Uber and other e-hail services won’t kill transit
These days, cities are bombarded by claims that driverless cars and transportation network companies make fixed-route transit unnecessary. These claims, often peddled by self-interested technology leaders or anti-transit activists, fail to grapple with geometry. Technology and venture capital can’t change the fact that 40 people in 40 cars take up more space than 40 people on a single bus. Transit——capable of moving up to 8,000 people per hour in a dedicated transit lane and up to 25,000 in a dedicated transitway——will always be the most space-efficient way of moving people. Private cars might carry up to 1,600 people per hour on an urban street. Even if driverless cars can travel closer together, it is difficult to imagine them outperforming transit in dense neighborhoods.
In major cities, e-hail companies have a competitive advantage at night and during other times when few people are traveling but cannot match the capacity of public transportation during peak travel hours. Recent research also calls into question transportation network companies’ overall financial viability—Uber in particular.
“Taxi policy” must reflect the city’s overall transportation goals
Taxi and for-hire vehicle policy is often viewed as a consumer-protection and licensing issue and is isolated from the departments and agencies that govern streets and transit.
The rapid emergence of ridehailing and microtransit companies, however, raises new issues, and cities need to be prepared to regulate and set incentives in new ways to respond to emerging challenges.
The role of cities is to assert and create incentives to promote the public interest—
Accessibility, equity, safety, sustainability——and to support new transportation modes in accordance with their ability to support the public interest. If a city wishes to reduce per-passenger pollution or reduce the number of vehicles on the road, for example, that city ought to create financial incentives and/or regulatory mandates that promote high-occupancy vehicle use. This basic notion of incentivizing cities’ strategic goals in line with the public interest applies equally to e-hail providers, taxis, personal vehicles, buses, trains, and (someday) autonomous vehicles. Some technology-specific questions are valid, but most are a distraction from core, fundamental issues like parking policy, street space allocation, and for-hire vehicle regulation.
For example, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority views e-hail and shuttle services as worth encouraging (and setting aside street and curb space for) because they reduce reliance on private automobiles. Bay Area Rapid Transit dedicates space for carsharing services at some of its rail stations, but only if the carshare space is predicted to generate more transit trips than a normal parking space. Similarly, it may be reasonable for cities and transit agencies to subsidize e-hail service or on-demand transit in areas currently served by marginal bus routes, if that bus service is redeployed to add frequency in places with high ridership.
Public assets can be used to leverage private resources
Cities have assets that can benefit emerging mobility companies, like street and curb space. These should be used as leverage to achieve policy goals. For example, Seattle allows a carshare company to park its vehicles freely within the city but requires that the service cover the entire city so that the benefit is not restricted to wealthier neighborhoods.