The Deep Implications of Dumb Transit Ideas

Recently, I’ve come across two very stupid transit ideas, both of which demonstrate lazy pessimism. The one you probably haven’t heard about is Boston Councilman Steve Murphy’s proposal for personal travel pods:

The Boston City Council tomorrow considers a proposal to open city streets to developers of small solar-powered “pods” that could provide individualized mass transit through a monorail and a large computer network that would let people set destinations for their pods and then just speed off.

Councilor Steve Murphy (at large) is seeking council permission for a hearing on letting a company build a pilot “solar personal rapid transit” system along or above Boston streets. In 2013, a company proposed a pod system for Columbia Point.

He says that if the new system takes off, it could save Massachusetts commuters an estimated $9 billion a year in time now wasted sitting in traffic – and provide a cleaner form of transportation to boot.

Now, in fairness to Murphy, he has a long tradition of being in the ‘slow councilman’s group’, so this is par for the course. What Murphy wants to do is build yet another mass transit system (Boston already has a bus and train system), which will require building a new infrastructure, rather than improving the current ones.

The dumb idea you might have heard about is Uber’s attempt to recreate a… bus system. Sorry, did I write recreate? I meant disrupt (boldface mine):

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick often talks about his dream of the perfect Uber trip. “It’s the perpetual trip, the trip that never ends,” he said at the Digital-Life-Design conference in Europe last October. “The driver picks one passenger up, picks another passenger up, drops off the first passenger, but then picks up passenger number three and drops off passenger number two.”

This week in San Francisco, Uber took a first step toward realizing the vision that Kalanick described. The ride-hail company began experimenting with a new ride option called Smart Routes. The idea is drivers will be able to both pick up and drop off passengers along a specific route, which in turn allows them to quickly pick up their next passenger. For now the company is experimenting with only two routes: Fillmore Street between Haight and Bay, and Valencia Street between 15th and 26th.

Uber Smart Routes are similar to traditional bus routes in that they follow a predetermined path between two points, but they differ by allowing passengers to request rides on demand. The catch, of course, is that customers get themselves to a Smart Route before they can use it. So it’s not exactly door-to-door service. For this reason Uber is discounting Smart Route rides by $1 or more.

That’s called a bus route. Except it’s done poorly. There are places where bus stops are very far apart, so this would appear to be an improvement. But there’s a reason why bus stops can be far apart (in most cities, they’re really not*): it’s not economical–for a non-profit bus–to stop everywhere. Moreover, this is classic libertarian free-loading, as having a bus randomly stop along a route, will snarl traffic for other people (and the public buses), both due to unexpected stops and not being able to pull over into a clearly-marked dedicated space.

What these two tales of idiocy share is lazy pessimism. Rather than doing the hard work of improving existing systems–which often serve multiple purposes (including connecting ‘costly’ areas to the rest of the system)–there is a belief that building a new system, usually is either privatized or for-profit, will somehow magically be immune to these problems. To a certain extent, they can be–if they exclude the less desirable customers, which is to say, the poor and minorities. Not awesome (boldface mine):

What’s remarkable, perhaps, is that for all of Uber and Lyft’s innovations, beyond a certain scale, they have yet to devise wholly unique or vastly differentiated solutions to the problems of moving people around in large cities. (This is not to downplay at all the enormous potential efficiencies of transit that is networked and dynamically responsive to rider demand, but only to point out that if public transit agencies were also beholden solely to people who own smartphones and mostly lived in relatively affluent areas, one could more easily imagine the MTA or Muni or the TLC making such upgrades.)

One of the more subtle underlying issues with the rise of Uber is the company’s slow siphoning of the political will to fix existing—or build new—public transit infrastructure in major cities. In Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America, Princeton Professor of Politics Martin Gilens shows that—as he put it in an article with Northwestern Professor of Decision Making Benjamin Page—“economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” As the wealthy—and, as the prices of Uber and Lyft fall, the slightly less so—essentially remove themselves from the problems of existing mass transit infrastructure with Uber and other services, the urgency to improve or add to it diminishes. The people left riding public transit become, increasingly, the ones with little or no political weight to demand improvements to the system.

And if it seems unreasonable to imagine a scenario in which the mass adoption of Uber leads to a potential death spiral for public transit—and the true privatization of mass transit—in some cities, one need only consider how many public services have emerged and then been sustained precisely because they aligned with the particular vision of economic elites during a given time period….

An exemplary case of Uber’s re-direction of the political will of its base was its total victory over Mayor Bill De Blasio’s hapless and deeply stupid campaign to limit the company’s growth in New York City—some of the final blows coming from celebrities (and even some business journalists!) tweeting messages written by Uber on its behalf. Would it be crazy to wonder what would happen if those same people mounted a similarly forceful campaign to get Governor Cuomo to clean out and fully fund the MTA to, say, make the L train less terrible?

Yes, it would be crazy. Because it won’t happen. While one would expect this sort of thing from Uber, one has to wonder why an at-large councilman doesn’t get this (other than the obvious joint explanations of dumbitude and not giving a damn about all of his constituents). Maybe someone should look into Murphy’s campaign donations….

*I routinely use the bus in D.C. (a couple trips per week), but I imagine most pundits writing about this rarely, if ever, use public buses, so I’m sure Uber’s idea seems awesome. For example (boldface mine):

TechCrunch’s Josh Constine compares Smart Routes to another “ride sharing service, Loup, which pays people to drive their cars and pick people up on bus-like routes through a city, and Chariot which does the same but with big vans.” …. (It is telling though that Constine notes that one of Uber’s Smart Routes runs “up Fillmore St. from Haight St. to Bay St. in the Marina, which the Bay Area’s BART service doesn’t cover,” when the route is directly covered by the SF MUNI 22 bus, which runs every eight minutes according to Google Maps.)

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3 Responses to The Deep Implications of Dumb Transit Ideas

  1. doug says:

    I’m assuming the intent with the solar powered pods is that each has its own photovoltaic array.

    With present PV tech, a minimum of about 3.7 square metre – hours would be required for each horsepower-hour. That assumes the array gets full “standard insolation” of a kilowatt per square metre, so it must be exposed to direct sun (Boston is always sunny, isn’t it?). It also assumes 100% efficiency in the power conversion system.
    This could work for an intermittent-use pod, but is unlikely to be even remotely practical for a pod in near-continuous use. A powered-down pod on a shared single-track path is something of a problem.

  2. anthrosciguy says:

    My idea – everybody gets a free personal teleportation device – is way better than Murphy’s.

    I love the “wow, we just invented the bus! Aren’t we awesome!” Deal. It’s 3 year olds with money.

  3. kaleberg says:

    You’ve never used the bus system in SF, have you? All the buses are local and stop every two or three blocks whether anyone wants to get on or get off. For short trips, this isn’t bad, but for longer trips this is insane. The buses may run often enough, but they take a long time to get from point A to point B. SF has tried to implement express buses, but advocates for the disabled have managed to prevent this. Uber is indeed reinventing the bus system, but in a way that SF cannot. I doubt that this proposed system would work in other cities. New York and Seattle, for example, both already have express buses, and New York has a subway as well.

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