Ever since their launch, TNCs such as  Uber and Lyft have somewhat euphemistically been labeled as ‘rideshares’, when in reality they have been bringing taxi-like services into the digital age. Though marketed through such phrases as ‘your friend with a car’, it has been clear for some time that TNC drivers do so strictly for compensation, and for tens of thousands it has become full-time employment.

Last week, within a day of each other, Lyft and Uber both took steps that bring them closer to being true rideshares, introducing Lyft Line and Uber Pool (currently in San Francisco only).  This new app functionality allows passengers to share rides with other app users in exchange for lower fares. Though paid ridesharing has long been available in limited applications through services such as Shuttle Express, it has never before been offered either on demand or at scale. This is huge.

Lyft Line and UberPool will offer true spontaneous ridesharing (taxipooling?) by algorithmically matching up users requesting similar origin/destination pairs. Lest you think that you’d be in for a lengthy detour to serve a fellow passenger’s trip, Lyft says that its data shows that 80% of the time, other users have requested a similar trip within a 5-minute drive. A trip from Fremont to Capitol Hill, typically around $12, could be shaved down to $3 per person if, say, one couple was matched with another along the way. Whereas the ‘traditional’ TNC services have relied upon dynamic pricing  to great controversy– such as Prime Time Tips or Surge Pricing — the new rideshare option will feature flat fares to go after the commuter market, for whom price stability is far more important.

By riding with strangers for the sake of lowering costs and boosting efficiency, this new ridesharing functionality will make the services much more transit like; and Lyft is even marketing it as such, with CEO Logan Green saying:

“Instead of public transit, we’re building what we call personal transit. This is a transit system with infinite routes — and it becomes stronger, more affordable, and more efficient the more it’s used.”

Ah, good ‘ol PRT. Many have already hailed the new service as “the beginning of the end for public transit,” and some of the promo materials have been fundamentally anti-urban. Take for instance this gem of sprawl marketing:

Lyft, trolling Jarrett Walker

TNCs do wonderful things: they greatly reduce parking demand, they eliminate any attempted excuse for intoxicated driving, and they provide a superior option for trips that transit doesn’t serve well (say Eastlake to Magnolia, or even Upper Queen Anne to Fremont). But TNCs are emphatically NOT a substitute for fast, reliable transit, nor are they a way to greenwash sprawl. They are still cars taking up huge amounts of space, transporting people at densities orders of magnitude below that of good transit systems. In no way would we be better off as a city if the 60 people on my #49 bus each afternoon took a caravan of 30-40 Ubers instead.

For now, TNCs are brilliantly innovative transitional systems that leverage our national investment in cars and highways, providing the next generation a bridge to car-free or car-lite life. But if they alone are the future, that’s just not good enough. A society in which TNCs supplanted transit would still be the sprawling vehicle-based society we all want to move beyond, and would cap maximum densities at levels far below what we need. High capacity, high frequency transit is the only technology that transports people at the scale necessary to support dense, walkable neighborhoods, and it’s on those bones that real cities hang.

29 Replies to “Rideshares Are Actually Becoming Rideshares”

  1. We’ll see how well it works at reducing Clark County to Portland congestion on the bridge. One of the common threads in letters to the paper have been that the carpool lanes are a huge waste “since carpooling isn’t part of our lifestyle”. I have a feeling that rideshare apps would fall into the same category.

  2. I agree, this is huge. This is exactly the type of service that makes sense when internet access is available on portable devices. I independently thought of the idea (undoubtedly along with thousands of other people). I called it “spontaneous carpooling”.

    The interesting thing is that it doesn’t replace public transit, but compliments it really well. For example, i have a friend that lives in Fife. I live in the north end, close to Northgate. What are the chances that I can find someone who is headed from Northgate to Fife and wants to share a ride? Pretty slim. However, I can hop on a bus and then a train and be in Tukwila in no time. Better yet, there is probably a bus that heads to Federal Way that might be just as fast. From there, the chances of grabbing a ride go way up. If nothing else, the cost of a ride (in essence, the cost for the other driver to go out of his or her way) goes way down. But which bus should I take and how far? Now things have gotten really complicated, and involve both public transit and private ride sharing. This is where complex computer programs come to the rescue. With a bit of effort, folks could produce a website with all the answers. I could tell it where to go, and how much public transit I am willing to take. It could then produce a bunch of options — everything from meeting a guy at Northgate to meeting a gal in Puyallup. This is the next step in the evolution of these services, and I think they can go a long way to solving the “last mile” problem.

