Uber’s UberPool service, which attempts to gather multiple people on a single vehicle going the same way, is undergoing some tinkering that will make it even more like fixed route transit. Andrew J. Hawkins at Verge has the story:
[UberPool riders] are being prompted to walk to the closest corner or intersection for more convenient pickups, rather than have drivers deviate from their north-south route.
The same goes for drop-offs, where riders are being let out at a proximate corner rather than the exact address of their destination. Uber calls it “dynamic drop-offs,” but the result is pretty plain. If you want those cheaper fares, you’re going to have to be cool with a lot more walking. Uber began testing this feature last year, and has since rolled it out in wider use.
Does the difference between these images remind you of anything?
Walking further for more direct, useful, and affordable service is the basic deal that fixed route transit has offered for more than a century.
What’s more, if you walk to the bus instead of to UberPool, you can get on any bus instead of waiting for your specific UberPool to arrive.
UberPool would be less absurd if we were talking about somewhere other than Manhattan, or any other big city that’s rich in frequent transit. In places with less transit, this concept could have some use. But in big cities it’s clearly converging on something for which fixed route transit is already the ideal tool.
Now, New York City bus service has some problems, especially in the delay-ridden way that they handle fares. I am not defending specific practices of any agency. But the geometry remains what it is. If you want affordable transit service, you’re going to have to walk to it. That’s the math that makes fixed route service inevitable.
Transit people all over the world have understood this since long before Uber’s CEO was born. They’ve also known about the concept of demand responsive transit, which means “transit that is extremely inefficient because of the degree to which it deviates or circulates based on the needs of a single person.” Demand responsive service is so inefficient that it arises only in these contexts:
- extremely low-wage environments, as in parts of the developing world, or:
- focused on elites who can pay high fares, as in typical Uber or Taxi operations, or
- for special-needs groups, such as the disabled and seniors, or for other groups that have the power to demand it, always at astronomical subsidies per rider. (Costs per rider for this kind of service, called paratransit in North America, typically run about 10 times the rate for well-designed fixed route service.)
All the new apps have helped smooth out inefficiencies of communication, but they will never change the math. Technology never changes geometry.
As UberPool gradually discovers this, the question becomes: Did Uber, and similar companies, really invent anything at all? They invented apps, and algorithms, but do they have any new answers for the geometry problem that is urban transportation?
(Yes, I said almost exactly this in a post two years ago! But one needs repetition to break through all the noise)