General

Mirra Meyer, 1942-2019

My mother, the artist Mirra (Louella) Meyer, passed away on Friday, April 16.  The story of her life, with images of her work, are here.

 

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.

Why Invest in Lyft or Uber? What Am I Missing?

Lyft has completed its Initial Public Offering, and at this writing the price has since fallen 35%.  Uber’s IPO is expected soon.  Both will now be publicly traded companies, reliant on many people’s judgments about whether they can be good investments.  Uber loses billions of US dollars every year, while Lyft, which is smaller but growing faster, is getting close to losing $1 billon/year for the first time.

Why invest in these companies?

Anyone who says “Amazon lost money too at first” is just not thinking about transportation.  Amazon can grow more profitable as they grow larger, because they can do things more efficiently at the larger scale.

Uber and Lyft are not like this, because their dominant cost, the driver’s time, is entirely unrelated to the company’s size.   For every customer hour there must be a driver hour.  Prior to automation, this means that no matter how big these companies get, there is no reason to expect improvement on their bottom line.  Any Uber or Lyft driver will tell you that these companies have cut compensation to the bone, and that they already require drivers to pay costs that most other companies would pay themselves, like fuel and maintenance.

If Uber and Lyft could rapidly grow their shared ride products, where your driver picks up other customers while driving you where you’re going, that could change the math.  But shared ride services don’t seem to be taking off.  My Lyft app rarely offers me the option, even when I’m at a huge destination like an airport, and when they do it isn’t much of a savings, which suggests that it’s not really scaling for them.

Of course Uber and Lyft could also go into another business, such as bike and scooter rental, but in doing that they’re entering an already crowded market with no particular advantage apart from capital.  The single-customer ride-hailing is the essence of why these companies exist, and there’s no point in investing in them unless you think that product can succeed.

Please correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me the possible universe of reasons someone would invest in these companies is the following:

  • Confusion about the basic math of ridehailing, outlined above.  Hand-waving comparisons to Amazon are a good sign that this mistake is being made.
  • Extreme optimism about Level 5 automation, which would indeed transform the math by eliminating drivers.  I no longer hear many people saying that commercial rollout of Level 5, in all situations and weathers, is imminent, as many people believed around the time Uber and Lyft were founded.   (And no, it makes no sense to have a huge crew of drivers ready to take the wheel only when the weather looks bad.  Nobody can live on that kind of erratic compensation.)
  • A naive belief that if you love a product, or find it essential to your own life, it must therefore be a good investment (a rookie investing mistake).
  • A belief that while you don’t believe any of those three things, enough other people do that those people will drive the price up, and you can get out before they discover the truth.  If this goal were intended clearly and honestly, it would be Ponzi scheme.  So surely it can’t be that.

So I must be missing something.  What am I missing?

 

Want to work with us in the Washington DC area? Apply now!

We’re excited to announce that Jarrett Walker + Associates is once again in a position to grow our excellent team of skilled transit planners and analysts, this time in our Washington, DC area office. Applications are open through May 17, 2019, so read on for details, and don’t forget to share with anyone you know who might be interested! You can also view the posting over at the firm website.

Overview

JWA is seeking a transit planner/analyst to work in our Arlington, Virginia office (Washington DC area), currently located in Crystal City.  The position offers the potential to grow a career as a consultant in transit planning.  As a small firm, we can promote staff in response to skill and achievement, without waiting for a more senior position to become vacant.  Everyone pitches in at many different levels, and there are many opportunities to learn on the job.

Duties include a wide range of data analysis and mapping tasks associated with public transit planning.

About JWA

Jarrett Walker and Associates is a consulting firm that helps communities think about public transit planning issues, especially the design and redesign of bus networks.  The firm was initially built around Jarrett Walker’s book Human Transit and his 25 years of experience in the field.  Today, our professional staff of nine leads planning projects across North America, with an overseas practice including Europe and Australia / New Zealand.You can learn about us at our website (jarrettwalker.com) and at Jarrett’s blog (humantransit.org).  For a sense of our basic approach to transit planning, see the introduction to Jarrett’s book Human Transit, which is available online.

Required Skills and Experience

For this position, the following are requirements.  Please respond only if you offer all of the following:

  • Two or more years professional experience using the skills listed in this section, or formal training in these skills (such as at a college or university). Directly-applicable coursework is valuable but not essential.
  • Fluency in written and spoken English. In particular, an ability to explain analytic ideas clearly.
  • Understanding and experience with analysis and visualization of quantitative information.
  • Experience in spatial data analysis (GIS).
  • Experience working in Adobe Illustrator, particularly in applications related to mapping or cartography.
  • Experience in cartography, evidenced in at least one mapping sample that is clear, accurate, and visually appealing.
  • Availability to start training in our Portland office the week of July 15, and full-time work in our Arlington office soon after, at least 32 hours per week.
  • Willingness to travel occasionally for projects.
  • Legal ability to work in the US

Other Desired Skills and Experience

The following are desirable but not essential, and candidates with the required skills listed above but none or few of these desired skills are still encouraged to apply.If you have any of the following skills, please note them in your application.

