Do Uber and Lyft Want to Connect to Transit?

Uber and Lyft — especially Lyft — want you to think that they are partners of public transit, eager to help more people get to rapid transit stations.  Lyft and Uber have both created partnerships with transit agencies to provide “last mile” service.  When people talk about the “last mile” problem of access to transit (a problem that exists mostly in suburban areas or late at night) Lyft and Uber are eager to seem part of the solution.

I would like to believe this.  Here are two reasons I don’t.

  1.  Uber/Lyft Drivers Don’t Want Short Trips

First, no Uber or Lyft driver really wants to offer a “last mile” because a mile is too short a trip to make sense to them.  The hassles of each trip are constant regardless of the trip’s length, so long trips are always preferred.  In the old days of taxis, whenever I booked a taxi ride to a transit station, the driver always pitched me to give me a ride all the way to my destination.  And if I approached a long taxi queue at a suburban rail station and told the driver I wanted to go a mile, he’d be unhappy to say the least, because he spent a lot of time waiting for my fare.

That’s why the partnerships between Uber/Lyft and transit agencies for “last mile” service inevitably involve public subsidy, which means that they compete with other kinds of transit service for those funds.  (This can be OK if transit agencies have really decided that this is the best use of funds given all of their other needs.)

2.  Uber/Lyft Drivers Can’t Find Transit Station Entrances

Uber and Lyft drivers mostly use mapping software that can’t find many transit station entrances.  If connecting with transit were a critical part of their business, this would have been fixed by now.

The nearest rapid transit station to my home in Portland (Bybee Blvd) looks like this:

This is a typical suburban arrangement (although this is not really suburbia).  The station is alongside a highway (labeled McLoughlin Blvd.).  The pedestrian access to the station is from the overpass. The little roofs are the elevators and stairs.

But the mapping apps think that the station entrance is on the highway.

So it is impossible to call Uber or Lyft to this station, because the software tells the driver to go down the highway, where all they’ll find is a fence.  I can text them to correct it, but not all drivers pay attention to texts (nor should they, while driving.)  And even if I correct it, I’ll then wait an extra 10 minutes as they get themselves turned around and navigated to the right spot.

This is the example I deal with all the time, but I’ve found many suburban rail stations in many cities where drivers don’t have clear directions about station locations.  For example, call Lyft or Uber to Van Dorn Metro Station in Alexandria, Virginia, and you can expect the driver to wander all over the adjacent interchange.

Some people clearly need to go to work accurately coding the location of every entrance to every transit station, but it’s clearly not being done.  Why not?  It must not be that important to these companies.

So Do Uber and Lyft Want to Go to Transit?

It makes sense that Uber and Lyft would want to do long trips to rapid transit, more than a few miles.  For example, in San Francisco, Uber and Lyft do a good business to regional rapid transit stations (BART and Caltrain) but since each system has only one line in the city, these can be trips of several miles (often competing with the abundant local bus and light rail system).

And Uber and Lyft certainly want to be subsidized to do more “last mile” work, via partnerships with transit agencies.

But the drivers’ inability to find transit station entrances — and the fact that this problem has been tolerated for years — is what really decides it for me.  Companies that really want to connect with transit would have made sure that they can navigate a driver to any entrance of any rapid transit station.  But they don’t.

17 Responses to Do Uber and Lyft Want to Connect to Transit?

  1. Brian April 18, 2019 at 6:24 pm #

    With regards to your second point, it seems like this could be handled using GTFS. The stops.txt file can contain stops with location_type=2, which indicates “a location where passengers can enter or exit a station from the street”. I looked at TriMet’s GTFS stops.txt file, and “SE Bybee Blvd MAX Station” doesn’t contain any stops of location_type=2. I suspect Google Maps (and others) would direct car users to those locations if asked for driving directions.

  2. F April 19, 2019 at 5:29 am #

    You can solve this problem manually in the Lyft app by moving the pickup location until the right thing shows up. (I do this when I’m on campus and want the driver to pick me up on the nearest actually drivable street.)

    This has nothing to do with your point but may be practically useful 🙂

  3. Kyle B. April 19, 2019 at 6:15 am #

    In the early days of Uber / Lyft when I lived in DC, drivers would get hopelessly lost on Rock Creek Parkway, because of the geography the cell or GPS service doesn’t work well there. I put up with it because there wasn’t a good way to call other cabs to my location.

