If you think Uber is an attack on cities and transit, you ain't seen nothin' yet
TreeHugger has long complained about how what started as “the sharing economy” turned into something very different. As for Uber, Gary Legum describes it in Salon as “the ride-sharing technology company that dared to ask, “What if you could order a gypsy cab on your iPhone?” In its short existence, Uber has, in 21st-century business-speak, “disrupted” the taxi industry by turning anyone with a car into a potential cab driver.”
In Slate, Henry Grabar describes how “Cities across the country are cutting public transportation because they think ride-hailing services will fill the gap. They’ll regret it.” He explains how it is being seen as an answer to the answer to the famous “last mile problem”, and being tried out as a way of getting rid of expensive, marginal transit services.
The rise of ride-hailing companies is increasingly viewed not as a fix for bad service but as its justification. It is invoked, as you might expect, in bad faith by conservatives who have advocated against public investment for decades. But even pro-transit politicians and officials have begun to see ride-hailing services as an acceptable substitute for public transit.
This is not dissimilar to what I have written about self-driving cars as transit, and conservative politicians who see it as a way of demeaning traditional techologies as “dinosaur mass transit” that will not be needed soon.
Now Jarret Walker of Human Transit reiterates Henry Grabar’s points, and writes:
Politically, as a working consultant, I can confirm Grabar’s observation that “Uber” is becoming as a generic reason to let transit fall apart. I am constantly told that Uber will make transit obsolete. As Grabar notes, some of this is just easy rhetoric for people who dislike transit for cultural reasons, or who oppose public investment of any kind.
Walker also reminds us that there are many questions these days about how much money Uber actually loses on every ride it takes. But then comes the zinger:
These two strands converge in the geometry problem that is at the core of urbanist alarm: If travelers shift from larger vehicles (like buses) into smaller ones (like Ubers) you increase Vehicle Miles Travelled, which increases congestion, emissions, and the demand for road space. This is tolerable in low-density areas but an existential threat to dense cities… as we know, cars’ inefficient use of urban space is rarely reflected in the cost of urban driving, and Uber skates through on the same invisible subsidy that all urban motorists enjoy. Transit, which doesn’t enjoy any such subsidy, is unable to properly reflect its efficient use of space in its pricing.
We know that Uber with drivers is just the first step on their journey to red-light hopping self-driving cars, so all of the arguments we have made about them hold true here: Individual cars simply cannot handle the number of people that buses, light rail and subways can.
The arguments that Grabar and Walker make about Uber are primarily economic, but to use Walker’s favourite term, the bigger problems are geometric, the problems that apply when the cars become autonomous. Then we really hit the limits of congestion and demand for road space. You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.