    1. Instead of digging their heels in, the Transitistas should be figuring out how to integrate these rideshare companies into traditional transit using information technology. Copenhagen is already doing this with smart phone apps that connect rideshares to bus lines and trains.

      1. I completely agree that there needs to be synergy, and that TNCs and transit should be allies. That’s what irks me so much about the marketing of their service…their enemy should be personal car ownership, not transit riders. In certain applications (first/last mile, inter-suburb trips, early morning and late night, just missed your bus/train, etc…) TNCs can and will do a better job than fixed-route transit. But I object to the apparent libertarian fantasy that apps and cars can obviate the need for transit to move lots of people very quickly in limited space. Cities still need transit, and lots of it. And they need transit between cities.

      2. What everyone needs is fast regional transit provided by segregated trains and express busways.

        With these new Pooling companies, we can reduce the focus of milk run and meadering bus routes, empty night routes, etc.

        Focusing all efforts on a few square blocks of downtown and agonizing over short run trolleys starts to appear bizarre to voters who expect to take an UberPool from their Black Diamond apartment to a Sounder train.

      3. Appealing to classism (no funky bus smells) and the childhoods of now-city dwellers (Mom dropped you off everywhere in suburbia) is an easier sell than “it complements the network!”

        If that’s what it took to get the service off the ground, maybe that end has justified their means — but it doesn’t mean that I like the means.

      4. Sir, you are a true Mad-Man!

        Scene: A Dodge Grand Caravan full of young soccer players, circa 2005, with a Mom’s Taxi sign on top.

        The song: Fountains of Wayne playing “Stacy’s Mom”.

        Suddenly it morphs into an UberPool car with late twenty-something professionals conversing and using their iPads.

        Narrator “you didn’t drive yourself when you were a kid…why start now?”

    2. “What are the chances that I can find someone who is headed from Northgate to Fife and wants to share a ride? Pretty slim. However, I can hop on a bus and then a train and be in Tukwila in no time. Better yet, there is probably a bus that heads to Federal Way that might be just as fast. ”

      I’m trying to figure out how to get the Fife casino for MMA fights certain Saturday evenings. The events end at unpredictable times, often 11pm or midnight, although I might leave in the middle if I had to. I wouldn’t want a ride all the way to Seattle, but just to the Federal Way transit center, and then I’d wait however long it takes for a bus to come. (The A and 574 are quasi 24-hour, although with hour-or-more gaps.) I might just take a taxi or convince my roommate to get a Zipcar, but that’s $10-50 right there.

      1. This is a great example of why these services haven’t come close to their potential as “ride sharing” services. I’m going to assume that these fights and that location are reasonably popular, with a thousand people in attendance (not to mention people who are at the casino for other reasons). If one out of a hundred of those people use ride share, and one out of ten of those are heading north, you would get a ride, and it wouldn’t bother the other person much at all. It might cost you ten bucks, but not fifty (assuming the cost roughly matches the bother). I certainly would drop you off at the bus stop for ten bucks (hell, I would probably just do it for the conversation). I think the key is flexibility. You would have no guarantee that the ride share system would deliver, meaning at worse you are paying for a guaranteed (but more expensive) cab ride.

  3. Lyft and Uber shared taxis do nothing for spontaneous trips, nor provide the flexibility of a good transit grid. But they are a worthy replacement for all those low ridership DART routes out in the suburbs and are the successor to “smart shuttles” and before that the jitneys of 100 years ago. Someday transit agencies may even integrate a TNC or TNC-like service for late evening and outer suburban service, including paying the TNC to make those trips (in return for the TNC accepting passes/transfers) – anything with running at greater than 30 minute headways is a potential for being outsourced to such a service, although the biggest issue would be ADA compliance.

