Uber and Mass Transit: Complements in Conflict

Since I last analyzed cab shares in the outer borough taxi data, bloggers at FiveThirtyEight and Market Urbanism have written about how taxis interact with mass transit.

Nate Silver and Reuben Fischer-Baum first noticed the complementary nature of Uber and mass transit. Rather than stealing customers from mass transit in a competitive way, Uber and mass transit should be seen as two members of the basket of transportation goods someone who doesn't own a car is using. In this way, usage of Uber and mass transit will both go up as private car ownership goes down.

Jeff Fong at Market Urbanism continued this reasoning to state that Uber is actually solving the "last mile problem" of mass transit. He says that not only are Uber and mass transit being used to complement each other in the long run (meaning, today I can choose to take Uber or the subway to get downtown), but they are complements within a single trip. He goes on to explain that what matters is density. This sort of interaction works in New York because of its density, and wouldn't have the same effect in LA or Houston. I've anecdotally seen this happen in Boston, a dense city with a smaller mass transit system. There, Uber functions more like an every day form of transit, while in New York it is more of a luxury good.

My analysis shows that this dynamic between cabs and transit predates Uber. New York's transit is amazing, but has largely stopped growing in recent years (next week's new 7 train station is the first one opening in my lifetime.) Development and population growth have continued despite transit's lack of growth. Given this growing demand in the outer boroughs and fixed supply, it's no wonder informal arrangements with cab companies came about before the technology was there to support it.

Jeff Fong was right to focus on density being conducive to alternative transportation modes, but I'd continue his line of reasoning to say that the real problem is the disconnect between transit development, real estate development, and population dynamics. The New York City subways were originally built through farmland, in anticipation of a growing city. Now, it's difficult to build a line through the most dense neighborhoods in the city, which does not bode well to providing expansion where it's truly needed: in the fringes.

There needs to be a new relationship forged between mass transit and development. Development should be happening organically as population grows, and the infrastructure to support that population needs to expand alongside it. We shouldn't be building subways based on where people are living now, we should be building subways in preparation for people 50 years from now.

If mass transit organizations don't do this, Uber will be extremely happy to fill in that demand. Uber is extremely convenient, but there's value to having this demand be filled locally. The relationship between commuters and cabbies on these streets evolved organically. What started out as a few frustrated commuters deciding to take a cab instead of the bus led cabbies to more frequently monitor the bus routes. Over time, the demand was so great that a cab share agreement spontaneously developed.

Uber is a one size fits all organization. It's aiming to be the department of transportation for the world. It's revolutionary, but it will absolutely kill these informal relationships. This is where local departments of transit should be aiming. They should be developing locally to fill in these gaps, and I'm afraid that they'll whither away in the face of Uber if they don't.

When private cars first became adopted, this unfulfilled demand expressed itself in auto-dominated sprawl. Now that we're on the cusp of a new transportation paradigm, we should encourage our mass transit organizations to correct the mistakes of the past, or they will be pushed to the side by Uber just as they were pushed to the side by the private car.
Read more ...

Mapping New York's Hidden Transit Demand

Traditional transit in New York is fairly easy to monitor, and newer systems such as CitiBike share their data publicly for analysis. The city's transit mix is much more complicated however, and to truly get an idea of what's going on you need to analyze more informal systems. The New Yorker recently surveyed the city's informal dollar van system. You can easily see the established routes making their way through traditionally underserved areas.

I was interested in an even more informal and less well defined system: taxi shares. Companies like Uber and Lyft did not discover cab sharing, they simply provided a way to formalize it. Before these technologies existed, those in the know could simply wait by a bus stop and expect a livery cab to come more frequently than a city bus. Once the cab fills up, each passenger pays $2, and gets taken to the nearest subway station.

I knew this informal arrangement existed on 108th St in Forest Hills, roughly between the Long Island Expressway and the Forest Hills-71st express stop, and was curious if it existed elsewhere. The smaller scale nature of it would make it harder to find established routes. Now that borough taxis have been centralized, taxi GPS data can now be reliably collected for the outer boroughs. Thanks to the legwork Chris Whong did FOILing the data, I was able to visualize potential routes.

Using trips during the month of June 2014, I searched for cab rides that ended at subway stations. I limited my search to the morning rush hour (7AM - 10AM), since it's easier for spontaneous routes to develop when everyone is heading to a central subway station. 

