Talking Headways Podcast: Uber’s Transit Moves

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This week, we’re joined by Chris Pangilinan, head of Global Policy for Public Transportation at Uber. He talks with us about walled gardens, Uber’s partnerships with transit agencies, accessibility on transit and much more.

Many people tell us they prefer to read the news than listen to it, so we have a full transcript (with typos!) here and excerpted highlights below the audio player. Enjoy it either way:

Jeff Wood: There’s been a lot of discussion about the competition between say Uber and transit agencies. I understand specifically the idea behind paratransit and routing. I know that for example, my grandmother used to use paratransit and it was a slog. You called somebody and then it came to the next day and maybe in two hours and maybe they didn’t come, and it was super frustrating. But for a regular transit service, what’s the benefit?

Chris Pangilinan: Yeah. So you kind of alluded to two things here. One is this competition/complementarianism between the two modes, but also the other one is, “What’s the benefit?” And I think focusing on the benefit, first, is an interesting area here where I think we could all argue that buses and trains can probably take off 90 percent plus have all public transportation demand the United States. And it does great job of it — moving to a lot of people within high-frequency corridors. But transit can sometimes fall apart a little bit when its outer area is less dense or areas that are dense during the day, but perhaps are not as dense at night, either by land use or by travel pattern.

And there is potential benefit of having a TNC-style service or on-demand service that can reach places faster. Let’s say than an hour or half-hour headway, maybe as fast as 10 minutes or five minutes and get people directly or with a carpool at the same price, potentially, as a bus in terms of subsidy per rider or maybe more expensive, but it is providing a much higher quality of service than like a one-hour bus frequency. And so I think that’s the benefit right there is complementing and covering where transit potentially can be weak. TNCs happen to be the exact opposite, they are lower capacity on demand vehicles versus transit with your high capacity, fixed route vehicles.

And so they can cover each other’s weaknesses. But in terms of the complimentary or a competition, I think it’s fair to say that there are some times when a person might be trying to decide how to get somewhere — bus or train or Uber? And they are choosing between those three modes in the moment. They might choose Uber over transit or vice versa, but in the long haul and especially because Uber is so much more expensive than transit, it’s not going to be an everyday decision that you’re taking Uber. In fact, in Seattle, we found that 85 percent of people are taking Uber less than once a week or so. It’s infrequent.

And that shows that a lot of people, again, it’s 85 percent, are not using this every day, but more of like a mobility insurance type of usage. And there’s a potential here of how does on-demand service allow someone to live a car-free lifestyle when paired with all the other modes into like a multi-modal basket of goods. If you can take a bus, a train, bike, walk, TNC, that’s good enough to avoid buying a private car. But if you pull any of those legs out, which unfortunately we’re seeing here with COVID, you end up buying a car.

And for a lot of people are right now, that transit leg is being pulled and in some sense, the ride hail leg too, because of either fear of COVID or lower service and car ownership is on the rise. And I think what we’re trying to do is plug into the multimodal basket to prevent that car ownership rise. And so I think that’s how the complementarianism can come into play,

Jeff Wood: But you have places like Miami, which is replacing late night bus trips with some subsidized Uber trips. How does this benefit the agency specifically when they are replacing trips or replacing service necessarily? Cause you talk about the complementarian, and I think for most people it does act as what you called mobility insurance for being able to live a car-free lifestyle. And of course now are seeing all kinds of people buying cars and then wondering why there’s no parking in places like San Francisco and New York. But how does a program like Miami-Dade’s work?

Chris Pangilinan: So in Miami during the height of the lockdowns in April, they ended up suspending overnight bus service between, I think, midnight and 5 a.m. and partnered with us and Lyft to cover those rides. And so I believe the way it worked was if you a rider, you can take an on-demand ride with an a quarter-mile, which was generally the watershed people of the bus route that was canceled, and get around the city on an Uber. And so as ridership plummeted during the lockdowns, they were able to reallocate their buses, which have a much higher fixed cost on them than a TNC, to daytime service. And that way they could, for example, run more routes during the day and have more spacing when there’s more crowds riding the buses and attempt to keep more in social distancing.

And at night, they turned the service over to TNCs. As a result, that agency was able to spend less money per rider, saving overall money and reallocating that money during the day. And so I think that’s is an interesting example there of that kind of dynamic at play where TNCs, or any kind of on-demand service, can fulfill that service while transit agencies can spend more of their resources during the day when the demand is higher.

Jeff Wood: You know, one of the things that I think about a lot is land use and land-use patterns. And I know that these types of services are responses to land-use patterns as they exist now. But do you think that also they might be perpetuating them into the future? What I mean is, on-demand transportation seems to be a response to the land-use patterns that exist and the lack of transportation options that we’ve built into the system. In urban places such as New York, San Francisco, downtown Chicago, et cetera., we have a really good transit. But outside of that, we don’t have a good transit, but it’s kind of like a chicken-and-egg thing, right? Does low-density land-use perpetuate the existence of more vehicles, more ride hailing, more of that type of service rather than transit? And then if you continue with the ride haling and more of those types of services, does that mean that are just going to continuously built more low-density suburbs and those types of developments that like I said, chicken-and-egg the whole, pardon my French, shitshow?

Chris Pangilinan: Definitely. I think land use is the major questions and also schools, which was a huge part of this equation of what drives people to move into suburbs versus staying in more dense areas. But we’ll leave schools aside for now and focus on land use. So I’ve in Portland right now. People think of Portland as this great bastion of transit and in some respects it is, but the outer parts are just like winding roads out to a high school where there’s a giant parking lot and single family homes. Nothing against a single-family home, but it kind of drives me crazy. It’s the way the single family homes are laid out in the cul-de-sac and you’re not going to serve well with transit. To get downtown to get to a job, with multiple transfers on a low-frequency bus route means we’re setting up transit to fail these areas. We’re also setting up ride hail to fail, frankly, because people are going to be buying cars there. No one’s gonna be needing a ride hail. And actually if you look at where ride hail usage is some of the highest, it is and areas like New York City, like in San Francisco where it’s people who don’t own cars in the first place and who aren’t using a combination of transit biking, walking, and they occasional ride hail to get around. Ride-hailing and transit together — mostly transit frankly — can play a role at helping cities grow in a more dense and transit friendly fashion. If we don’t do that, we are going to get more of this car-oriented land use.

When we say a transit-oriented land use, I don’t mean like the newer New Urbanism style building a light rail station and then surrounding with apartments. That might work for some, but I’m thinking more of like actual urban development, you know, putting apartments in cities, the whole Scott Wiener argument in California, right? How do we build around transit areas? And that’s kind of what we’re going to have to do to encourage people to avoid car use and avoid private car ownership.

And I hope we don’t continue too far down the development of car-oriented development, post-COVID.

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