    1. I agree, for late evening service they can be more efficient and much more useful than infrequent transit, and indeed Friday and Saturday nights are already their bread and butter. And they might even be a tolerable transit replacement in places where sprawl will rule for a few more generations due both to politics and hard-to-fix land use patterns (places like Jacksonville, Oklahoma City, or Chattanooga, etc). And this new ridesharing feature helps bring down the price enough to answer some of the social justice criticisms of TNCs brought on by things like Surge Pricing.

      But for real cities, there’s still nothing like transit. Lyft and Uber should be on our side, trying to complement the goal of sustainable cities with fast, on-demand options for certain trips. But it’s dispiriting to see their advertising try to cannibalize the transit customer base and entrench us even further into sprawling land-use patterns.

      1. I doubt this will cannibalize transit significantly, especially high frequency transit with prioritization or its own right of way. And financially and temporally speaking, it is still going to be extremely challenging to be car-free in Puyallup or Bothell, just because of lack of density. Nothing Lyft or Uber provides is going to change that. You still have to wait for one or two added riders to bring the cost down, as the fare splitting is done dynamically. Otherwise the cost is too high.

  4. A lot of resistance to public transit comes from this question: “What good is the best and fastest transit ride if I need my car on both ends?” Both good TNC and good taxi service are good answers.

    Mark Dublin

  5. “In no way would we be better off as a city if the 60 people on my #49 bus each afternoon took a caravan of 30-40 Ubers instead.” In NO way? Really? I can think of a few ways. More Uber drivers would be employed. Uber users would be more responsible for the cost of their commute than if they were taking the more heavily subsidized public bus (It’s not government’s job to pay for your commute, it’s yours). More gas tax revenue. More sales tax from people buying cars to work as Uber drivers, which would help reverse the eroding sales tax revenue stream. And, the 49 is electric, and most of America’s electricity is generated from the evil, environment-destroying coal.

    1. Lol, Sam, your troll skills are slipping. The hydro-powered #49 has 65+ rides/hour and probably breaks even or even turns a small profit.

  6. So its essentially its private real time paratransit. I think this has ADA implications if they can get vans to do this. That in turn would save public transit systems money.

    1. There is a company called American Logistics that does just this. Rather than paratransit cutaways driving around they use can-equipped taxicabs and regular people with ADA-accessible vehicles to drive folks around. http://www.alcsolutions.com/paratransit/improve-service.aspx

      Many times, drivers are independent contractors who have lift-equipped vehicles because they have family members who need them. But while the family member is at school, adult day care, or whatever, they drive other disabled people around, thus helping reduce the added cost of retrofitting the vehicle.

      1. I’m sure there is insurance red tape, and you have to be qualified to deploy the lifts and ramps. Also, you need to assist the passengers. Modern wheelchairs are getting heavier and heavier, and if the passenger is overweight you have a real problem with ramps. However, most disabled people needing paratransit do not have wheelchairs. Agencies hate the taxi scrip idea even though it makes sense, because it requires oversight and contract management. Plus, advocates cry foul for union jobs going to taxi drivers. If Uber or Lyft could cut the red tape through their respective lobbying arms, we may have a shot.

  7. When you boil this post down, what it’s really saying is rideshares are finally growing up. But are they really?


    And no, I don’t want Seattle to move beyond anything. Seattle is great as it is. If I want to live in Manhattan, I’ll move to Manhattan. I don’t want to change Seattle into Manhattan. BTW, ever notice how people who live in “walkable” neighborhoods don’t seem to want to walk anywhere? Why do you who live on Cap Hill need a gondola to get to LQA or SLU? Walk it, you lazy sos!

    1. You should get out there and see how many people walk on Denny. It is a crappy, nasty place to walk, and for most people, it is a really long way out of their way, but still the closest route. Good God, man, look at a map. Using your logic I don’t see why anyone in Kirkland complains about their commute to Seattle — just get a kayak!

    2. I wonder the same thing about Capitol Hill drivers. But they do walk to the supermarket and restaurants and other nearby things just like you’d expect them to. The times they use their cars is when they’re going to the other side of the hill or out of the neighborhood; i.e., outside the 15-minute walk circle.

