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:
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.