Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2016/ N Reasons Uber Might Kill Public Transit

N Reasons Uber Might Kill Public Transit

Today I made a joke and got called out on it. A walking mate was relating a story about a bus driving by somebody waiting at the stop, and I joked that this was reason #34 why Uber was going to kill public transit. Then I was challenged to come up with the other 33 reasons. I did not have 33 other reasons, of course. So we brainstormed some, and got to 16 or 17 reasons before getting bored. I forgot our list, so maybe I won't get that many reasons here. But the topic has been on my mind lately, so this is as good an opportunity as any to think through the issue. We always think of Uber displacing taxicabs (and many of the advantages of Uber over public transit apply to taxicabs vs public transit as well).

First, some disclaimers. Firstly, I am using the term "Uber" as a branded stand-in for ride sharing services the same way others use "Google" as a branded stand-in for search engines. Secondly, I have no business talking about public transit given that I do not take public transit for intra-region trips. Thirdly, I have no business talking about Uber since I have never used it either. Fourthly, everybody is grumpy about the LRT and I am too. Fifthly, I am not certain I actually believe that public transit will be decimated by Uber the way taxicabs are being decimated. There are some places with sufficient density that some public transit might survive (Toronto comes to mind) and maybe I am wrong about the assessment for other reasons as well.

Having written that, here is a list:

  1. Layovers are terrible and waste lots of time. On Uber you don't have layovers.
  2. For inter-city trips you are forced to transfer systems and pay additional fares. In principle an Uber can take you between cities with one fare (although this will be expensive).
  3. Uber is profitable for somebody (although not necessarily the drivers). Public transit is never profitable for anybody.
  4. Uber can pay drivers market rates, while public transit workers are often unionized. This is bad for drivers but could make rides cheaper.
  5. Each public transit system has its own dispatch and scheduling system. Uber integrates all this into one system, which creates some uniformity in interacting with this system (but competitors such as Lyft and RideCo make things complicated again).
  6. Uber can change municipal laws more quickly and effectively than public transit systems; Uber just breaks the law until the laws change to suit its needs.
  7. You don't have to show up for an Uber ride at a particular time.
  8. It does not matter whether an Uber is a minute early or a minute late, whereas with public transit this can be the difference between making your trip on time or not.
  9. Transit requires density to work effectively, and our cities sprawl out. Uber can serve lower-density neighbourhoods more effectively.
  10. Related to the above, suburbanites do not want to pay for public transit because service is bad to their neighbourhoods and they "will never use it".
  11. Buses run around empty or nearly empty a lot of the time. I am not certain that Ubers spend much of their time full, but it is possible.
  12. Related to the above: public transit has to plan for peak usage (which is why buses are so big and so empty so much of the time). Uber is more responsive to demand.
  13. It is possible that keeping a bus running requires more energy than keeping a corresponding number of Ubers in service.
  14. Buses are expensive and paid for by municipalities, so there are not many of them. There is a large stock of private vehicles available.
  15. Municipalities have to shoulder the burden of owning and maintaining its fleet; in Uber this is shouldered by drivers, not taxpayers. (What happens when Uber moves to autonomous vehicles is an open question.)
  16. Related to the above: most buses stay in service for decades, while cars used for Uber have a quicker turnover rate.
  17. On public transit you have to sit with loud/stinky/impolite people. With Uber the chances of this are reduced significantly.
  18. If you have a smartphone then paying for an Uber is easier than paying for most public transit (which requires a separate card).
  19. Uber-style services have the potential to bundle multiple fares in one ride. This could be particularly effective for commuters, who take the same trip at the same time every day.
  20. Drivers on Uber are under a lot of pressure to give fares good customer service, lest they receive a three-star rating and lose their jobs. Public transit drivers are unionized and can be surly to customers.
  21. Related to the above, in some areas rider entitlement is so high that Uber drivers provide free snacks and water to their fares. That does not happen on public transit.
  22. Public transit service is terrible on weekends and holidays. It is better (and I think cheaper) on Uber.
  23. You can find an Uber at 2am in the morning when all of the buses have stopped running.
  24. It is feasible that rural areas will be serviced better by Uber than they are by public transit systems. Most rural areas have no public transit at all. (But it is not clear that this will be the case, because without competition Uber might be just as expensive as taxicabs are in rural areas now, and also Greyhound does not bother servicing rural routes that it has rights to either.)
  25. Waiting for some bus outside in the cold is terrible. Uber will pick you up wherever you want.
  26. Buses are noisy and often stink of gasoline.
  27. Buses are filled with advertisements that are not even entertaining.
  28. There is a stigma that buses are for poor people, kids too young to drive, and those with no other options. Uber is seen as trendy and forward-thinking.
  29. Public transit is not that cheap, and prices are constantly going up. Uber could conceivably get cheaper.
  30. Buses are slow because they have so many stops. Uber can take you to your directions more directly even if you are ride sharing with 3-4 other people.
  31. NIMBY suburbanites do not like big noisy buses rolling along their streets. Ubers are less noticable.
  32. Somebody has to shovel snow and maintain public transit stops. Uber has no public transit stops to maintain.
  33. Although public transit has become more surveillance heavy (with in-bus cameras), Uber is a much better surveillance tool. Law enforcement can use this to keep track of "persons of interest". If Uber cooperates with law enforcement readily, then law enforcement might favour Uber over public transit.
  34. An Uber driver will not drive past your bus stop because you are staring at your smartphone instead of making eye contact with the driver.
  35. As a Big Data company, Uber collects mountains of information which it can use to optimize its service. Public transit systems collect less data and analyse it less effectively.
  36. Public works projects to support public transit (digging up subways, paralyzing traffic for two years to build a white-elephant LRT) are expensive and visible. Public works projects to support Uber (road maintenance and widening) can be public headaches as well, but are not directly tied to Uber and thus are less visible.
  37. When public transit is busy you have to stand in the bus. On Uber you always (?) get a seat.
  38. Because the Uber system is centralized, you can use one app no matter where you are. With public transit you need to learn each system individually.
  39. Because fewer people are on the Uber with you while you are riding maybe you have less chance of catching a cold from that person two seats away who is sniffling and sneezing.

