Uber, Lyft Have Opportunity to Complement Local Transit Networks

Hailing a ride

We hear a lot about how Uber and Lyft are impacting traditional taxis, but what of their potential impact on public transit?

Tech-enabled ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft already appear to be acting as a complement to public transit. Uber analyzed its Los Angeles trip data to in this light. Over the course of a month, Uber found that 22 percent of trips taken near Metro stations took place during rush hour (between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. Monday through Friday). This data could be telling us that people are using Uber like they might use bikeshare, as a last-mile and first-mile connection to transit.

Transit doesn’t serve certain areas well, or even at all. In such places, ride-hailing can make a public transit trip more attractive than driving by offering an easy connection between home and the transit system. Once the initial barrier is reduced, riders may find transit to be the best option.

On the other hand, ride-hailing could actually be stealing riders from transit. If the same trip can be completed in less time with an Uber or Lyft than using the Metro, some riders will choose the speedier option. However, at the moment, it is unlikely that hordes of people will abandon transit for ride-hailing simply because transit is still less expensive.

But, with the advent of Lyft Line and UberPool, that cost difference may become less of an issue. These services start to resemble traditional buses in that they are picking up and dropping off strangers along a route. While not exactly synonymous, one could see the development of higher capacity vehicles lowering cost and converging more and more with transit buses. The popularity of these services is clear. In the first two months of its service in San Francisco, one third of all Lyfts are Lyft Lines.

Lyft founders

John Zimmer and Logan Green, co-founders of Lyft

Do we have to worry about the imminent demise of public transit? By no means. But it would do transit agencies well to take a hint from some of the more enterprising traditional taxi operators: look at the incursion of new transportation options as a challenge to improve service. Reduce wait times, upgrade vehicles, and make travel more convenient by using technology like GPS tracking to display next bus and train arrivals.

Transit agencies should indeed be very excited about these new complementary transportation options to their own services. If ride-hailing companies can cut total vehicle trips in congested areas, they can work side-by-side with local officials and planners to improve the quality of life in places where Uber, Lyft, and public transit coexist.

Photos by davejdoe and JD Lasica.

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11 Comments or Mentions

9 Comment(s)

Steve Yaffe

I’m open to this idea – but one key and one caveat:
1. The key is curb space. Localities have a responsibility to control curb space, especially near metrorail stations. Ballston Metro doesn’t have enough room for buses, much less other demands. Curb space is allocated primarily to transit buses, but also to taxi stands, carshare stands (e.g. Zipcar), business loading zones, and parking meters. To bring Uber and Lyft into this mix:
a. Specific spaces near transit hubs would need to be designated for the use of Transportation Networked Companies, though perhaps necessary only during peak periods.
b. These TNCs need the discipline and self-control to only use spaces designated for them. They would have to prove to localities that they have the procedures and commitment to inform and command their drivers to comply.
c. TNCs are forbidden from using taxi stands (but some TNC drivers do anyway). A TNC stand should not be adjacent to a taxi stand. Otherwise, the police might be breaking up fights.
2. Caveat: Transit can suggest to consumers that they could choose to use TNCs – availability of three companies would constitute choice – but a public agency can’t contract with TNCs. They aren’t accessible to the general public – one must use a smartphone and be ambulatory. They also don’t have a thorough understanding of Risk, which could leave a sponsoring public agency liable as a secondary target in case of an accident to the driver. For example, a TNC ride doesn’t define the end of the ride as when the rider is on the sidewalk or at least off the street.

Jarrett Walker

I would love to believe Chris’s view on this, but it’s not what’s actually happening.

Uberpool and Lyftline could be excellent complements to transit if they confined themselves to suburban areas where the built environment is hostile to fixed route transit service. But they don’t want to do that, because the reason the car-based suburbs are hard for transit also makes them hard for shared-ride services. Uberpool and Lyftline want to swarm the inner city where they undermine transit instead of complementing it, with the result that they would shrink the constituency for fixed route transit and thus encourage its continued neglect and decline.

The long term effect of that would be to increase Vehicle Miles Travelled, and therefore inner-city congestion and emissions, as highly efficient fixed route services fall apart from political neglect (and competition for street and curb space) and everyone is forced to traveller in smaller and therefore more numerous vehicles.

I would like to understand how Uber and Lyft are expected to transition from their Randian-libertarian culture, which sees public transit (and local government in general) with barely disguised contempt, to a collaborative role. I’ve listened to the way they talk to themselves, and they are often quite explicit about wanting to draw people away from public transit, which inevitably means higher VMT.

Undermining transit is easy for these companies because transit agencies operate under massively expensive regulatory burdens that these companies are free of — not just labor arrangements that provide a middle class lifestyle for staff, but also the Americans with Disabilities Act, which claims 20-40% of most transit agency budgets for paratransit for the severely disabled. With such an distorted playing field, direct competition between Uberpool/Lyftline and fixed route transit will yield an equilibrium that is not a reflection of true efficiency or sustainability.

It is certainly possible that the tools of shared-ride services could be tamed by regulation to create a level playing field with transit agencies. For example, ADA could be rewritten so that the financial burden of disabled paratransit is spread over all transit and shared-ride operators, public and private. And as Steve Yaffe points out, there need to be rules about curb space and bus lanes, and labor laws that provide some parity between the experience of Uberpool/Lyftline drivers and those in the conventional transit sector. But I see no sign of that happening in the US, and I see the purveyors of these services doing everything they can to prevent it.


“These services start to resemble traditional buses in that they are picking up and dropping off strangers along a route. While not exactly synonymous, one could see the development of higher capacity vehicles lowering cost and converging more and more with transit buses.”

