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?

 

Interview by “The Rideshare Guy”

Harry Campbell, who calls himself “The Rideshare Guy,” runs a blog and podcast specifically for Uber and Lyft drivers.  In a new podcast, he interviews me a broad range of topics, not just Uber and Lyft.  He gets me going on how transit works, and how I got into the business, in addition to the effects of rideshare.

You can listen right here.  We get going at 3:20.

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.

US Congress Considering Freedom-Based Measures of Project Success

It’s hard to capture what good news this is.  Through a bipartisan bill, Congress is seriously considering a plan to give more weight to how proposed transit investments improve access to jobs and opportunity.  The bureaucratic word for this is accessibility, but I like to call it physical freedom, because the presence of meaningful choices in your life lies in whether you can get to them in a reasonable time, which is exactly what this measures.  From the Transportation For America website:

The incredibly blunt metrics that most planners or communities have used since the 1960s, like overall traffic congestion and on-time performance for transit, paint a grossly two-dimensional picture of the challenges people face while trying to reach jobs and services. They don’t provide sufficient information for agencies to make accurate decisions about what to build in order to best connect people to the places they need to go. These 1960s metrics lead to singular and expensive solutions (like highway expansions), while often failing to solve the problem or even creating new ones.

Today, precise new tools allow communities to accurately calculate accessibility to employment opportunities, daily errands, public services, and much more. These tools allow states and MPOs to better understand where people are traveling and to design transportation networks to maximize the ability of people to travel. It also allows states and MPOs to optimize their transportation networks to utilize all modes of transportation and even to understand how their investments interact with land use policies.

We use these tools all the time in our bus network redesigns, though we are limited, by available data, to studying access to jobs.  It is great to see people working on better data layers to capture errands, shopping, and so on.  I am not sure how much of this granularity is necessary, but it doesn’t hurt.

Implicit in this news is the idea that ridership prediction could decline in importance, which would be great news.  We are much too deferential to predictive algorithms for things that may not be predictable, such as human preferences and attitudes 20 or 30 years from now.

There’s one other caution.  When planning fixed infrastructure investment, hard thinking has to go into what facts from today are assumed to be permanent.  For example, when we talk about access to public services, will we just analyze outcomes based on the often terrible locations of these services, thereby enabling continued terrible location decisions?  If we dare to predict better urban form in response to public investments, on what basis will we predict that?

The conversation about access therefore needs to reflect on what aspects of urban form and location are likely to last for decades, like the larger scale urban form and the likely trip generation it implies.   (We may build more dense urban fabric, but we are unlikely to tear it down.)  This is another reason why too much granularity could distract us; it leads us back into obsessive descriptions of the present, some aspects of which could be different next year.

So this is difficult philosophical stuff.  I’m trying to grapple with it in the next book.  Feel free to nag me about how it’s going!

Greater Salt Lake City: Your Choices for Transit Service

Photo credit: Garrett, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

Utah Transit Authority (UTA) has launched Service Choices, a public conversation about the future of bus service in the big “Wasatch Front” metro area that includes Salt Lake City, Provo, Ogden, and everything around and between them.  We worked with UTA to develop the survey, and we’ll be helping them figure out how to develop a new vision for the bus network based on what they year.  Salt Lake Tribune covers the kickoff here.

The big question, of course, is the ridership-coverage trade-off.  Utah Transit Authority covers a huge area, with many suburban cities at a range of densities.  Spreading bus service over all of that area (to meet a coverage goal) would spread the service very thin, meaning poor frequencies and thus a service that not many people would find useful.  Concentrating service in high-density places, so that you can run high frequency there, is the key to a ridership goal, but that means no service to vast low-density areas.  We explain it in detail here.

As in the concurrent Cleveland study, we’re also asking about how coverage service should be deployed.  Given that UTA is going to run a certain amount of predictably low-ridership service for non-ridership reasons, should the priority for that service be:

  • addressing severe needs and equity?  This would focus coverage service on places of low income, high senior population or other indicator of need.
  • serving new horizontal development?  This would put service into newly developing area while they are still under construction.
  • providing a little service to everyone?  This would spread the service thinnest of all, but responds to the “we pay taxes too” argument for service.

The online survey is the most powerful way for lots of people to give us feedback, but there will also be putlic meetings and other outreach events, which will be posted here.

Please encourage everyone you know in the greater Wasatch Front area to engage with this study.  This outreach is not just for bus riders!  UTA works for every resident, every business, and every taxpayer, so everyone’s opinion counts.

 

Notes on SimCity at 30

Car oriented development looks a lot more viable when you hide all the parking!

Yes, the first attempt at a comprehensive city planning game, Sim City, is 30 years old.  Jessica Roy in the Los Angeles Times has a good piece on how the game helped turn people onto city planning …

Along the way, the games have introduced millions of players to the joys and frustrations of zoning, street grids and infrastructure funding — and influenced a generation of people who plan cities for a living. For many urban and transit planners, architects, government officials and activists, “SimCity” was their first taste of running a city. It was the first time they realized that neighborhoods, towns and cities were things that were planned, and that it was someone’s job to decide where streets, schools, bus stops and stores were supposed to go.

… while also reinforcing some bad 20th century ideologies.  Sim City …

  • conceals the impacts of parking, thereby making car-dependent development look more functional and attractive than it is.
  • requires single-use zoning.  You can’t live above your shop, or have a grocery store in your office building.
  • requires car access to every building.  Pedestrianized urban cores are impossible, no matter the density.
  • treats transit very superficially, not allowing the user to specify routes and frequencies, and giving the misleading impression that any kind of transit, anywhere, produces some vague benefit.  Thus there is nothing to stop you from common mistakes like building high density in culdesacs, where efficient transit could never get to it.

Recently, I did a quick look at available iPad city planning games.  I tried Megapolis, Designer City, Pocket City, and Sim City: BuildIt.   They’re all built on the same four fallacies, and their handling of transit ranges from comical to nonexistent.  (Sim City BuildIt actually starts with a greenfield freeway interchange, leaving no doubt what kind of city they expect you to build.)

My past articles on SimCity are here, here, here, and here.   Sim City gets credit as a pioneer, but it’s run its course.  I hope we see more planning games that try to get transportation right, and games that try to do transit in particular.  If you’re working on one, let’s talk!

  (Photo: BLDGBLOG)

 

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!