Uber Can’t Replace Transit — Here Are 3 Reasons Why

Cars consume a lot more space to move the same amount of people as a bus.
Cars consume a lot more space to move the same amount of people as a bus. Photo: Solaris Bus and Coach

Transit projects from Detroit to Nashville are running up against a new argument from opponents. The latest line from anti-transit types is that ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft are going to make fixed-route bus or rail service obsolete.

It doesn’t hold up if you’ve given some thought to the huge amount of space cars consume compared to buses or trains. But many people don’t spend their days thinking about the spatial efficiency of transit.

If you find yourself arguing with someone about why transit is essential, a new fact sheet from TransitCenter can help. It makes the case that Uber can’t replace transit in clear, compelling terms that anyone can understand [PDF].

Here are TransitCenter’s three points for transit advocates to commit to memory.

1. Uber and Lyft hog too much space

Let’s say, hypothetically, that a city gives up on transit service because officials think Uber and Lyft can take care of things from now on. Imagine what happens next: Everyone who rides the LA Metro Bus system suddenly crowds onto the 405 in an Uber, every passenger on New York’s L train has to hail a ride over the Williamsburg Bridge. The result would be total gridlock.

Uber and Lyft have some advantages in certain contexts. But car services can’t overcome urban geometry.

2. Even lightly-used transit beats heavily-used ride-hailing services

Not every bus is packed, but even a mostly-empty bus can use streets more efficiently than Ubercars. A bus carrying about 10 passengers per service hour is generally considered to be “low-performing,” TransitCenter points out. But that still beats the pants off ride-hail services.

“For an Uber or Lyft driver to serve ten people per hour,” writes TransitCenter, “it would mean the driver is picking up a new passenger every six minutes, physically impossible in American cities.”

3. Demand for transit peaks at different times than demand for taxis

If you look at when Uber and Lyft are most popular, it’s during the night, when transit runs less often. Meanwhile, transit is at its fullest during the a.m. and p.m. rush. Not many people use Uber and Lyft for regular commuting.

Transit and ride-hailing services can complement each other — especially at times or in places where transit is weaker. But don’t be taken in by anyone predicting the end of transit — buses and trains aren’t going anywhere.

49 thoughts on Uber Can’t Replace Transit — Here Are 3 Reasons Why

  1. On the other hand, Jarrett Walker has been critical of agencies cutting service even in peripheral areas: https://twitter.com/humantransit/status/809195015368912896 This is where you would be lucky to get 10 passengers per hour on a bus in the midday, late evening, or weekends. One of Walker’s most recent contracts is Escalon, CA, a city of 8,000 with a circulator bus that has a $20+ subsidy per rider. It will be interesting to see what he recommends there.

  2. Weeell, using the example of a small rural town in the middle of nowhere to prove that ride-hails are better than transit in big cities is a little disingenuous, but I’ll bite.

    I’ve lived in small towns before, and it’s true, they just can’t support a bus system, but before suggesting that ride hailing apps can solve this problem, you might want to ask whether a town of 8,000 where most people already drive could support even one ride-hail driver.

    Escalon is about two miles across and flat, so a bike trip anywhere
    in town would take about 10 minutes. And that’s without pushing hard enough to break a sweat.

    Seriously, Stockton is 20 miles away, you’re going to use a bus to get there because the ride-hail fare would be huge, but that’s an efficient interurban with only a couple of stops. As long as you can bring a bicycle on the bus, you can go to all your destinations in the big city, get on the bus and be back in bucolic Escalon without too much trouble.

    If I was going to solve California’s transit problems, I’d revamp the transit system so that it carried one bike per passenger and stopped once every five miles (ok, two and a half). That way, local trips are done by bike, and longer distances are done by bus/bike.

  3. Also note that pics like the above, while they viscerally illustrate the point, actually understate the difference in required space… cars require much more space, because they need to be separated by a long distance at any speed. For instance, using the “3 second rule” [of thumb], a car going 30mph needs 40-50m of lane.