  • Experience with public transit issues, especially related to planning. Please describe any such experience.
  • Experience and skill level using data analysis programming languages (particularly R). If you can, please share some details on projects to which you have applied data analysis programming skills, and how long you have been working with the language.
  • Experience and skill level working in GIS, particularly QGIS.
  • Experience and skill level in Adobe Creative Suite, particularly Illustrator and InDesign. If you can, please tell us about the types of documents you have created in either software, and how long you have been using them.
  • Experience using Remix or other transit planning software.
  • Experience in database analysis. (Postgres/PostGIS, MySQL, etc)
  • Expertise with transit-focused routing software, such as OpenTripPlanner or Conveyal.
  • Experience describing issues from multiple points of view, including the perspectives of different types of people, and different professions.
  • Graduate degree in urban planning, transportation, or a related field.
  • Foreign language ability. Spanish is especially useful but other language skills are valued as well.
  • Experience managing small groups.
  • Experience working with minority and disadvantaged communities.
  • Experience and comfort in public speaking. If this is a strong point, please share a link to a video of you giving a presentation to a relatively non-technical audience.

Compensation, Benefits and Place of Work

Compensation will depend on skills, but will start in the range of $25-40/hour depending on skills and experience.  Large raises in the first year are typical for excellent work. Our benefits program includes medical, dental, and disability insurance; a 401(k) program; subsidized and pre-tax transit benefits; paid sick leave; and paid time off.This position will require working out of our Washington, D.C., area office, located in Arlington, Virginia’s Crystal City area. JWA does allow employees to set work schedules that include working from home or other locations for some of their work time, but employees will be expected to work in the Washington, D.C., area office for most of their work hours. This position will likely require occasional travel, to work with clients directly, a few times per year, and a trip to Portland to work with staff in our main office once or twice a year.

How to Apply

To apply, please send the following materials to hiring@jarrettwalker.com.

  • 1-page cover letter, explaining your interest in the position.
  • 1- or 2-page resume, describing your relevant experience and skills.
  • Links or electronic files for up to three (3) samples of your work. If possible, please include a map, a piece of writing, and a demonstration of a spatial analysis. (A single sample may satisfy more than one of these requests.)
  • Contact information for 1 to 3 references who can attest to your experience with the skills listed above.
  • Please do not include any information about your prior compensation.

On your applications materials, please remove or redact any explicit information about your name, gender, or sex.

Diversity and inclusion

JWA follows an equal opportunity employment policy and employs personnel without regard to race, creed, color, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender expression, age, physical or mental ability, veteran status, military obligations, and marital status.This policy also applies to management of staff with regards to internal promotions, training, opportunities for advancement, and terminations. It also applies to our interactions with outside vendors, subcontractors and the general public.

Timeline

The deadline for applying is 11:00 pm Pacific Standard Time on Thursday, May 17. Submitting earlier is advantageous as we will review applications as we receive them.We will ask a select group of applicants to perform a simple analysis and mapmaking test on their own, and then to join us for an interview. The test will likely be assigned on May 24 and due on May 31. We wish to hold interviews (in person or by phone/web) the week of June 3-7. Thank you for reviewing this listing. Please share it with others you know who might be interested. We look forward to hearing from you.

Cleveland: Kicking Off a Transit Plan

(Photo:  GCRTA)

I’m just back from a week in Cleveland, where I introduced our new transit planning project to members of the transit agency board and began the process of working with staff to develop network concepts that will help the public think about their choices.  Press coverage of my presentation is here, here, and here.  The local advocates at Clevelanders for Public Transit are also on the case.

Cleveland is in a challenging situation.  The city has been losing population for years and most growth has been in outer suburbs that were designed for total car dependence.  Low-wage industrial jobs are appearing in places that are otherwise almost rural, requiring low-income people to commute long distances.

All this is heightening the difficulty of the ridership-coverage tradeoff.  The agency faces understandable demands to run long routes to reach remote community colleges and low-wage jobs, but because these services require driving long distances to reach few people, they are always low-ridership services compared to what the agency could achieve if it focused more on Cleveland and its denser inner suburbs.   There’s no right or wrong answer about what to do.  The community must figure out its own priorities.

To that end, we have helped the agency launch a web survey to help people figure out what the agency should focus on.  In April, we’ll release two contrasting maps that illustrate the tradeoff more explicitly, and again ask people what they think.  Only then will we think about developing recommendations.

If you live in Cuyahoga County, please engage by taking the survey!

