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Another Study Blames Uber and Lyft for Public Transit’s Decline (citylab.com)
56 points by pseudolus 21 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 63 comments



Sorry but this is bullshit.

As others have mentioned, public transit beats uber/lyft when its actually the better, faster service (e.g. London, Tokyo).

But when public transit is poorly planned, slow, dirty, crime-ridden like it often is in the US, uber/lyft wins every time. Even when cities like San Francisco choose to spend billions on improving public transit, they mess it up every single time. There's a long list of hilariously short sighted decisions made on projects like the Transbay Terminal, The Central Subway, Geary/Van Ness BRT.

My daily commute literally runs along the t-line in San Francisco, but I never take it because it's basically the same speed as walking, slower than biking, slower than uber'ing. Poor planning and management is the cause of public transit's decline.


Yup. E.g. in Manhattan you'd be crazy to not use the subway. It's just faster than everything else, and extremely liberating. In contrast, in SF, if you want to get to your destination in any reasonable amount of time and don't your start and destination are not near the BART line, you need to use car / Uber / Lyft. Or even a scooter or Go bike is faster than public transit.

SF needs to significantly invest in transit with dedicated rights of ways, preferably along more important routes than the Central Subway. And if subways are too expensive or difficult to build, we need to seriously consider using elevated light rail instead. Geary road, for example, would be perfect for an el.


I really wish Brooklyn had as many latitudinal lines as Manhattan. Whenever I visit Brooklyn, Uber/Lyft is always a better option.


Seattle has been doing this recently. I'm not sure if they have released any studies yet, but my observation has been a noticeable improvement.


I've noticed no improvement, especially now with the viaduct closed which appears to be a permanent decline for people coming in from the southwest and west Seattle.


That’s a temporary change until the tunnel opens. I’ve noticed that Denny has been much better for buses since they have made a few changes for bus priority.


To add to this, think about the consistent advertising that Uber and Lyft do, always keeping themselves front of mind regarding transportation. If public transportion decided to market their "on time" rate, things would get a lot more interesting.


Public transit fails when it's poorly funded. The existence of Uber/Lyft provides an excuse to transit skeptic politicians to ignore and underfund public transit expansion.


Sure, but politicians in many cities were ignoring and underfunding public transit long before Uber and Lyft came around. How long should people have waited before trying to come up with an alternative?


I know it's only an anecdote, but myself (and many other colleagues) in Boston switched to periodically using rideshares to commute due to the decline in public transit quality. The tech boom in the area completely overloaded the system, and when you combine it with the rampant corruption behind the MBTA, this was inevitable.

Uber and Lyft have not been the best actors, but someone was going to step in and profit off of public transit's incompetence here.

Even prior to the prevalence of rideshares, Boston was dealing with absurd corruption in attempting to expand on the public transit systems. See: Green Line Extension project


Agreed. This feels like a classic causation v correlation problem.

Of course when a substitute improves, some people will switch. However, the root cause is the declining quality and lack of improvements to the system that even gives a substitute the chance to compete.

I honestly don't understand how 100 years ago nyc was able to build an expansive subway system and today it takes decades to add a new station. I know it's a combination of land costs, labor costs, corruption, regulation, underground congestion (and that the original lines were built by private companies) but I still don't really understand the situation.


My general impression is that worker safety was pretty much disregarded compared to modern standards.

A quick search turned up this piece[1] on 16 deaths around 1904 during construction of a NYC subway line. There are famous pictures such as this one of construction of high rises in New York[2] without any safety equipment whatsoever. But it was built in 14 months! All that safety gear is expensive and slows down construction. In climbing, we often joke 'no belay, no delay', because of how fast you can climb when you don't take the time to fix your ropes, etc. [3]

[1] https://www.quora.com/How-many-people-died-during-the-constr...

[2] https://www.google.com/search?q=empire+state+building+constr...:

[3]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=urRVZ4SW7WU


>I know it's only an anecdote, but myself (and many other colleagues) in Boston switched to periodically using rideshares to commute due to the decline in public transit quality.

I've been riding the T in Boston for the better part of 20 years now. My usage of rideshares is more related to convenience and timing than any change in MBTA service. A lot of trips I do require going into/out of the core city to make a lateral move, or to coordinate multiple modes with different headways, e.g. 5 minutes for subway, 10 minutes for one bus, 25 for the next. The result is that time in motion is similar to the rideshare, but I spend an equal amount of time waiting for a connection.

I'd really be curious to see the effect on trips that already have a direct or reasonably efficient multi-step itinerary, e.g. Davis to Charles/MGH, Sullivan to Harvard, etc.


Unfortunately this only exacerbates the problem as ridership declines. I know students in Boston who have literally never taken public transportation. 5 years ago this would be unheard of.