To try to establish a pattern, I first checked out the route along 108th St I knew about:

108th Street pretty clearly shows up as a cluster. Looking at other stops, guesses can be made about where similar cab sharing might be going on. Two stops down in Kew Gardens, for example, a stronger pattern emerges coming from the south, and potentially the east:

In addition to smaller express stops, there was a similar pattern around the terminus at Ditmars:

And Clark St, which seems to be an alternative to the F and G lines in South Brooklyn:

Major express stops would probably require a bit more research. Roosevelt Ave in Jackson Heights for example had a large volume of cabs flowing towards it:

There could perhaps be a few routine lines here, but it seems a bit more evenly spread out. You can see a similar pattern with Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn:

And E 180th Street in the Bronx:

Check out the full map below(or click here to open in a new window). Click on the stations to filter cabs terminating there and try to find anything I missed. I'd be interested to hear from anyone who has experience with these shares!
Read more ...

My Entry to the Bank of England's Data Visualization Competition

I recently completed a project for The Bank of England's Data Visualization Contest as part of their "One Bank Research Agenda." You can look at the original page, or check out the embedded viz below:

Read more ...

CitiBike's Open Data Reveals the Future of Transportation in New York

Due to the nature of its usage, CitiBike has some of the most granular data available. Unlike a shared service like the subway, every single ride has a record, leading to some unique insights.

Not only is every ride logged: the system itself is incredibly open ended. While transit hubs exist for a reason, looking at public transit usage patterns can magnify the importance of these hubs.

Slicing out the weekdays, I aggregated the trips by station and hour. Subtracting the number of bikes leaving each station from the number of bikes arriving led to a "flow" of bikes to and from each station. In the map, you'll see reds when more bikes are coming in and blues when more bikes are leaving. Below is what I came up with, animated by the hour:

There are a few interesting patterns here.

Going into this I expected to see a more traditional flow into Midtown and the Financial District. In addition to these classic office districts, the entirety of Central Manhattan gets included in the rush hour pattern. Newer, younger, and more creative offices can be found from Chelsea to SoHo. Since CitiBike arguably trends towards younger and more creative types, these areas get over represented on the map. 

My personal rush hour strategy was also confirmed: in an attempt to find available stations in Midtown, I go closer to Grand Central, in order to take advantage of people doing a Metro North to CitiBike commute.

The average weekend, as expected, doesn't have a strong rush hour effect... unless you count the late night rush hour to the East Village:

These patterns have a few implications. Looking at CitiBike demand shows just how decentralized the demand for transit really is. Public transit traditionally focuses on hubs, and encourages use towards dense centers. CitiBike allows users to go wherever they want within the zone. Given this option, people will take advantage.

There isn't much variety in classic transit options: there previously wasn't an option between a fixed public transit system and private cars. I've written in the past about how different transit options are beginning to get bundled, and how innovation at Uber and Lyft are giving people more choice. Instead of a fixed bundle, a sliding scale of convenience versus price is evolving. 

In addition to more choices, technology is reducing the friction between different modes of transportation. New systems like CitiBike allow biking to be more easily combined with rail (according to the new CEO of the company behind CitiBike, he'd like to even further remove friction by unifying systems across cities.) Public transit apps allow users to more easily coordinate between different types of transit, in New York allowing people to more easily catch feeder buses into transit hubs.

Taken together, these innovations are allowing alternative transportation modes to approach the level of convenience of private cars. CitiBike and apps like Uber are completely decentralized, no longer restricting travel between points outside of the central city, while traditional public transit innovations is widening its footprint, and allowing more users further from stations to be served.

Where can this go next?

So far these advances are working really great for Manhattan and Brownstone Brooklyn, but they could be expanded further out into the boroughs. Alongside tech friendly advances in the city, low tech innovations have been occurring in the boroughs. Express buses fill in the gaps between the subways, and there's an entire shadow transit system, from dollar vans to informal $2 cab shares. Properly analyzed, these can bring into focus the hidden demand that the MTA isn't currently fulfilling. CitiBike mini-networks for example can begin surrounding subway termini, increasing the service area and allowing a cheap way to travel point to point around the outer boroughs.

Over the long run, this would hopefully increase the supply of urban land throughout New York. Less dense areas between subway termini could be "filled in." As more people are using more decentralized modes of transit, these areas could begin to support more urban amenities. Allowing denser development in these areas would complete the virtuous cycle.

Read more ...