 

A US Density Revolution?

These two things are connected!

In major cities and some states across the US, the tide seems to suddenly be turning in favor of density.  James Brasuell at Planetizen has a thorough survey of these efforts.  Read the whole thing.

An inescapable trend emerged in recent years and months: a large and growing number of communities are now engaged in comprehensive plans and zoning code revisions, and they’re doing that planning work in the hopes of creating a future that is fundamentally distinct from the 20th century model of planning.

But the revolution Brasuell describes is about much more than planning documents.  The story is political:  In response to the housing crisis, both city and state politicians are producing legislation that makes it easier to build densely by:

  • reducing off-street parking requirements, which makes denser development pencil out and can also make units more affordable
  • streamlining transit-oriented development, including around frequent bus corridors and
  • most controversially, allowing more density in neighborhoods that have long been legally protected as exclusively for single family homes.

All this is great news, not because everybody wants to live at high density but because more people want it than can currently afford it.  The extreme cost of living in dense and walkable cities is the sound of the market screaming at us to build more of them, and finally that’s becoming possible.

From a transit perspective, I have one note of caution when it comes to upzoning absolutely everywhere.  Most cities have places that are hard for transit to get to, and where a few more people will create transit demand that is very expensive to serve.  Sometimes they are physically hard to reach: long cul-de-sacs, squiggly streets, etc.  But sometimes too they are so sparsely populated that they are poor transit markets and adding a few more people isn’t enough to make them better.

Gentle upzoning of single-family areas — allowing second and third units on formerly single-family parcels — is mostly helpful, but not always in these tough spots.  In any case, serious density must be organized around the frequent transit network — bus and rail — so that more people end up in places where transit can be really useful to them.   Don’t know where yours is?  There should be a map of it somewhere, reflecting a policy adopted by both your transit agency and your city government!  It should be on the wall in both the transit agency and the city’s planning and traffic offices.  (See Chapter 16 of my book, Human Transit, for more on this tool.)

Transit is expensive.  It succeeds when it can run in straight lines through dense and walkable places, so that it has enough ridership over a short enough distance that it can afford high frequency.  A policy frequent network, agreed upon by the transit agency and the city government(s) and manifested in both zoning and traffic planning, was critical to jumpstarting the growth of transit in Seattle, which is now one of the US’s great success stories.  It could make a difference for your city too.

Bus Crashes Auto Show with Killer Ad

By Christopher Yuen

This coming weekend for the first time, GO Transit, Toronto’s regional transit agency, will be displaying one of their buses at the Canadian International Auto Show.  They’ve also made a fantastically theatrical ad touting an amazing technology that’s even better than the self-driving car.

Dramatic?  Yes, but only fitting for a densely populated city where nearly 50 percent of commutes into downtown are made by transit, and where the mobility of everyone is dependent on not everybody travelling in individual cars, self-driving or not.

Lyft Lobbying to Keep Cities from Governing Themselves

Portland’s mayor and transportation commissioner have blasted Lyft for lobbying the State of Oregon to prevent Portland from regulating to manage the impacts of Uber and Lyft on the city.  Their scathing letter to Lyft’s Chief Policy Officer Anthony Foxx (former Charlotte Mayor and USDOT secretary) is worth reading in its entirety.  It’s copied in full below.

The principle here is clear:  Dense cities have unique problems that arise from the shortage of space per person, which is what density is.  When state governments led by suburban and rural areas overrule dense cities, they are demanding that dense cities be governed as though they were country towns.  It’s not a cultural problem or an ideological problem.  It’s a geometry problem.  

Outer suburban and rural areas don’t experience a severe shortage of space on streets, so it’s understandable that they see Uber and Lyft mostly as great companies offering a great product.  Only dense cities experience the severe downside: increased vehicle trips due to repositioning movements from one job to the next, and a shift of customers into cars from more sustainable modes like transit, walking and cycling.

Only dense cities understand the problems of dense cities.  They have to be able to act to address those problems.


Here’s the full text of the letter from Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and Transportation Commissioner Chloe Eudaly:

February 4, 2019

 

The Honorable Anthony Foxx

Chief Policy Officer and Senior Advisor

Lyft

185 Berry St., Suite 5000

San Francisco, CA 94107

 

Mr. Foxx,

In 2015, the City of Portland, Oregon established an innovative pilot program to evaluate whether Transportation Network Companies (TNC) should be added to Portland’s existing private for-hire transportation system. In taking this approach, we wanted to give Portlanders access to a new transportation option while ensuring that TNCs served all Portlanders safely, fairly and reliably.

As one of the two TNCs to take part in the pilot, Lyft was a model participant. When issues or concerns arose, Lyft worked closely with the City of Portland to resolve them. This collaborative spirit was one of the primary reasons why our City Council decided to make TNCs permanent in January 2016. In the ensuing three years, Lyft was a good corporate citizen, including promptly paying over $52,000 in fines after failing to properly track the number of drivers on your platform, and worked closely with the City to deliver a convenient, safe transportation option.

