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.
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.