    This is a key factor in the greater space-efficiency of mass transit: the inter-vehicle space required for safety is amortized over a huge number of passengers.

  4. Even more than that, actually: when those people arrive at their destinations, the people in the cars will need almost an acre of land for parking, and the bus riders… won’t.

  5. While I share the writer’s skepticism of taxis (may as well call them that) as a workable solution, it’s not for the reasons in the article. For #1, no one is seriously promoting taxis-as-transit is aiming at heavily-trafficked routes like the L-train. That’s clearly ridiculous. They’re aiming at lightly-used lines that require large subsidies.

    #2 is closer to the mark, but you don’t necessarily need to replace buses 1-for-1 to make it worthwhile. Even if replacing a bus requires two or three vehicles (and I’m assuming here that they’ll be using “Uberpool” or the equivalent), the costs might still be less overall, since buses are expensive to run. This is a question of numbers. And the service provided will probably be much better than a fixed-route, low-frequency bus, which is worth something. Using the streets efficiently isn’t likely to be a concern on a low-usage route, and while a full bus will beat the pants off single-occupant vehicles, a bus with only a few passengers may be worse congestion-wise than 2-3 cars. Again, all this only applies to very low-ridership lines.

    #3 seems like a non-sequitur. If transit agencies started subsidizing them for commuters, they would surely become a lot more popular for commuters. It’s not really relevant how popular they are now.

    But I see a different problem: such a scheme will quickly become far too “successful”. Low-usage routes may require high subsidies per person, but that’s because they serve few people– the total cost is not that high. If it’s replaced by subsidized taxis, though, this will be much more likely to be used by a large number of people, because it will be much more effective and convenient. As such, even if the per-person subsidy is similar, you’ll have a lot more people to subsidize, and the scheme will fail for that reason.

    Effective transit works by taking advantage of economies of scale, by connecting walkable neighborhoods and dense downtowns, minimizing the amount of infrastructure needed per person. Low density areas are always going to suffer from transportation options that are either expensive or offer poor service, and there’s no magic bullet for that. Better keep the bus line and work on improving the built environment around it.

  6. I live in Healdsburg California, population 11,000. We moved here from San Francisco, where we owned only one car. I have steadfastly refused to buy a second car despite the fact that up here there are more obstacles, I bike everywhere. I shop for groceries when I need them at stores in town 2 miles away, my wife is less attuned to this and considers driving to the larger grocery further away less frequently to buy large amounts of stuff more appropriate, but even I might want a car to go to Ace Hardware and buy power tools and lumber.

    For 3 years or so it wasn’t too tough, but we hit a minor logjam when my son needed to be ferried to more places more often, we do ride the tandem bike around but in very inclement weather or in the dark it would get tricky if my wife had to go out of town with the vehicle.

    Uber has closed that gap. I have been able to find drivers available at 5:45 AM or 10 PM, in this tiny little town. Never an issue once it got traction.

    So what does that net out to? It costs me $15 to take an Uber somewhere so I will ride my bike unless it really calls for an Uber. If we owned a second car I’d drive more than I take Uber. More vehicle trips, and a second car.

  7. I know I’ve said this before, but that makes a case *for* Uber, not against it. If we remove private car ownership and go to a shared car model, we can repurpose so much parking for housing that we can increase density. That makes for shorter overall trips – trips that are much more likely to be by walking or bike! And even if people decide to take an Uber, the overall VMT is lower because the trip is shorter.

    I do agree wholeheartedly for major trunk lines we should use buses and trains. Right now, a lot of those forms struggle because of the last mile problem. “How do you get to the train?” In San Francisco that was a cobbled together fabric of walk, bus, taxi, bike, skateboard, whatever. Walking worked if you were close. Bus worked if you were on the line that went to the train and was frequently time consuming and riddled with missed connections. Taxis are expensive. Bikes have theft issues, so we cobbled together random solutions of bike lockers, valets, and using up space on the train to run 80 bikes per train – which is a good thing for last mile on both ends, but for many the only reason people are taking the bike on the train is to prevent theft. Using Uber as a seamless last mile could revolutionize the way people think about taking these big trunk rapid lines.

