At a press conference announcing a new study about mobility in American cities on March 15, Lyft’s director of transportation described her company and competitor Uber as “allies.” And it is clear that city transit organizations are increasingly becoming part of the same alliance, one aimed at leveraging software and smartphones to lessen congestion and improve the efficiency of metropolitan transportation.
“We together can have a catalytic impact,” Lyft’s Emily Castor said at an event in Washington, D.C., in a fairly rare moment of solidarity with a company that aggressively competes for the same drivers and passengers in cities across the country.
The study, commissioned by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), analyzed the usage of personal cars, public transit and other “shared modes”—such as bikesharing, carsharing and the use of ride apps such as Uber and Lyft—in seven major cities: Austin, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C. What the study found is that these newer shared modes complement public transit, are linked to lower rates of car ownership and that public-private partnerships are the way forward.
“Still in their infancy”
But as they say in Silicon Valley, this mission is especially part of Lyft’s DNA, which began as a ride-sharing service, while Uber began as a black-car service. On March 14, Lyft announced that the company was launching a new carpooling feature in the app, in partnership with the Bay Area’s Metropolitan Transportation Commission, marking “the first time a government program has partnered with a ridesharing company on a new product.” And it is a harbinger of more partnerships to come, though the study notes that such collaborations are “still in their infancy.”
At the press conference, Uber’s David Plouffe and Lyft’s Castor were both adamant that improving mobility and working with cities to do that will be a focus of the companies’ missions going forward. “The math is the math, our cities are already bursting at the seams,” Plouffe said. “The only way our society is going to deal with that is to have fewer cars on the road.” On March 15, the company announced that it would be expanding its pooling option in the Bay Area down to San Jose, as well as farther-out towns like Hayward and Fremont, making it available to millions.
Plouffe added that taking cars off the road goes hand in hand with putting more people in the cars that remain. As part of the study, the researchers interviewed 4,500 people from those seven cities, and about 40% of them said they frequently drive alone. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the numbers are bleaker nationwide, with more than three of every four people driving to work in an otherwise empty car.
“First mile, last mile”
One area of emphasis among transit reformers is improving what is known as “first mile, last mile” service, referring to a mode of transportation that gets you right to your doorstep or office building either side of infrastructure like a subway or bus that takes you in that general direction. Cities such as Dallas, which was represented at the conference, are working on technology allowing people to buy tickets for all those modes, public and private, in a single app on their smartphone.
Putting the likes of Uber and city-run transit in one place, argued Dallas Area Rapid Transit’s Morgan Lyons, makes public transit “more relevant to people who might not have considered it.” And Lyft’s Castor said that it works the same way for the private companies, citing the positive effects of ad campaigns in places like San Francisco and Chicago that touted the paired use of public transit and Lyft, positioning them not as alternatives but as links in a chain. “We believe by doing that we can access customers that otherwise we wouldn’t be able to access,” Castor said.
The study identified a group that researchers dubbed “supersharers,” those who routinely use shared modes of transportation, and found that since starting to use those shared modes, many of them also started saving money on their transportation costs (30%) and either postponed buying a car (21%) or sold one and didn’t replace it (27%).
Trying to suss out the before-and-after picture is key. Lyft has repeatedly published statistics that, for example, show that big portions of rides in cities like San Francisco or New York originate near train stations. But unless you know what the person taking that ride was doing before they downloaded the Lyft app (e.g. driving their own car and clogging up the road, versus walking, versus taking a bus), it’s hard to understand the full effect these companies might be having on the transportation ecosystem.
In their remarks, Uber and Lyft also emphasized that they’re helping to fill the gaps for people in what are sometimes called “transportation deserts,” those areas in or around a city where public transportation isn’t readily available and cabs aren’t common. “That is something that can really change the equation in terms of transportation access and economic mobility,” Castor said.
According to the study, however, the biggest gaps the companies are currently filling are in the public transportation schedule, particularly late at night and very early in the morning. While about 20% of respondents said they had used transportation apps for their commute or to run errands in the past three months, more than half said they used them for a social or recreational trip. About 100 respondents mentioned, unprompted, that drinking was a factor in that decision.
The “contentious” topics
In addition to the survey, the study involved interviews with public agency officials and employees at private companies, as well as the analysis of data provided by those companies. When the panel at the event was asked about whether this research took into account controversial issues such as the status of workers who make money through ride apps or safety concerns, the first response was that the study simply wasn’t focused on that part of the puzzle. (Plouffe then added that users in generally “feel very secure.”)
The research does acknowledge that questions about how to regulate the likes of Uber and Lyft remain “contentious.” But based on the interviews with public agency officials, it’s clear that there is mutually beneficial ground on the horizon. “Public transit agencies recognize ridesourcing as part of the new urban fabric,” the study notes, adding that city officials are “happy to let private providers lead in developing customer-facing technologies.”
The study and panel also discussed future ways to improve, like figuring out ways to provide more paratransit options for the disabled and focusing on increasing mobility for the elderly—both “highly regulated” areas—as well as figuring out how the services provided by through these apps can be used by people who don’t have money for a smartphone. As APTA chair Valarie J. McCall noted in a fair and fitting cliche, “this is just the beginning.”