      It’s like a certain person I know who drives from 42nd & Brooklyn to Broadway & Republican, or another who drives from 5th & Wall to 95th & Aurora. I tell them there’s a bus route going practically door-to-door but they aren’t interested. But they do walk within their home urban village.

  8. I can see how that ad might really resonate with the SF market. “Middle of nowhere” to that market is probably not actually that sprawl-y, and people are looking for rent relief anyway they can. Really, to be able to reliably use this service, you have to have a certain level of density to get matching trip pairs. And if it’s too dense, you’ll just get stuck in traffic anyways (which at least some of our public transit avoids). Plus a lot of the people who don’t want to drive to work also want to be able to walk for a lot of their daily needs.

  9. the 60 people on my #49 bus each afternoon took a caravan of 30-40 Ubers instead.

    Doesn’t the typical car have 3 if not 4 free spots? 5 or 6 if a minivan?

    The 60 people would fit into 20 or 15 cars. Or 12 or 10 minivans.

    And they would only have to spend time at as many stops as there are passengers.

    1. …plus any additional time spent in traffic since you have just increased the number of vehicles on the road.

  10. What will be really amazing is when these cab companies are regulated like cab companies. There have been benefits from these companies being created, mostly improved ways to get service. Other than that, through a central service, they match up drivers to passengers. The only difference is that they have an algorithm do the matching not a dispatcher.

    Lyft and Uber claim to be market places or platforms, but they fail those tests. Drivers do not set prices, customers only have location to help choose a driver, there is no way to negotiate.

    But other than that, we’re seeing the same behaviors that got other cab companies regulated the way they are today, price gouging and discrimination. So why shouldn’t Uber and Lyft be regulated the same way as Yellow?

    *sigh* But the “ooohhh shiny” effect wins and these companies get passes to be bad actors from the City Council. Even though I’m not a cab driver, it looks unjust and pisses me off.

    1. For the most part, you are correct, which is why the city has started to regulate them like cabs. I’m not sure if the old cab companies still rely completely on individuals anyway — for all we know they use software at the back end as well. The only big difference with these companies is that they rely on the user’s car, not the company car. It is like saying that you have a completely new way to deliver pizza, and all you are doing is asking the driver to use his own car. Big deal.

      But that is why this article is interesting. It suggests something different, and something that might evolve into real ride sharing. If enough people sign up, then I could easily see this provide some real benefit. Right now there are two people who are basically making the same trip, but don’t know it. If those people can combine their efforts, we all win. It is nothing new, of course, this idea has been around a long time (I remember using a kiosk in college to share a ride from the college town to a bigger city). But sophisticated software has the ability to make those connections a lot easier. As I said above, the next step is to integrate public transit — a complicated task, but one that software engineers are getting better at solving all the time.

  11. I highly doubt I’ll ever take an Uber or Lyft from my house in South Seattle to work in the ID. I will, however, think about it on Friday night at 2 AM from Capitol Hill to my house. I waited over 45 minutes for the right bus that continues all the way to South Seattle from Cap Hill (since the 1:36 AM bus (I think) stopped downtown and downtown only).

    I hate being stuck in traffic, whether it’s in my own car, a tax, an Uber/Lyft, or bus. However, being stuck in traffic on a bus costs me < $3, whereas stuck in an Uber will cost who knows what.

    I love the idea of public transit and Uber/Lyft coexisting and feeding off one another. Pretty exciting times for transportation here in Seattle.

  12. I don’t get why this is pitted against transit, or for that matter justified as a complementary last-mile service.

    What city in the country so you most associate with cabs? What about transit? Both are New York, right? That’s not a coincidence, it’s because NYC is the most walkable, least personal automobile friendly city in the country, and these services make life without a car much more appealing.

    Being able to easily and affordably travel to places or at times that aren’t served well by transit, without having to drive, is a game changer.

    Any transit system we can reasonably expect to build in a city like Seattle will have some routes and times that are a pain in the ass. Having an appealing alternative to private cars for those routes makes dense urban living way more appealing, and that density is what drives transit ridership and our ability to build good transit.

    I think this one is a clear win-win. In interactions with transit (obviously not GHG emissions) I think it’s more like bike lanes than like anything car oriented. It encourages us to live less car-centric lives, which is the purpose and prerequisite of transit.

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