    I do like the skateboards though.

  8. That just proves that Uber is more useful in a small town like Healdsburg (which may not have much transit) than in San Francisco, which has much transit.

  9. “Much” is true – but frequently not “adequate”. Most of the city cannot connect to the major heavy rail serving the city without making a connection.

  10. “where most people already drive could support even one ride-hail driver.”

    Are you aware that ride-hail drivers can have other jobs, and use the same car they use for other purposes? There could be 10 people using ride-hail to supplement their income.

  11. It only “makes a case for Uber” when compared to private cars in the same usage scenario.

    It does not make a case for Uber compared to mass-transit.

    Uber does not make a good solution for the “last mile” problem, for exactly the same reason cars don’t: it puts pressure against increased density, and encourages car-only development around stations, which is a very bad fit for mass-transit.

    Good solutions to the last-mile problem include increased density around stations (making walking viable for more people) and Japanese/Dutch-style high-density bicycle parking at transit stations.

  12. “But I see a different problem: such a scheme will quickly become far too “successful”. Low-usage routes may require high subsidies per person, but that’s because they serve few people– the total cost is not that high. If it’s replaced by subsidized taxis, though, this will be much more likely to be used by a large number of people, because it will be much more effective and convenient. As such, even if the per-person subsidy is similar, you’ll have a lot more people to subsidize, and the scheme will fail for that reason.”

    A very good point.

  13. “Puts pressure against increased density” – compared to what?

    The biggest barrier to density is parking.

  14. Guess TransitCenter people never worked for a living? Or are they self-aware enough to know advocating for the interests of riders falls on deaf ears? A bus ride is only an order of magnitude cheaper than a taxi, or more, under many circumstances. That ought to be enough to make a thinking person realize this Uber as transit idea won’t work.

  15. Compared to surrounding transportation hubs with walkable commercial and retail areas not separated by 6 lanes of very high speed traffic as is the norm in the United States.

    Yes. parking is the biggest barrier to density, but we are talking about those already using public transportation, not those parking in urban lots. Spreading out users of compact modes (buses) to individual cars will also put pressure street design.

  16. Agreed – my point is that if we have an empty urban lot – or more pernciously we allocate 1/4 of potential urban living space for private garages, we are taking land that could house people so close to destinations that they don’t take a bus OR an uber, they simply walk.

    Other examples are people taking a bus from say, the Richmond in SF to downtown. The trip on the 38 Geary is a slog in large part because of traffic, which in large part is a function of double parked cars.. San Francisco is mired in a long war to remake Geary in order to provide a bus only lane, which would be a hell of a lot easier to sell if the various players weren’t so defensive of keeping a lane for parking. Get rid of the parking problem and the bus only lane happens much more quickly and we have a better result. Because of that new, much better transit mode, people are attracted to the bus, driving the model I envision for Uber where it’s not the primary mode that everyone seems to fear, but a supplemental mode that enables the big changes we need.

    Elsewhere on this thread someone envisions people using bikes. Why do people refrain from using bikes? They are worried they will get hit, in large part because cycling infrastructure is so poor. What’s the biggest enemy of better cycling infrastructure? Parking. Even when the argument comes down to removing a travel lane, that battle wouldn’t have to happen if we could remove the parking lane.

  17. I generally agree with Walker I think. 10 passengers/service-hour might be a bit too low during daytime service hours, but there is certainly a place for a large periphery network. They still offer options and value for the users of the bread-and-butter routes.

  18. Ideally Uber would be completely irrelevant to mass transit. Needing Uber should be the exception, not the rule.

    Bikes on trains should be allowed on sufferance. Bikes on buses should probably be disallowed under many, perhaps most, circumstances. Exceptions for very slow times or special circumstances (e.g., there’s no bike lane on the bridge between Staten and Island and Brooklyn, and no parallel subway).

