As venture capital-backed ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft continue to expand, there has been a lot of speculation on the impact of these services on transit. Will they replace transit services, as riders defect to faster car trips, or will they complement transit services, as riders use them for last mile connections? And, if riders who can afford to defect to ride-hailing services do so, will that lead to a vicious cycle of worsening transit, as decreasing ridership and political leverage cause further reductions in service?
On the first question, time will tell, but it seems like things could go either way. In congested cities, transit has considerable geometric advantages over cars, provided it has its own exclusive or semi-exclusive guideway. However, if transit does not have its own right-of-way or lanes, it offers little advantage over driving, and ride-hailing trips might replace transit trips. This could lead to a socially suboptimal Nash equilibrium, where everyone would be better off if some people took transit but no individual has the incentive to do so. (Ignore, for simplicity’s sake, the potential to introduce congestion charges, or the question if ride-hailing services will be able to scale and be profitable.)
In addition, many smaller cities in the US do not suffer from appreciable congestion, and in these places transit’s geometric advantages are less relevant. Again assuming they can be operated profitably, ride-hailing services might be able to capture some trips in these cities as well.
Does that spell disaster for transit services? I don’t think so. Voters in many US cities have shown their willingness to increase their own taxes to fund capital improvements to transit, even in cities with relatively low transit mode share like Los Angeles, Denver, and San Jose. While funding for operations and maintenance remains a major issue for many agencies, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think that voters could be persuaded to fund O&M as well. (In LA, at least, some funds from voter-approved measures do go to operations.)
There is also concern that loss of ridership to ride-hailing services would reduce mixing of classes that occurs on transit but not in other transportation modes. Transit itself usually already has an informal hierarchy that separates classes, with commuter rail at the top, followed by rapid transit, and then local bus. (There’s even stratification within modes; I’ve had people tell me why the Ventura County Line is a better Metrolink line to ride than then Antelope Valley Line.) So ride-hailing services may reduce class mixing, though mixing and interaction are not the same thing. A person is probably more likely to talk to their taxi driver or ride-sharing companion than a random person on a transit vehicle.
However, even interaction does not compel understanding. It’s usually remarkably easy to get people to open up and talk about their lives if you want to listen. It’s even easier to just make small talk, or not talk at all. Meaningful interaction with different people only happens if we want it. Expecting a transportation technology to make it happen seems about as fruitful as expecting ride-hailing technology to solve our poor land-use policies.