    I would like to think that this inability to find things is a problem of new drivers not knowing the area, but we’re all conditioned to follow the GPS when its on, so they’d be better off fixing their maps.

  4. JJJJ April 19, 2019 at 8:34 am #

    The mapping issue is actually one of the challenges of self-driving cars that is rarely discussed. You see this all the time in suburban areas where the destination is mapped as a point on a highway, rather than the actual parking lot or entrance

  5. jeff wegerson April 19, 2019 at 9:27 am #

    I agree entirely.

    Their business model is computer app based. It would behoove them to attend to the details you describe if their motives were as they claim. Sure there are GPS errors. But that would then be a known problem and specific work-arounds would be attempted.

  6. Jonathon April 19, 2019 at 9:54 am #

    Another simple fix that hasn’t been tried- Uber/Lyft make a lot of sense as a last mile in parts of LA that are unreachable by off-peak public transit- in order to avoid waiting at poorly protected stations, the best course of action would be to request a ride a few stations before reaching the end of the rail line (or your desired endpoint). It would be incredibly easy for either app to simply track the train you’re riding (as they only run every 15-20 minutes) and match a driver to the train’s arrival at the end of the line, but this has never been thought through.

    • asdf2 April 20, 2019 at 4:37 pm #

      For years, I’ve been doing the following trick. When I’m on a train, a stop or two back, I’ll spoof my GPS location to the station where I will get off, then request the ride. If I time it right, the driver will be pulling in right as I get off. Worst case, I misjudge and have to pay an extra 50 cents to make the driver wait a couple of minutes.

      Ideally, the app would make this process easier, especially since there should be obvious ridematching opportunities to group together multiple pool trips with people coming off the same train. Technologically speaking, it shouldn’t be that difficult for the app to infer from a combination of GPS, will fi, and real time transit feeds that you are probably on a light rail train.

  7. Wade Wietgrefe April 19, 2019 at 6:56 pm #

    Connect? No. Compete? Yes. From Uber’s Form S-1 Registration Statement with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, April 11, 2019: “Our Personal Mobility offering competes with … public transportation, which typically provides the lowest-cost transportation option in many cities.” “We view our market opportunity in terms of a total addressable market (“TAM”), which we believe that we can address over the long-term”. “We include all passenger vehicle miles and all public transportation miles in all countries globally in our TAM”. Basically, they seek to take over trips currently served by public transportation.

  8. Joe, A 12 for Transit April 19, 2019 at 10:59 pm #

    Thank you Jarrett. With all the sound made about UBER’s public filings they consider public transit a threat to their business model, this post is incredibly helpful. I mean how hard is it for these agencies to program pickup and drop-off spots for at least light rail and heavy rail/commuter rail transit stops?

    Furthermore, I don’t find a lot of appeal in taking a UBER or LYFT since I feel I have to help the driver navigate most of the journey. A transit operator? Of course not, I can just mind my own business and as you Trimet folks say, respect the ride.

  9. Mike April 20, 2019 at 9:39 am #

    Or we could have drivers that know about local geography. It’s hard to believe that a driver who’s not brand-new hasn’t taken somebody to the station before. Did they forget where the entrance is? Do they trust GPS blindly? Does the company force them to use GPS? The companies should require, maybe not a comprehensive knowledge of the city like London’s cabbies, at least the knowledge of where the dozen or two most-used transit stations are.

  10. asdf2 April 20, 2019 at 4:44 pm #

    What I’ve tended to fine is, transit hubs where Uber and Lyft get a ton of pickups, their drivers are able to find the way. Sometimes, the app will even detect that you’re at a transit station and suggest a recommended pick up point.

    It’s when you’re at a lessor-used hub when the app gets confused because the engineers haven’t bothered to progy the local knowledge into it.

    That said, I’m surprised this is happening in Portland. Just a few hours north in Seattle, Uber and Lyft seem to have no trouble finding the light rail stations to pick people up, and I see tons of Uber and Lyft cars doing pick ups and drop offs there, whenever I pass through. Since the light rail goes to the airport, a $10 TNC ride to connect to the train has proven to be a very attractive budget option for travelers with luggage.