  19. Well… it’s hard to see that as anything but a stunt. It can’t be breaking even for Uber. It’s also not a competitor to the L train, since it’s only good in lower Manhattan. And even if these weren’t an issue, it’s clearly not scalable to large numbers of people.

    I mean, it’s telling that they offered it for two months and then stopped.

  20. Why isn’t bikes on train scalable? If you spend enough to provide one bike space for each passenger who wants to bring one, it scales at a constant rate. You just have to accept that a passenger with a bike takes up slightly more space than a passenger without a bike.

    You’re about to say, but that’s too expensive. And it is if your train system has a separate budget from your bus system. However, if every bike on the train means two seats on a bus not needed (one on each end) then every time you don’t have to run a bus, the system saves the cost of a bus, more than offsetting the extra space on the train.

  21. By “not scalable” I mean “it doesn’t work if everybody does it.”

    A passenger with a bike doesn’t just take up “slightly more space,” he takes up a lot more space. As a side issue, loading bikes is also more time-consuming that loading passengers, which hurts dwell time (which directly impacts the capacity of the system, as high-capacity lines needs to run a lot of trains).

    The reason trains work so well for mass transit is that you can pack an awful lot of people on them, very quickly, which lets you handle transportation peaks without massively overbuilding the infrastructure.

    Having some space for bikes on trains is nice, but it simply isn’t practical for everybody on the train (or most of them) to have a bike along with them.

    To be a practical solution, it needs to work when it’s the default.

  22. Sure it’s practical. It just takes a bit of design work.

    BART is configuring its new trains to have three doors, I can imagine some smart designer coming up with a train car whose entire wall rolls up or something similar.

    And as for taking a lot more space, it’s three seats, one for the passenger and two for the bike, but really, if you pile them up, it’s about 1.5 for the bike.

    You’re going to save at each end, where you end up not running local buses. it makes up for reduced capacity per car requiring more cars per train, or more frequent trains. Or interuban busses with fewer seats.

    The problem is that generally, interurban transit is under a separate budget from the local systems that feed it, so the administrators don’t see that saving and are not motivated to make it happen.

  23. Uber is going to go bankrupt. People can’t get around by taxi because it takes an expensive form of transportation — the automobile — and makes it even more expensive by adding a driver. That’s why they are so desperate to go driverless before going under. Uber is caught between high costs for riders and low wages for drivers. It is losing massive money.

    However, the system Uber and Lyft created is socially valuable, if it could be altered for use for actual dynamic carpooling.

    With much lower fares, drivers just trying to get enough money to cover the cost of the car while making trips they would have made anyway, a fee of perhaps 25 cents per ride, and a company with a much lower market cap. And that could be useful in places where population densities are too low for transit without deep subsidies.

    Perhaps they’ll be bought out of bankruptcy for that purpose. But unless you can get a ride for, perhaps, 50 cents more than a transit ride, with a company that isn’t losing money on every ride, it isn’t going to work.

    Of course if they do go driverless, and the subway still relies on workers who earn (including retirement benefits) multiples of what the riders do, wouldn’t that be ironic?

  24. Sure it’s practical. It just takes a bit of design work.

    If you really want to make your case, the best way would be to point to an existing example.

    The only system I know about that tries to carry significant numbers of bikes is CalTrain, which is not a high-capacity line. [Caltrain is about 50-60k passengers / day, with two tracks. A high capacity line would be a million passengers per day on two tracks.]

    Otherwise all we can do is estimate.

    A bike “space” is about 2m long, by 0.33m wide, by 1.5m high, if you really pack them in. Bikes can be stacked vertically, as with the common double-tier bike-racks, which halves the floor space they require. In total that means about 0.33m^2 / bike. But note that such a solution would almost certainly significantly increase dwell time even with large numbers of doors. It would also probably require dedicated racks on the train, meaning the space wouldn’t be available for passengers.

