of scale, they will move down-market to less affluent riders. In fact, that is already happening with Uber’s shared-ride programs. At some point the technology behind Uber and Lyft will become so ubiquitous that we’ll see all manner of entrepreneurs targeting under-served niches. If large numbers of people lack smart phones and credit cards, entrepreneurs will find ways to serve them.
It’s going to be a wild ride, and no one is quite sure where it is heading. In addition the Uber-Lyft revolution, there is the driverless car revolution, and the transportation-as-a-service revolution. Everyone from Ford, General Motors, Mercedes, Google and Tesla has ideas of how to reinvent transportation. It’s as if the transportation industry is being hit by three tsunamis simultaneously, not just one.
Here in Virginia, transportation planners at the state, regional and local level are behaving as if none of this is occurring. The same old transportation mega-projects are lumbering down the same bureaucratic approval pathways. Even as Virginia government at all levels experience chronic fiscal stress, they seem sublimely unconcerned by the implication of saddling themselves with Big Infrastructure projects that they know can never be self-supporting financially, that they know will require ongoing subsidies.
Just wait until the next recession. How many jurisdictions will be able to maintain money-losing transit operations? How many will find themselves pruning money-losing routes? How well will the poor be served by the inevitable cutbacks? Shouldn’t we at least be considering the transportation-as-a-service alternative?There are currently no comments highlighted.