I have friends and co-workers with free access to the MBTA because it's paid for by our employer. I see them pay for ridesharing when the free public transportation is a reasonable option for the same trip. I see some people paying their own money to commute to work every day when they live inside the city and could be doing it for free.

People just want to take the path of least resistance and there's a lot of young tech workers with low expenses and high salaries who don't think about the long-term impact of the money they're spending on unnecessary conveniences instead of saving.

The real problem is that complaints about a shard public resource grow disproportionately like a meme and people codify that public transportation is terrible and unreliable, when in reality it's imperfect and that's an exaggeration.


I've commuted solely by public transportation in Boston for the last 8 years. Before that I lived elsewhere and commuted by car daily. While the public transportation has occasional delays and outages, it's overall reasonable and the variance and displeasure I experienced with driving were far greater.


I only use Uber/Lyft in Boston for routes where the T would be inconvenient or if the weather is really bad and I don't want to walk home from the T station.

I just hate Uber Pool and Lyft Line - the routes they take are often side streets with lots of congestion and turns, there's a lot of frustration when you're almost to your destination or to a major road and then the driver turns around to pick up another passenger. Drivers often play music I find annoying.


Technically Uber and Lyft aren't profiting. They're burning VC money.


I think that's just pedantic, to be honest. The people behind those companies and those who work there are certainly making a ton of cash. Even if the companies go bankrupt, everyone involved (except for the VCs) will have been enriched by the product.


I've found that if you have more than 2 people (sometimes even just 2, if you pool), it is often cheaper and faster to take an Uber. Quite pathetic on MBTA's side.


The MBTA is also just beyond ridiculous. I work (in the Seaport) approximately 3.9 miles from my residence (Somerville). I can walk home faster than the T will take me there, and Uber/Lyft will also get me there ~4x faster than the T. Using Line/Pool and subsidized carpooling you can easily beat the $2-3 T fare. If you rely on the Commuter Rail for any step, Uber/Lyft crushes it in terms of price.


Public transportation can only win by competing with the alternatives.

When I'm in Tokyo I don't use Uber because the train system is so clean, fast, and safe; I have no incentive to use an Uber.

When I'm in places with slow buses that get stuck in traffic, or operate trains with disgusting facilities, I'm more likely to choose Uber.


Yes. The framing of these articles is atrocious. The framing should be, "It's great that people are gaining more transportation options. Public transit should adapt and improve in response to those changes."


> Public transportation can only win by competing with alternatives.

Exactly. Improve the quality of public transportation and the usage levels of Uber and Lyft will decline. Whatever the failings of Uber and Lyft, and there are many, they can't be used as a justification to curb their use (essentially eliminate competition) so public transportation systems can continue their unchallenged mediocrity.


When the wealthy[1] can opt out of having to use public services, those public services tend to be crap.

When the wealthy are forced to use public services, all of a sudden, they become interested and politically engaged in improving them.

Uber doesn't drive improvements in transit in this sense - it starves it of political capital.

The best transit services are ones which are used by a wide swathe of the public.

[1] If you are regularly paying $6-30 for a one-way taxi commute, you are either wealthy, really money-foolish, or a truly special case.


Not sure about the ranges on that wealthy comparison- if I wanted to commute to work by bus, it would cost >$6 in bus faires a day in the Bay Area. Splitting a Lyft line in San Francisco often results in math where we actually save money while using a more convenient service. It’s just hard to choose public transit around here when it is unreliable, barely cost competitive and slower.


It's pretty rare you end up spending 3$ for a Lyft in SF. The bus pass is also $78 (or $1.95 a ride assuming you work 20 days a month). It should be cheaper yes, but it's still much cheaper.


Costs $24/day including tip for me to go 1/2 mile with Lyft 10 miles outside of Seattle during non surge pricing.

Costs me $0/day to take the bus or light rail, subsidized by my workplace. $3-$4 if your workplace doesn't subsidize and you get a regional pass.


This, a million times. The metro in Paris is good because upper middle class people take it.


How exactly did you come up with that direction for the causal relationship?


Just so. But they also take it because it’s good


If you can group it with 2 or 3 people, ride shares become competitive with public transit, let alone the time savings of Door-to-door service.


Neither Uber nor Lyft is currently profitable. They can't truly be said to be winning a market competition until they're not effectively running on subsidization. Additionally, until more cities implement congestion pricing, they benefit from a negative externality not being priced in.


Neither are the nationalized public transport systems they're competing against.


It's important to note that public transport systems are often forced to run unprofitable routes. Late night routes and paratransit are inherently unprofitable but improve accessibility. Of course, there are more unsavory reasons, usually political (for instance, the "Downtown Express" bus routes in Toronto were created to fulfill a political promise, and are vastly unprofitable as a result).

