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.

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