Transit, Ride-Hailing, & Class-Mixing

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.

2 thoughts on “Transit, Ride-Hailing, & Class-Mixing

  1. Ian Mitchell

    I think a fundamental oversight of this post is that ride-hailing seems to be only compared to driving, and shared ride-hailing isn’t mentioned. UberPOOL and Lyft Line give the possibility of 2-4 unrelated trips in one car per direction (this is assuming that they don’t expand to 7 or 14 passenger vans, which they may), and there’s no need for parking. That’s an immense geographic advantage over people driving their own cars alone and needing somewhere to put them.

    In terms of geometry, we may notice road congestion in cities, but the streets are not the place with the most cars- L.A. is about 50% car-related land use by area, Dallas and Houston closer to 70%. Very little of this is actual roadway, most is parking. Much of this may be due to parking minimum regulations, but even in the absence of those regulations, businesses (whether home builders, condo associations, or consumer-facing retail etc) provide parking because they assume that cars bring customers, or vice versa. So, once the regulations are removed, what people actually tend to do ends up having a big influence on future land use.

    As far as solving that nash equilibrium. There’s a few key differences between driving and ride-hailing- the first is the cost of parking. Even if parking is free, parking adds trip time over ride-hailing. But especially where parking isn’t free, that’s an incentive for people to use ride-hailing. The cost savings (and higher profitability for uber/lyft) of shared ride-hailing are also a direct consumer benefit.

    If we wanted to add a further carrot, shared ride-hail trips (but perhaps not solo ride-hail trips) could be allowed to use bus lanes (taxis can use bus lanes in the UK). Given that even at very high levels of bus frequency, bus lanes still don’t tend to experience congestion (and when they do, it’s probably time for rail), it’s possible that this could get more people into fewer cars, without slowing down buses. Furthermore, gathering political will from those who don’t take public transport to support more bus lanes may be easier if they knew that when they needed to get to/from the airport at rush hour, they would have a lane without the congestion, if they were in an UberPOOL/Lyft Line. That means better buses for transit users.

    As far as class-mixing, there’s obviously less in this than there is in rapid transit, but the breadth of people who own smart phones, have cards (whether debit, credit, prepaid), and can access public wifi or have a data connection, and who are willing to share a car with 1-3 people other than the driver for a cheaper journey, is probably even wider than those who ride commuter rail. And from my personal experience, there tends to be more interaction in an uberPOOL than in a bus.

    Will shared/unshared ride-hailing solve poor land-use? Not on its own, no. But it makes it easier to not own a car. Whether your usual way around is biking, bus, carpool, or walking, the availability of ride-hailing services makes it easier to navigate with the limitations of those forms of transit without having to fall back on your own car.

    In the absence of regulations, individuals will try to get more out of the land. If a business notices that its parking lot is perennially half-empty even when its store is full, they may be willing to let a shipping container coffee shop or food truck permanently occupy that space. Someone who doesn’t need a car may decide to convert their empty driveway or garage into a granny flat for some extra income. Gradual thickening, the same kind of incremental development that built america up until about 70 years ago, would steadily do that, if it’s legally allowed to happen. It’s going to be slow.
    We didn’t get this screwed up very quickly either.

    1. Ray

      With the gradual increase of high tech ride sharing, the next evolution is congestion-based road pricing. Congestion-based road pricing will have the largest benefit to our land use since zoning was introduced. The carrot-horse relationship will be flipped. Instead of trying to have transportation catch up with building construction, building construction will need to wait for transportation. This is because roads use will be cheapest where the system is well suited for the development and very expensive where transportation lacks development. Developers will prefer to expand in the areas of cheapest transportation. The shared ride services will also greatly benefit for two reasons. 1) traffic flow will improve such that shared ride services will be as time efficient as single occupancy cars, and 2) people will gravitate towards shared ride services to save on the transportation cost.
      The question is how to convince the public that this is the way of the future?


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