Ride-hailing services don't have this particular problem. They only need to serve based on rider demand. Yet at this moment they do rely on subsidies by VC money.


I think the issue here is just the 'size of solution' between private and public transport offerings. i.e. If you've got tens of thousands of people in a place - an underground line isn't a bad idea. If you've got tens - then that's not even enough for a bus. However an Uber driver (or even a pool route) is actually happier with the latter, as they're not having to compete with an underground. Different types of transport tend to be poorly integrated. Maybe airports being the only example I can think of where private and public play nicely together.


Don't forget to count the subsidized road infrastructure that Uber/Lyft use (and don't say "but gas taxes", they only pay for about half of road spending).


This kind of ignores the fact that the quality of public transit has been rapidly declining, and had been before Uber/Lyft came into being.

Take the DC metro for example - it used to be arguably the best public rail system in the country. Now, through mismanagement and neglect, it's pretty awful. IMO dirty, unreliable public transport created a massive void that Lyft/Uber have filled.


I'll go a bit further and say that, while Uber/Lyft probably contribute to decline in public transit, those companies exist precisely because of how bad public transit was in those service areas.


100% agree. If you look at SF, there's to get from SOMA to the Marina, you can either take multiple buses plus walk (~50 minutes of travel), or take a lyft/uber which will bring you door to door in less than half the time.


I took a Lyft from Soma to the Marina last night at 5:30pm, which is pretty close to peak weeknight traffic. It cost $14 and took 17 minutes.

The Muni bus would have taken 31 minutes according to Google Maps (with much higher expected variance, based on my personal experience) and would have cost $2.50 (or $2.75 if I didn’t have a preloaded Clipper card).

Because of that expected duration variance; the probability of sharing a bus or bus stop with a profoundly troubled, violent, or dirty person; and the fact that the difference between $2.50 and $14 is not very significant to me; taking a Lyft was an extremely easy decision for me.


Won't systems always generally decline a bit until they need a refresh? But now that refresh won't come because there will be no political pressure to do so.


Sure, but there are degrees of difference. Even 10-20 years ago, taking the tube in London vs. the Subway in NYC was a vastly different experience.


Blaming Uber and Lyft for public transportation usage decline sounds exactly the same as blaming piracy for the music industry's decline.

If public transportation was better, I wouldn't use Lyft as much as I do these days.

It'd be interesting to look at countries known for their exceptional public transportation and see if they saw a decline when Uber and Lyft came on the market.


Great point. Coming from Switzerland, which IMO has the best public transportation across the country and in cities in the world, Uber and Lyft simply aren't nearly used as much as here exactly BECAUSE public transportation works as well. I rarely have to take an Uber inside Geneva because buses, trams and trains bring me everywhere, for a decent price (as a student), and until decent hours. So yeah, for me the blame is on the system more than on these apps.


It's not that simple. Where public transport was already king, Uber and Lyft are harmless. But where public transport is still fighting for relevance and investment, they take the wind out of political sails by providing am alternative which while convenient is barely sufficient. Combine that with the fact that they are subsidized/dumping and leaving many externalities for state and local governments to deal with.. I see the causalities here pretty entangled.


>“Single-handedly” may not be quite right, since the paper also finds that cheap gas prices and higher fares have a negative effect on ridership. And this analysis does not include other, more local factors that could be pushing riders off of buses and trains, such as the maintenance and reliability issues plaguing New York City and Washington, D.C. in particular. Nor does it look at safety perceptions among riders, a growing concern on Bay Area transit.

>“Perhaps the presence of innovative modes makes it a more compelling or sexier question to ask, but I think there are lots of reasons people aren’t taking these modes as much as before,” said Susan Shaheen, the co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at UC Berkeley and an expert in shared mobility. “The question of causality is perplexing and hard, and it’s not necessarily one thing.”

So basically, shocker, correlation does not equal causation and there's a lot going on driving this change.

Also, it'd be interesting to see data that took into account different modes. Light rail ridership in the Twin Cities has soared because (unlike our bus system) it is reliable and predictable, plus easier to use multimodally etc. etc.

And I imagine that most places share the Twin Cities' struggles to combat lawmakers in greater MN who have decided that investing in metro transit is a certain evil.


"Another study blames the internal combustion engine for the decline of horse ridership".


It is certainly valid to say that, to first order, Uber and Lyft do not compete with public transit. I get a Lyft from downtown KC to the KC airport about thirty minutes away; I do this because it's about as expensive as airport economy parking will be for several weeks; I do not think twice about public transit because there simply is no public transit route there. But to go to the library or Union Station I'd never take a Lyft; there's a tram that goes to both.