    Typical space for passengers is 0.4/0.5 m^2/pp [I’m using “pp” to mean “passenger” here] for longitudinal/transverse seating, and less for standees, from 0.4m^2/pp in “comfortable” (no touching adjacent passengers) standing room to 0.2m^2/pp or even less for crush loads.

    A typical high-capacity line can carry from 150-250 passengers per car (the upper end being peak crush loads), with 2 minute headways and dwell-times on the order of 20-30s. To do this generally means a single-level car with large numbers of doors, level boarding (high platforms), and longitudinal seating to maximize the amount of standing room.

    Even using a very densely packed bike storage on cars would probably halve their capacity, result in much higher dwell times, and make trains less comfortable for passengers (because the amount of space available for passengers would be much less). It would also require significant changes to stations (read: make everything much bigger) to ensure enough the ability to handle peak loads without problems.

  25. Small towns and suburban/exurban areas which comprises of most of the land area of the United States and a good percentage of its population. The system in Escalon is basically a fixed route bus that makes three trips a day to Modesto, the nearest big city (not Stockton for which it has little in common other than sharing the same county) combined with dial a ride service in town when it is not driving to and from Modesto. Could there be a better way of serving the residents of Escalon? And, for suburban areas with less than 4 or 8 units per acre, could there be a better way of serving them?

  26. I use a skateboard at one end of my commute. It saves me a few minutes versus walking. A bike would be an option, but there are no bike storage facilities at that transit center even though there are acres of free parking and given the limited space for bikes on buses (2 per bus), there are way too many times I would have to wait for at least the next bus to have space for a bike. And when peak frequencies are typically 15 to 30 minutes, that’s just not acceptable. It’s the difference between being on-time to work versus 30 or more minutes late.

  27. TransitCener is trying to argue with the sort of techno-utopians who live in a bubble in DC, SF, or certain universities. These goofball techno-utopians do not worry about the cost of commuting and are usally very highly paid. They really are making bogus claims that taxis will replace all public transit.

  28. Yes, of course it’s a stunt, the problem is that certain rich and influentical people are taking it seriously.

  29. “Walk” is the normal answer for “how do you get to the train”, and works for the *entire country of England*, so… really, quite applicable to any major city, *if we have enough train lines*, which we don’t yet.

  30. I remember reading about somewhere which simply had self-serve bike-rack train car trailers. Open topped, open sided, walk up and slide in the bike; I think each one held 30. I can’t remember where it was and I can’t find it.

    Above that level you need to park the bikes at the stations.

  31. Actually, low-density small towns and low-density suburban/exurban areas *don’t* comprise a good percentage of the population. (There are high-density small towns; you can mostly walk across them.)

  32. Google Waze was trying this in the Bay Area, paying drivers the IRS rate of 50 cents-ish a mile. The problem is you need a critical mass for this to work – definitely in the peak hours, not so much late at night or on weekends.

  33. I guess that depends how high the bike usage is and what it’s projected to become in the future. I’m currently living in the Netherlands and bikes are not allowed on trains during the morning and evening rush hours, and the daily fee is quite high if you do that every day. The restriction is annoying for meetings because unless I want to leave way earlier or way later, one of the trips is always happening during rush hour and so I can’t even take my bike if I wanted to.

    But if they didn’t have these restrictions, the trains just wouldn’t be able to handle the amount of bikes people would probably take onto them. On average, about 40% of train passengers arrive to the station by bike. I can’t imagine what solution would accommodate that. A lot of people have a 2nd bike locked at the other station or will use the national bike rental system, OV Fiets. Still others have a folding bike, which is allowed at all times for free.

  34. I know TransitCenter isn’t making it up. They’re righ about this.

    Still, that they didn’t really touch upon my point in their article is kind of strange. Do they not care either? Do their readers not care? Do politicos not care?

