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BY SEATTLE SUBWAY

“Double down on cars and buses.” That has essentially been the “No” campaign’s position in opposition to Sound Transit 3’s mix of light rail, commuter rail and BRT. Despite the likelihood of 800,000 more residents here by 2040, the opposition assumes, without showing their math, that self-driving cars can make rail obsolete within 20 years. Though experts say it’s too soon to tell how autonomous vehicles will impact traffic flow and volumes, transit opponents promise us that autonomous Ubers are going to fix everything by themselves, perhaps combined with buses stuck in traffic next to them.

Well, Uber came out with a surprising statement a week ago Monday:

Uber is dedicated to the future of cities—to making transportation reliable everywhere, for everyone. What we provide will just get us part of the way there, though. To fully realize the vision, we need strong partners among transit agencies and local governments. This is why we are urging voters to support Proposition 1. [emphases ours]

Uber joined the ranks of Amazon, Alaska Airlines, Microsoft, Vulcan, Costco, Expedia, and other companies proclaiming ST3 as critical to our region’s future. But Uber’s endorsement particularly stands out. As the undisputed market leader of app-based ride hailing, the company set aside its own non-endorsement traditions to support the nation’s largest transit-only measure. It was the first prominent and explicit political recognition by Uber that ride hailing apps and transit need each other. But you are likely to see opponents continue to make magical claims that the company itself no longer supports.

The statement aligns Uber and Sound Transit’s objectives, both seeking to “reduce congestion and pollution by moving more people with fewer cars, and provide better mobility options for all people living in the region.” In Seattle, facets of mobility and affordability account for 6 of the top 12 issues on people’s minds, according to an open ended question posed by Strategies 360 earlier this year.

At a certain point in our history, if you wanted milk, you had to own a cow. Similarly today, if many people want to have reliable transportation, they have to own a car. This has a growing cost, especially in a region where space is coming at a premium. The average Seattleite spends approximately $10,000 per year on transportation. While some people spend far less by riding transit, others spend significantly more. It eats into 15% of individual budgets, or nearly 20% for the average family. The cost is also proportionally higher  for those with the least means to pay.

There are also the human and environmental costs of our obligatory car culture. Nearly half of Washington’s CO2 emissions come from transportation (¾ of which are caused by gas or diesel engines). While auto fatalities are half what they were in the 1960’s, they recently began rising again, with an increasing culture of distraction to blame. And we are losing precious time in our lives, including 106 lifetime days searching for parking and an hour per day behind the wheel.

How do we reduce these costs? The answer is for people to have real choices that are cheaper than having to drive themselves to work or even own a car. That’s why a robust and resilient system that has these choices is essential to building a more affordable, more just, and more sustainable community. To be robust and resilient, we actually need both great transit and effective ridesharing. As Uber attests, one does not accomplish this without the other.

At its best, the sharing economy can reduce the cost of traveling by car by eliminating the necessity of ownership and the sunk costs that entails. Using Uber, Lyft, Car2Go, or Reach Now as a complement to a transit-first lifestyle, you no longer have to pay to own a vehicle that sits motionless 95% of the time. These technologies are far more scalable than mass car ownership, but also far less scalable than high-capacity transit.  To the extent technology can reduce ownership and increase consumer choice, it can substantially improve our baseline. But if we used tech as an excuse to divest from transit, that could actually make things worse.

Our cities aren’t going anywhere, and trends point to their continued densification and success. There is no better tool to move lots of people quickly than a train operating in its own right-of-way. Simple geometry means that cars, autonomous or not, are not going to overcome this. Meanwhile, the low-cost Uber of the future will complement transit by serving places where density is insufficient to warrant fixed-route transit. If we simply allow each mode to do that which it does best, then everybody wins.

And we don’t have to look far to understand how it might work. Take the Bay Area, for example, where 10% annual growth in Caltrain ridership last year coincided with 153% growth in Uber trips to and from the same Caltrain stations. Separate studies make clear that people who use services like Uber are more willing to both forego a car and also ride transit more frequently.

To make this work out in our favor, we need resilience. Our various tormentors, whether construction, bad weatheroverturned fish trucks, etc, prove that our over reliance on an open system (mixed bus and car traffic) leaves our network brittle. Population growth will only make this worse.

Uber, unions, countless major regional employers, the social justice community, and regional political leaders are uniting around a solution to our transportation woes. A robust network of fast, reliable transit, paired with shared vehicles, and people walking and biking. These synergies will make our region more affordable, sustainable, and maintain the high quality of life we have come to expect. Like Uber said, it takes ST3 to help get us there. Vote Yes.