  11. Chris April 22, 2019 at 11:43 am #

    I was in a Lyft on Friday and the driver was talking about how he prefers short trips. They get the maximum of the per/mile +per/time charge or $3 so he prefers to string together lot’s of shorter trips. Also, long trips tend to be associated with a dead-head back to the pick-up area. He was operating in a transit-poor city (Cincinnati) but given we’re talking anecdotes…

  12. Stephen Hulsizer April 22, 2019 at 9:26 pm #

    I recently used a Lyft. The driver took a round about route as directed by the computerized map in the photo mode. If he had looked in the map mode he might have seen several short cuts, or better yet used a paper map book which would have made these short cuts painfully obvious. Computer maps tend to show only right angle routes or favor freeways which are often much longer than necessary.

  13. Andrew April 23, 2019 at 10:46 am #

    I drive for Lyft on the side. There’s definitely a continuum of optimal trip lengths. Short 1-mile trips are frustrating; while the minimum $3.75 (DC min payout) is easily attainable, the time it takes to get another ride is largely dependent on your location. In a “downtown” area this is very easy and stringing short trips together is ok, but the dead time between rides is too great. Similarly, long rides are only optimal dependent on location. Taking a 30 min trip out to the airport is good because I’ll get someone heading back into the city. Otherwise, you can easily end up deadheading and needing to back track into the city, unless its a Friday or Saturday and people entering and exiting the city pretty consistently, especially in the late hours. Optimally, 10-15 min rides are best when trying to keep up good earnings and number of rides.

    Also, Lyft often does streak bonuses based on number of rides. So long rides are not good for this at all. Needless to say, optimal trip length really depends on your current location, the rider destination, and time of day.

    • Simon May 13, 2019 at 12:49 pm #

      Surely there are limits. If I’m starting from Newport, would an Uber driver really want to pick me up for a ride to London? Or Preston or Cambridge? Plus it costs hundreds of pounds. So of course I’m not going to Uber all the way, just to the railway station.

  14. asdf2 April 23, 2019 at 11:45 pm #

    There are a few cases where a non-intuitive travel option of using transit for first/last mile service and Uber/Lyft for a long-haul freeway trip can make sense.

    The basic use case I’m imagining is something like this. You’re leaving some huge event downtown at an odd hour, say, a baseball game ending at 10 PM. Buses are down to hourly, and the bus that goes to your neighborhood isn’t running at all anymore. But, light rail serves the stadium, is still running frequently, and has the capacity to handle the game crowds. The only trouble is, you need to go east, and the light rail only runs north/south. You could order a Lyft/Uber ride directly from the stadium, but you’re going to be standing around waiting for a long time while the driver inches forward in post-game traffic, behind all the other Uber/Lyft drivers ordered by everyone else. Plus, there’s likely to be surge pricing, which could make the ride home very expensive.

    So, the solution is to go ahead and hop on the light rail for a few stops, then order the Lyft/Uber ride somewhere away from stadium mayham, ideally at a station with quick freeway access. The fact that the train ride is 3 miles and the Lyft/Uber ride is 15 miles, or that a direct ride home from the stadium would have been the same 15 miles, is beside the point. The point is that you save time, by avoiding the local traffic congestion around the stadium, and money, by avoiding the surge pricing. As an added bonus, you can order the ride to pick you up at the station before you actually get there, so the driver pulls in right as you get off the train, and you don’t have to wait.

    Another case I can see this scheme working is trips home from the airport. Lots of airports have very heavy traffic congestion in the pick-up line, and many cities have airport transit which is either excellent if you’re headed in the direction of downtown, or terrible if you are headed in a direction away from downtown. If the transit out of the airport is sufficiently frequent, it can be useful to hop on it for a couple of stops, just to get away from the airport, even if it’s not really on the way home.

    Has anybody ever done tricks like this? One related trick I’ve used very successfully for airports that lack good transit service is hopping on a random hotel shuttle, just to get out of the airport, then ordering an Uber or Lyft ride from the hotel lobby to where I’m actually going. It avoids the airport traffic, it’s often several dollars cheaper, and the wait time is often less (since drivers picking up at the airport are usually required to wait off site, and are often closer to the hotel than the actual terminal).

  15. JD December 11, 2019 at 4:32 pm #

    I glanced through the comments and one point seems missing – both Uber and Lyft have business models that are destined to have a fleet of driverless vehicles. Not saying that this is good or bad, but eliminating the driver would make shorter trips more profitable – therefore, last mile to/from transit might be advantageous from the corporation’s perspective. These companies are positioning themselves to be ready for the driverless future and want to be at the front of every possible market when the technology becomes ready.