But that gets complicated when we're talking about second-order effects. To second order, yes, it does matter. I have taken both the bus and a Lyft to work when my car was inaccessible. There is competition there, and it's driven by bus transfers. To get close enough that I do not have significant walking to do, I have to accept delays due to bus transfers, and the weather has to be nice enough that I can easily endure those waits outside. Or my budget needs to be tight enough that that makes sense.

It's not surprising to me that public transit sees somewhere in the range of 5-20% decline due to the cheaper taxi service; that is about the range of those second-order effects. But this is also an avoidable loss: with the widespread use of cell phones it may be possible that routes become more customizable, not unlike how school buses work: "this route serves to bring people from that general area to this general area, but of course we tailor it a bit to the individual student population, we don't go down any side-streets if there are no students to pick up there." There is a great potential when city institutions start to get the hang of this new technology stuff, that a bus service could meaningfully get you from where you're at to where you're going without any big pain points, on the assumption that you have a smart-enough cell phone. And that's no longer the marker of wealth that it used to be. If they can really get it right, they can even have the ride-hailing services tied into those systems, the way that cab lines informally used to be: "we're willing to send a fare your way for someone starting at hub X and going to location Y which is outside of our service regions."


A city of 500k inhabitants doesn't have even a bus between the airport and city center? That's quite interesting, one would think it'd one of the most sought after routes.


I mean it does it's just hard to get to and slow. It's route 229, it takes 10-15 minutes to get (through public transit) to the center of the metro area where it goes through, in fact almost as long as just walking the 10-15 blocks or whatever it is to get there... then I think you are waiting 10 more minutes on average as they run every 20 minutes, and it takes something like 50 minutes to get from there to the airport -- whereas the straight shot with a Lyft is maybe 30 minutes, the bus can take somewhere from a half hour to an hour longer.

So it's possible with some transfers etc., it's just sufficiently inconvenient and slow that I've ruled that out.


Uber and Lyft increase downtown congestion (like sometimes up to one third of cars I see are Uber/Lyft in downtown Chicago) and routinely block bus stops and in bus lanes. This further slows down buses even more and screws up schedules. I wish bus drivers could automatically ticket the drivers.

I have a CTA pass so I almost never use Uber/Lyft because it's so much more expensive.


TNCs are not the only ones contributing to congestion. Private cars do as well. We should address all road users and not just cherry-pick one scapegoat when everyone sitting in traffic is traffic. Congestion pricing is the solution here.


Sure but private cars aren't generally on the road all the time. They go to their destinations and park. TNC's spend a substantial part of their time between fares. If they were displacing all private car trips they would only marginally increase congestion by 1-utlization factor but that's certainly not the case in places where public transport exists.


a lot of people taking the low hanging free-market attitude: if public trans was better, then uber/lyft wouldn't win. don't blame uber/lyft for filling a need. now I agree it doesnt make sense to hold uber/lyft responsible for this, because they're just a business. but I do agree it shows something wrong with society.

what people in this thread seem to be forgetting is that a lot of people don't actually have money to choose the service according to which is better - they take what they can afford, which is public trans. when rich people don't need to take the same forms of transit, then theres less pressure by the powerful people in society to create change, to improve the system. in the long run, we would all benefit directly, and indirectly (the positive effects it has on society), from a robust, affordable, pleasant, clean, etc public transit system. but because of this stratification, which uber/lyft contribute to (but of course cant be held entirely responsible for), it never gathers the clout and momentum to actually happen.


Metro Vancouver transit ridership is increasing faster than any other region in Canada or the U.S and Uber/Lyft is not allowed... hmmmm

https://www.vancourier.com/news/metro-vancouver-transit-ride...


I only use a ridesharing app when I can’t get a bus or train. If it’s going to take more than 20 minutes for that bus or train to arrive and I need to travel more than a mile, ridesharing is generally how I get there. It fills a niche where I live that isn’t served by public transit.


I replaced the subway by a bike because of how bad the subway was. But I guess they will blame my bike.


But how about transportation as a whole? Wouldn't people have better transport than ever these days then? I doubt that public transport is ideal anyways.


Public transport would be ideal if there were better ways to manage it. Infrastructure problems and rampant corruption stifle it, so innovators moved in and stole their lunch.

I know it's more complicated than it seems, but check out Tokyo. Their public transit works incredibly well, and a lot of public resources are spent making sure it stays that way. Some of this is due to the fact that Tokyo is an extremely new city in terms of a lot of its infrastructure (due to WW2), but that's not the whole story here.


Public transit in Los Angeles sucks big big time, so it makes sense Uber and Lyft wins in cities like Los Angeles.


Isn't the TL;DR here that when better alternatives emerge, the worse option can lose? The article seems to be arguing that because Uber/Lyft are often better than public transit, we shouldn't tolerate them, rather than the obvious response: improve public transit.


ya , you can blame. but why you not proivde good service




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