Writing out this list makes me realize that Uber could be a real threat to public transit. In summary:

Maybe Uber will not kill existing public transit. It may suppress future public transit from being built.


Maybe there are some reasons public transit is less likely to be displaced by Uber and its competitors:

  1. In some areas there is enough density to support public transit effectively.
  2. People hate surge pricing, but without surge pricing it is harder for Uber to stay in business.
  3. For many trips Uber is going to be more expensive than transit. This is probably the most relevant argument in favour of public transit.
  4. Maybe buses are more accomodating of wheelchairs and others with mobility challenges than most Uber cars.
  5. Advertisers will lose public real estate once they are no longer able to plaster their ads on the sides of buses.
  6. Taxis exist and have not displaced public transit.
  7. Uber drivers have to pay attention to their cellphones in order to find fares, which is a form of distracted driving. (Autonomous cars will fix this.)
  8. If there are traffic jams Uber drivers can get stuck in them. Public transit vehicles sometimes get dedicated lanes.


I keep finding arguments that ought to be in favour of public transit, but actually aren't:

  1. Uber makes it possible to blacklist riders who get poor ratings, and public transit rarely does this. Thus public transit is more egalitarian (because even unpleasant people need transportation). But we have ceded control of many other public spaces (malls, social networks) to corporations that set arbitrary rules, and there has been no compelling reason for public spaces to reassert themselves.
  2. Not everybody has easy access to a smartphone and online payment.
  3. Uber is a surveillance company, like every other Big Data company.
  4. Buses and taxis are regulated and Uber is less regulated.
  5. Uber is a terrible deal for drivers, who are not even guaranteed to earn enough income to keep their cars on the road. Also they will be replaced by autonomous cars soon. Nobody cares.
  6. A few Uber drivers have abused their positions to assault passengers. But the dogma is that these people will be weeded out quickly.
  7. Uber can institute predatory pricing on people once they have eliminated the competition. Maybe Uber competitors will prevent this. Maybe they will collude to shake down those with few other transportation options.
  8. Maybe Uber means there will be more cars on the road, not fewer. Municipalities care about this, but it is a classic tragedy of the commons problem.