Caleb Pritchard at the Austin Monitor did a very clear writeup on my new talk on the impacts of microtransit (Bridj etc.) and ridesourcing (Lyft, Uber etc.) on public transit. In it, I push back hard on the notion that these services have any potential to “disrupt” public transit in any meaningful way, though there are potential synergies around the edges of transit’s mission.
Here’s the most important paragraph:
“There’s an enormous amount of public relations noise coming out of the tech industry, and most of it is directed towards people who don’t understand transit very well,” Walker said. “And transit leaders like yourselves really have to be able to confront that and say, ‘No. The fixed-route service, especially frequent fixed-route service, is doing something incredible that no tech innovators are doing or show any signs of doing.’”
I am sad I missed your talk at CapMetro on Monday. I was curious what your opinions are on the APTA’s report, “Shared Mobility and the Transformation of Public Transit”. It would seem that your view of ridesharing services like Lyft and Uber is a bit different from APTA’s. Are they just out-of-touch?
“All I can say is that as your city gets denser, this gets easier,” Walker replied.
Seriously? Everywhere in the world, denser cities have MORE traffic congestion.
Thank you Jarrett for sharing this article. Your comments are bang on.
I shared the Austin Monitor’s article to spread the word as I believe that it’s not just in Austin that this situation occurs.
In Ottawa, Canada when the city council debated changing the rules to allow Uber and similar services to operate our mayor said this new tech had the potential to revolutionize transit services and may allow the city to reduce bus purchases.
I think too many politicians hate having to provide transit to their constituents and will blindly follow anyone who promises to get rid of that.
It’s absurd when you consider that most of Ottawa’s population live in suburbs that were designed to avoid density and make bus service expensive. The problem is that ride “sharing” services require a grid network and density to be profitable. That will still be true if we get to fully autonomous cars.
And then of course all the points you raised are true.
Am typing this in a double decker commuting downtown and I can only imagine the amount of road space that would be required to shift the same amount of people into a car. Even with the proposal from Tesla which of course has other issues.
Certainly Jarrett is right that there is no substitute for the capacity of large vehicles on fixed routes, and absolutely no substitute when they’re given their own right-of-way.
But I think the old guard of transit are far too dismissive of shared vehicles. The impact of shared vehicles hinges on four things:
1. Autonomy will bring prices down dramatically. We don’t know how far away this is, but we do know that half of the cost of an Uber is the driver.
2. Network effects will reduce prices and increase utility. The more people use shared vehicles, the more likely a shared vehicle is to drop off a passenger when and where another passenger wants to be picked up. This saves time for the user and money for the company, as more and more minutes and miles are revenue generating. If the network gets big enough, you can start doing spontaneous point to point carpools. At this point, capacity per lane begins increasing, and price falls below that of using your own car (ignoring parking costs, of course).
3. The perspective of the user isn’t the same as the city (but the user has more power). From a city’s perspective, cars are a waste of space. From a user’s perspective, cars are the fastest way to get from A to B for almost any trip that isn’t covered by frequent transit with exclusive right of way or maybe even grade separation. That’s a lot of trips.
From the user’s perspective, car share gives the point to point, on-demand time savings of a car with the freedom from parking costs and hassle and the freedom to make one way trips usually afforded by transit. And the barrier to entry is vastly lower than that for car ownership. As we see in the many cities that are dense enough to warrant bus lanes but can’t get the space taken away from cars, the power rests with the majority, choosing speed for their particular journey. However,
4. Car share provides a density bridge.
The primary utility of car share is not along dense corridors with rapid, frequent transit, nor in places small enough that there’s always a parking spot and rarely traffic. It’s about cities where a car is a pain in the ass and a godsend all in the same day (which I’d venture to say is most major American cities).
Your average citizen mixes trips along major transit corridors, with trips to and from these corridors and trips crossing or completely separate from them. For the first type, the preferred mode is transit, but they’re likely to drive it simply because they need to have their car with them for another trip that’s at a time or place when transit serves them poorly. For the second type, transit is likely possible but slow, being stuck in traffic and not very frequent or direct, while a car isn’t any better, thanks to traffic and parking. The third type is typically awful by transit, and causes people to own cars and to use them for the first two types, in case their day leaves them in the third type.
Enter (autonomous) car share. The second type is its realm. No stops, no parking, no hassle. Then you’re free to use transit for Type 1, and should you run into Type 3, car share is perfectly good for that, too. If most of your life is transit, you don’t need to own a car. If most of your life is car, you don’t need to use it when your day would work better for transit. Plus there are trips like the walk to the grocery store, car share back with heavy groceries.
So I think car share has disruptive potential at medium densities, precisely the density hardest to serve by transit or car.
This is great news it should vastly reduce parking needs. This frees up street space for transit, bike lanes, or pedestrians. It gets rid of dead zones in urban areas, allowing for better uses, and greatly reduces the cost of living and working in dense areas for those who want the convenience of a car (or alternatively, increases the attractiveness of urban living for those who would like a wider range of places, times, and cargo than is realistic on public transit). It reduces the need for garages and street space in residential neighborhoods, and a major point of opposition to density. It could dramatically reshape the suburbs. In shopping areas, acres of parking could be replaced by a simple pullout, while it also solves last mile problems for rapid transit systems.
Further, if car or vanpooling can be done you could quadruple road utilization or more. This would bring prices down enough that transit agencies could drop expensive coverage routes and focus on corridors where transit’s capacity is most needed. More importantly, it would help cities grow through the awkward and painful stages to the point where they can afford and support real grade separated transit.
It’s an optimistic vision, I know. It’s not tomorrow. It is absolutely not replacing the New York Subway system. There’s a real risk that if people can sleep or work or entertain themselves while they drive, they’ll accept longer commutes and sprawl will worsen – there’s a whole dystopian potential I haven’t explored here. My goal is not to say that it will be like this or that, but to show that it very much could, and it would be quite different from today. I’m inclined to think it meshes well with an urban, car-lite lifestyle, and as such will be great for cities and, in the long run, transit.