Until now.

We have been dismayed to learn that Lyft is behind the effort to pass a bill to eliminate local consumer, safety and disability-access protections for people who use Lyft and other TNCs. If your lobbying efforts were to succeed, Portland would no longer be able to manage our transportation system to best support the mobility, safety, accessibility, sustainability, and equity needs of our City.

To be frank, we are puzzled by this. After all, you were a mayor and certainly appreciate the important role that cities have in managing their transportation systems. In addition, when you were appointed to your position at Lyft, you noted that, “Lyft has led the industry with its collaborative approach to working with regulators….”  As a company, Lyft has committed to bold sustainability goals and to creating a world designed for people, not cars. Finally, when Lyft co-Founder and President John Zimmer visited Portland last year, he reinforced these values and his interest in working with cities on transportation innovation, whether by car, bike, or scooter.

Your current efforts to avoid local consumer protections and skirt policies that ensure that TNC rides are safe for all passengers and accessible to people with disabilities run completely contrary to your stated positions and the positions of the company you represent.

Specifically, the bill Lyft has proposed and is attempting to pass would eliminate the ability of every Oregon city from taking the following common sense steps to protect TNC passengers:

  • Requiring thorough background checks for TNC drivers and mandating that Lyft and other TNCs ban drivers who pose a danger to the public.
  • Prohibiting companies from charging passengers with disabilities higher prices during busy times.
  • Conducting field safety audits to ensure that vehicles are reliable and do not pose a danger to passengers.
  • Requiring that Lyft and other TNCs do not discriminate against passengers based on their race, ethnicity, religion and other factors.
  • Conducting spot checks to verify that drivers are who they say they are.
  • Adopting regulations to provide better service for people with disabilities and low-income people.
  • Issuing permits to make sure that Lyft and other TNCs follow the law.
  • Creating programs to investigate when Lyft and other TNCs provide poor service.
  • Penalizing companies and drivers when they endanger, discriminate against or otherwise fail to provide safe, fair and reliable service to passengers.
  • Adopting regulations aimed at supporting drivers and consumers, including establishing insurance minimums.
  • Collecting local data, which is critical for understanding congestion and climate impacts.
  • Charging local fees necessary to maintain the consumer protections that have been established.
  • Establishing related programs and policies that advance safety and mobility goals.

In Portland, we have successfully protected the health and safety of private-for-hire passengers for over a century. We firmly believe that local governments are best positioned to provide oversight and management of their transportation systems and to ensure that safety, equity and sustainability goals and commitments are met. This has never been truer than with the emergence and rapid growth of the TNC industry. This proposed legislation is contrary to this bedrock philosophy that the best oversight of the transportation system and the private-for-hire industry is local.  Not only that, but it is a disservice to passengers, drivers and the general public who expect safe and reliable service and who are expecting you to stand by your sustainability and community commitments.

We look forward to a modification in Lyft’s position on this Oregon legislation.

Sincerely,

 

Ted Wheeler,  Mayor

Chloe Eudaly, Commissioner of Transportation

Washington DC: What I’m Doing This Week

I am in snowy Washington DC this week, wondering if there will be any air traffic controllers by the time I need to get home, but meanwhile, I’m at the famous Transportation Research Board (TRB) Annual Meeting through Wednesday, and then at the World Bank’s Transforming Transportation conference on Thursday and Friday.

If you have suggests for cool things I should do, the fastest way to reach me is Twitter, @humantransit, and the second fastest is the email button somewhere in the bar on the right.  Comments on this blog are reviewed on a slower timeline.

This (Tuesday) afternoon at 3:45-5:30 pm I’m on a panel called “Transit Fightback: Pushback on Technology Hype for Stronger City Futures.”  Bravo to Professor Graham Currie for insisting on this title, which accurately conveys that despite all the good talk of partnerships and synergies, many of technology marketing’s effects are partly hostile to the success public transit, and thus to the efficient provision of freedom and opportunity in dense cities.  Some of these effects are inadvertent while others are intentional, but all of them are destructive.  While there are deals to be negotiated between transit agencies and tech companies, transit agencies need to come at these negotiations with confidence, and tech marketing is doing much to undermine that confidence especially at the political level.  So I’ll talk about that.

Thursday at the World Bank Transforming Transportation Conference (registration required) I’ll also be on a panel about “Integrated Transport in the Era of New Mobility and Impacts on Existing Urban Systems,” which is much more polite way of saying basically the same thing.  That’s 2:30-4 pm.  We’ll talk about the explicit threats to the just and functional city potentially caused by technologies such as TNCs and microtransit. Should be fun.