  35. It’s not profitable unless you do it full time, though, now that the pay structures of Uber and Lyft have changed… the pay rates are so low you can only turn a profit if you make their incentives, which means hitting a certain number of fares per week.

  36. To the extent that SF’s transit is inadequate, make it better, instead of blowing all the money and political capital on trying to somehow shoehorn cars into a role they’re ill-suited for (“just a fewwwww more lanes” ><).

  37. Someone should send this article to our moronic MassDOT transportation secretary Stephanie Pollack. Pollack wants to replace MassDOT transit services for the handicap, elderly, and veterans with Uber; and praises the unregulated taxi companies as MassDOT-MBTA transit use plummets. Even her fellow MassDOT board members can’t stand her. They explain how Uber is eating into MassDOT’s bottom line, and she screams. In the meantime. Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, and Hyde Park in Boston have called Pollack out on her DMU, diesel multiple unit, bull, and are rightfully shouting transit inequality. What does Pollack do? She arm-twists a local pol, William Brownsberger (aka the Brownnoser) to throw cold water on DMUs yet again. If Toronto can run a modern DMU that serves the city’s black community, Boston can do the same. Instead, Pollack wants to give the transit keys to Uber while Boston transit collapses

  38. Obviously Pollack doesn’t know what venture capital is. Most of the Uber, Lyft knock-offs are running on fumes. Uber, Lyft will fold in a matter of months. Their objective now is to find dumb government suckers to latch onto, and Pollack is that dumb Massachusetts sucker

  39. Pollack doesn’t know what anything is. She’s a connected house-spouse who likes the title “transportation expert”. I had a chat with a group from Massachusetts, and they all said the same thing. If a lobbyist gives Pollack a big enough dinner, and tells her she doesn’t have to lift a finger if their proposal goes through, she’s sold. Telling Pollack she doesn’t have to do any work is music to her ears. Henceforth, Uber, Lyft, and Bridj are reaping the benefits.

  40. Who said that Uber was going to replace transit systems, other than the transit and taxi unions who probably have the most to lose?

  41. I was under the impression that most UberX drivers are making trips they would already make anyway by car (albeit, with slight detours for the purpose of collecting and dropping off their fares), and simply contracted with Uber to make extra money.

  42. In places like NYC and SF, there’s one “parking” lane and one “loading” lane de facto on each side of the street. That leaves, on a four lane street, one traffic lane each way.

  43. ha! There is an old photo from Aachen in Germany, from the 70s, that demonstrated the same. Glad we are still talking about this! Cars take too much space, regardless of whether they drive themselves, or are driven by a driver, or you drive themselves. Every single solution that involves cars has that same problem. We are out of space for cars!

  44. Given that we have a small town just 20 minutes up the road from a city with a bus system (Modesto), I think the obvious solution is to just contract with Modesto to pay the increment cost of extending one of it’s lines 5 miles up the road into Escalon, and looping at the Escalon end with several stops that serve local trips, all the while collecting passengers for the trip back to Modesto and the connection to the rail system at the transit station there.

    At a typical price of $100 per hour of bus operation (15 minutes up, 15 down, 15 minutes for a loop or two), the incremental cost would almost certainly be lower per passenger, and the more frequent and reliable service would attract more use. Dial-a-Ride is nice, but for a small town, calling and waiting for a ride that’s at most a few minutes is a lot of hassle compared to a scheduled service.

    If I was really ambitious, I would suggest a one-way loop also serving Riverbank and the Modesto Amtrak San Joaquins station (since Escalon has the indignity of having Amtrak roll regularly through town without stopping). Up McHenry Avenue to Escalon, local loop, then down Santa Fe to Riverbank, on to the Amtrak station, then down Scenic Drive into central Modesto for their transit center. At low frequency, time the bus to meet the Amtrak. Run it like an peak express through Modesto.

    That’s probably an hour loop, with half in the city of Modesto, and with Escalon and Riverbank splitting the cost for the other half-hour … serving a lot of possible trips pretty efficiently.

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