Uber, Lyft and the numerous other ridesharing firms have taken the country by storm, throwing the conventional wisdom about transportation infrastructure into a tailspin. Taxi companies, beleaguered by the success their new opponents have enjoyed under a system lacking the same onerous regulations as their own, have sought help from cities and states throughout the country. Ridesharing services have become so popular that the medallions issued to New York City taxi drivers permitting operation within the city, once worth millions, are now chump change.
The taxi industry is clearly hit the hardest by the influx of Uber and Lyft into the market, but what about mass transit? Many have pointed to Uber and Lyft not just as competitors to taxi services, but also as competitors to mass transportation services. After all, if people can easily hail transportation services at any time of the day without sharing that service with others, do we really need mass transit services?
The obvious (and probably most correct) answer is yes. Taxi services have long served as supplemental forms of transportation to buses, trains, and private vehicles. They are more expensive, but they offer a practical alternative when distances are too great to walk or too short to use the subway, during inclement weather, when a private vehicle isn’t available, or if mass transit isn’t an option. While Uber directly challenges the taxi industry by providing conveniences such as the ability to order a vehicle, choose their driver, and pay with the simple click of a button, it doesn’t pose as much of a direct threat to mass transportation.
This is largely due to the fact that most people who use mass transit use it on a regular basis as part of their daily routine. This isn’t true for taxis, with the only exception possibly being some commuters in New York City where commutes may be too far to walk, but short enough for a taxi to at least be economically justifiable. For longer commutes mass transportation is much more economically feasible than taxi or Uber service. The other major advantage of fixed-line transportation such as light rail or subway over vehicular transportation is that isn’t susceptible to traffic.
Though Uber may not compete with mass transit to the degree that it competes with taxis, it may still draw some riders away from shorter bus or rail trips due to convenience. This threatens to undermine the ridership numbers that struggling systems such as MARTA need to stay relevant. MARTA, for its part, has partnered with Uber to allow customers to book Uber trips using the MARTA app. Other governments have offered subsidies for using Uber when trips begin or end in their jurisdiction, with additional subsidies given when they connect to rail stations.
Uber could help solve the last-mile problem many communities face in public transportation planning. Instead of needing that additional in-fill station to connect more residents to a rail line, Uber could provide the transportation to the closest station. This has largely been the role of taxis, but Uber’s popularity and generally lower prices could result in even more people gaining access to transit without heavy government expenditures. Professor Kari Watkins of Georgia Tech points out that additional transit stations still have a major advantage over ridesharing in that they spur more density and ultimately take cars off the road if people can walk to transit stations instead of using Uber.
Ridesharing also fills a significant void in late-night transportation options. In most major cities, transit is either non-existent or very limited between 10pm and 4am. Research done by the American Public Transportation Association shows that ridesourcing now accounts for a signficant share of late night/early morning alternative transportation. So perhaps ridesharing alleviates the burden on local governments of needing to provide more late-night transit options. But is that a good thing?
Ridesharing may be a good alternative for those who can afford it, but may not be a great alternative for those who cannot. Reducing the need for government-provided late night transit options still presents us with the problem of providing transportation to lower-income or budget-conscious individuals. Subsidies for ridesharing sources could be more cost-effective than running additional trains during these hours. But we do know that significant racial discrimination is prevalent throughout the shared economy, whether it be Uber, Lyft, or AirBnb. Studies show that AirBnb hosts routinely discriminate when approving travelers and many claim that Uber’s driver/passenger rating system can facilitate racial discrimination. Trains and buses are less-capable of exercising such preferences.
On top of all this is the environmental problem of replacing trains and buses with more cars. Uber has an advantage over taxis in that its drivers generally go from point to point, as opposed to taxi drivers prowling the streets in search of passengers, which reduces the amount of emissions needed to complete tasks. But, cars are still pumping more emissions into the air per capita than trains and are pumping those emissions directly into communities. As Sarah Light discussed with University of Georgia Law Professors Joe Miller and Christian Turner on the podcast Oral Argument, Uber, or regulators, could address the problem by encouraging alternative-fuel vehicles or ramping up user-demand for shared Uber vehicles. The podcast is well-worth a listen as the three go down the rabbit hole of looking at the types of analyses needed to adequately address the environmental, economic, and labor issues of the ridesharing economy.
A well-functioning urban area needs a layered transportation network that addresses the different needs of residents at all times of the day. Ridesharing provides a great supplement to mass transit services and auto ownership. It can connect people when trains and buses aren’t available and it can provide a good alternative to those without cars when short auto trips are needed.