Surprised not to see a mention of Leap or Bridg, two companies whose explicit business model is to use higher-capacity vehicles to supplement (or supplant?) traditional transit. From what I can tell, they look to provide more regular, transit-like service for commuters (though still on-demand) rather than the more unique trips for which people take Uber/Lyft.

Leap is expensive enough ($6/trip) that its client base probably doesn’t use transit anyway, but Bridg ($3/trip) is so far priced competitively with, say, the DC metro.

Paul Mackie

Some really good and important points brought up here in the Comments section. These will hopefully be the next generation of stories discussed in the press and beyond on Uber/Lyft/City issues.

Jarrett points out that these companies will be really useful in less urban places. My hometown of Edwardsville, Illinois has a population of about 25k and is about 30 minutes northeast of St. Louis. Very interesting to see that UberX is launching there, and I can see it working really well. http://m.theintelligencer.com/mobile/local_news/article_cd054890-d4b2-11e4-9a6e-a78fdd1d44c3.html

On practically the same day, curiously, about $9 million in annual cuts to transit are being proposed for Madison County, where Edwardsville is located. That would mostly be bus service, based on my knowledge of what exists there. And possibly bike trails.

Would be interesting to explore how much of a larger trend this phenomenon of “Uber in/transit out” is in places that are more rural or suburban and haven’t traditionally had great transit.

Chris Plano

I agree with Paul – a lot of good points being made here. I’ll add a couple:

1. One reason Lyft and Uber aren’t successful in the suburbs is because nearly everyone owns a vehicle of their own; the built environment demands it. However, many people in DC and other transit-rich places can do without owning a car. But, as Jarrett mentions, what happens when transit deteriorates to the point that it is no longer a viable option? I would expect Uber/Lyft to become more popular, until congestion is so bad that people demand transit investments. Ideally, we nip this in the bud and keep improving transit. And also regulating ride-hailing. Uber/Lyft drivers are seeing their wages decline, and truly they do have an unfair advantage in the marketplace.

2. To really understand Paul’s “Uber in/transit out” trend, we need to collect data about ridership and LOS before and after Uber/Lyft come into a city. Anyone volunteering?

Janae Futrell

These modes are certainly starting to blend together, and we could possibly see a substantial transformation 2 years from now, for example. I think if this was documented as a before/after TNCs scenario, categorizing metro areas by relative density would be key. For example, some may be looking at this situation through the lens of cities such as DC and NYC with higher density and, therefore, more efficient transit networks and taxi services. Metro areas such as Atlanta have an uphill climb in providing effective transit due, in part, to the lower density context. Furthermore, the Atlanta taxi system is not as robust as in other cites due to the lack of demand for taxis. A number of factors (high car ownership rates, ample/cheap parking, etc.) contribute to taxis not being as attractive. This has resulted in a lack of supply of taxis, which then led to a lack of reliable, affordable, and timely service (they have largely operated on a calling reservation basis with a 20 minute wait time, it is very difficult to flag down a taxi even in the urban core). In the type of context Atlanta is within (other metro areas such as LA might fall within this category), TNCs are less of a transit competitor and more of a complement. Core transit users will see TNCs as an occasional mode option (for groceries, important meetings, etc.) and/or for first/last mile connectivity. Non transit users will see TNCs as a new opportunity. In Atlanta, TNCs provide a significant improvement to the existing taxi options (though I do understand some of the caveats Steve Yaffe mentioned) and a more affordable way to achieve first/last mile connectivity. The combination of all these options (transit, taxi, TNC, also walking, cycling, carpool/vanpool, etc.) makes shifting away from car ownership/single occupant trips more of a possibility in the Atlanta metro. Working on how these non-single occupant (non-SOV) modes can function together more effectively as a connective network will improve movement around the less dense metro contexts of the US. These changes are happening, and responding to them strategically with the end game in mind (for some, this may be an increase in non-SOV trips with acceptance of a variety of modes) is key for the transition we are facing.

Steve Yaffe

Janae, you hit it. Walk/bikeshare to the bus stop or transit station to/from work and to the store. Taxi/TNC from the store if overladen with bags or if traveling in a small group. Shuttle/Bridj from the transit hub to the office/industrial park. Carpool/vanpool from the neighborhood to office/industrial park. Provide/allow a variety of options so that people can use what works for the circumstance.

In some neighborhoods, a point-deviation system might be used to feed a transit hub, senior center, grocery store, medical building. That might work even if operated with a vehicle as small as a Dodge Sprinter operated by a taxi driver who has a TNC smartphone as well. The driver would want to restrict his operation to a small area, to serve many short trips rather than a few long trips that clog the central business district. However, that Sprinter needs to be accessible and the driver needs training in passenger assistance techniques and disability sensitivity. To maximize the clientele, the driver needs to be reachable by a variety of technologies. To encourage this first mile/last mile technique, the transit hub requires frequent service. To avoid splitting a small market and disenfranchising those who don’t use smartphones or have disabilities, the TNCs may need to offer another variation to their business model. More team players are welcome. However, skimming the cream off the top is not helpful.

I wonder if LyftLine and Uberpool are basically vanpool/carpool competitors where most of the trips are one-shots in each peak period, driven by people who work in the central business district. If so, good luck, If not, the economics may not be sustainable

Monique Wahba

Great discussion. I share the concerns about the unlevel playing fields and crowding our cities with these vehicles just when we’re making real gains in reducing VMT and making biking more viable. Does anyone know how taxis fit into transportation planning? I never worked where we factored them in.



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