6 Replies to “Uber Invests In the Future, Endorses ST3”

  1. Imagine the use of services like the Issaquah line or I-405 BRT with driverless Uber available for first/last mile travel for $1.00/mile. (And, by the time ST3 gets built out, Uber will almost certainly be driverless).

    Suddenly, these lines that look marginal today become a whole lot more usable. If a feeder bus happens to show up at the right time that goes where I want to go, I probably still take the feeder bus to save money. But, if it’s a 30-minute wait for the feeder bus, I can now summon the robo-car and be on my way much sooner (perhaps, sharing the ride with other people coming off the same train who had a similar idea). Even if the ride in the robo-car isn’t free, being able to make a trip for $5 that would have otherwise required $60-70 for a Zipcar rental is still a huge steal.

  2. Meh. Let me know when these companies will support an employee head tax to speed up bonding/construction of ST3 or a similar measure (if the monorail authority could be used to build Ballard to UW if the ST lawyers win out and say it can’t be built as a supplemental project)

  3. Makes perfect sense to me. There’s been many times where I take the bus to a specific bar, event, etc. and then Uber or Lyft it home due to the lack of frequency in the evens or the area being too unsafe to wait. So I’m still using transit but also using ride share and not taking my own car out for a potential DUI. Another example might be taking the bus to work in the morning and then ubering it to another destination that isn’t where you left from in the morning. Ride sharing and on demand ride services compliment transit and sometimes it goes unnoticed just because people don’t talk about it.

  4. Uber also works brilliantly with ST3 to save on deadheading. Instead of uber drivers or bus drivers making a long drive from base/destination back to origin of next express city-bound trip, they can circulate in the neighborhood around the station. West Seattle’s riders could reach downtown with just a lift from a neighbor on the peninsula to the Junction station. Fixed bus routes in the peninsula will still be crucial but considering the low density SFH grid out here, I doubt they’ll ever provide “no need to check the schedule” level frequency. As it is now, vast swaths of admiral, alki, and Genesee hill have literally no midday, late night, or weekend bus service within a 5 or 10-minute walk. Uber could offer 5-minute wait + 5-minute ride Link station access to those tens of thousands of people. I only focus on those nbrhds because I have experience with them, but I think vast swaths of the eastside, northern suburbs, and southern suburbs are similar.

    Right now, uber offers no advantage over driving themselves: get stuck in the same constant highway gridlock either way, with which that long fare will be as much as downtown parking. But the game is changed for Link: only a tiny fraction of ppl in that 10-minute driveshed will ever be able to park at that station, or get dropped off by their spouse, but drop offs via uber could scale beautifully, and will be worth it to get on a faster, reliable traffic-free ride to another spot in the region. And of course uber could cover their last mile on the other end pretty well too, if it’s still another mile to go. This makes perfect sense, and honestly makes me more optimistic for the usefulness of the many low density stations planned. Heck, I think this use case could make a lot more ppl interested in driving! I wouldn’t mind shuttling a few people to and from the Junction on mornings I’m staying home. But I will only subject myself to driving in freeway gridlock for personal or family needs.

  5. asdf2, everywhere I’ve been where a large proportion of the population uses public transit, taxicabs have always been unthinkingly considered a necessary part of the system. This is definitely an Everybody Knows it’s a World Class City thing, transit system and all.

    mdnative, by different online dictionaries, means “I don’t care either way.” But being Yiddish, the everyday language of the Jews of Northern Europe, and Brooklyn, “meh” carries the exact note of impatient aggravation required for running an actual city. Especially with a lot of cabs and subways.

    So (important to now say “This is the thanks I get!”) appearance of “meh” means that finally aggravation will now result in less rethinking and more just plain very loud arguments, which obviously get more subways built per century. And lots more corned beef sandwiches in subway stations and transit centers.

    Marylanders in Cumberland don’t say “meh” yet, do they?

    But “meh” cannot apply to finally giving transit the taxicab (well that’s what it is, mustache or not!) service that makes transit usable worldwide. Should be noted that ever since LINK opened, escalator top at Pine and Sixth has been an undeclared cab stand anyhow.

    However be careful, asdf2, about asserting that professional drivers had better get used to becoming part of the (Number One Seattle urban Challenge!) homeless. Because at this stage actual driverless car performance could turn out closer to “feh!” “Yuck!” but a lot harder to get off your shoe.

    Mark

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