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February 13, 2014

Lyft, BRT, BikeShare: Transit and Regionalism in the Sharing Economy

I don't mean to offend by channelling the SGF, whom I love, but it was the kickiest way to "go meta" that I could summon up. This week Pittsburgh seems focused on Lyft and Uber, not so much on the exploding gas well or derailed train car (which is literally like, a train wreck, right?)

So on one level, it's about a new entrant into a stagnant monopolized abused market. It's People's Express moving into the USAir fortress hub. It's the people, shaking off the chains of outdated corrupt malignant systems and making things happen. It's venture capitalists with their own purposes, wrapped in hipster people-power. It's a lot of shiny new objects.

On another level, it's also a new entrant into an existing field of legacy, minority-operated jitneys that have served minority communities for decades, which have been the focus of period tickets and police sweeps but have also had a certain low-level tolerance because authorities recognize their utility. So any benefits to the new entrants need to be balanced with treatment of the legacy players.

Economically and socially, wake up people it's the Ubiquitious Internet and it's changing things -- distributed systems and peer rankings and the sharing economy. So we're no longer in the Second Wave with economic concentrations in factories and Big Companies. Everybody can be a driver. Everybody is a publisher. Everybody can raise chickens n'at in the backyard and sell artisanal produce to their neighbors (very big in Brooklyn right now).

The old power schisms about individuals and businesses are archaic and crumbling because we're all economic players, we're consumers and producers. The sharing economy is here and now, and it's very hard to analyze because it's so multivariable and dynamic, there's no A-B testing, but it's not going to wait for anybody to develop good metrics.

Before we get into the Third Wave, let's look at where we were before we moved to factories and concentrated production. The first wave was Farms, second wave was Factories, third wave is Floppies. In the First Wave, everybody was a producer and a consumer, and it happened around the farm and the family unit. You made your own cheese, maybe your own clothes, and bartered in the community.

In the sharing economy we're going back to a lot of that, but now it's happening in cities. Cities provide the vertical development (take that, Richard Florida) and the density that make all these connections and networks possible; it doesn't happen in the exurbs. All this cool stuff needs a city to work. Lyft doesn't play in Beaver County.

To quote another of my heroes, Lyft didn't build the city, they're just profiting from it, which is to say - they're taking money out of it, out of us. If we are rational, we will happily allow them to take money out of us if (1) there is a justified exchange of value and (2) if they conduct their business in a way that is conducive to the city we want to be, within the laws of the nation.

And so we come to government, which - by the way - created a framework which allowed the city to grow and prosper. Without the government there would not be a city. So what is the role of government? That's a topic much discussed these days - or at least, much shouted about.

I think, and it's just my opinion, that the role of government is to

  • guarantee the rights and liberty of all
  • protect the voice of the minority from the tyranny of the majority
  • ensure the weak, sick, poor are provided for
  • ensure the health of citizens and environment
  • temper the excesses of capitalism for the benefit of the common good
  • ensure legal structures that provide for business and industry
  • take on a monopoly on violence in support of good laws

And so for me, a big part of government is taking care of the weak, the sick, the poor, and the elderly. And let me say this to my Fox-friends: please bring me a professed Christian who wants to argue the point.

So now we come to the discussion at hand, the symptom is Lyft and Uber, and how do we frame the topic. I think the topic is, getting around in Pittsburgh is too difficult and frustrating!

Getting Around In Pittsburgh is Too Difficult and Frustrating

So that's the framework I want to discuss. I think that in 2014-15, three big honking things are going to happen. We're going to see Pgh BikeShare rollout, with 50 stations instead of the desired 100; we're going to see BRT between Downtown and Oakland, which is more about real estate development than transit; and we're going to see Lyft established after a legal wrangle. These two maps identify the BikeShare and Lyft key service areas:

(click to embiggen in new window)

What does it look like when you overlay BRT, Bikeshare, and Lyft? One interesting thing is that BRT is like a bridge or a wormhole, it doesn't stop anywhere in the middle - doesn't stop in Uptown or on the Hill, for instance. It just hyperjumps from Downtown to Oakland. But here's what the Three Great Innovations will look like:

Not surprisingly, the Three Great Innovations are going where the Young White Money is. But here's a problem: Bike Share, Lyft, and BRT don't help the sick, poor, and elderly. Think about it:

  • A person in a wheelchair can't use Lyft. They could use transit.
  • A poor person isn't using Lyft. Might not have a smartphone. If they don't tip well, they get a bad Driver Rating. Two bad driver ratings, nobody is going to pick them up - that's the SanFran experience.
  • A Mom with little kids isn't using Lyft - no child seats. Transit would be OK.
  • Older folks probably aren't using Facebook to get around town.
  • Wheelchair, Moms with kids, elderly - bike share isn't helping much.
  • People who live outside those privileged zones aren't getting any help.
  • The private companies are cherry picking revenue out of the transit system that would be subsidizing fares for the less well off.

Any change produces winners and relative losers, and there's a lot of people who don't get anything out of the Three Great Innovations that are sucking all the oxygen out of the room. When we focus on these Three, we're ignoring a lot of people's needs.

Sorry, we didn't go Meta Enough

But wait - actually, the city is doing things within the City's span of control. The Mayor doesn't control the bus system or the T system. The County does that. So the problem is: Regionalism. Things like equity in transit, the Mayor can't deliver. He's influencing what he can, within his scope.

What are we doing? Look at our choices.


Bram Reichbaum said...

Bravo! I agree with most everything besides "cherry-picking revenue out of the transit system." On the non-meta level, that's one of the three or four points I feel like I keep defeating in a circular discussion, in which the argument keeps rotating or rather randomized like whack-a-mole. But on the Meta-level you clearly have a point about public transit, and how there are no substitutes -- and I might add, sometimes it seems like the Port Authority has failed the Pittsburgh region as badly as Yellow Cab. That's a worse failure. Hopefully we this alleged window of opportunity is used wisely, and the reporting and the story is as clear.

BrianTH said...

With respect to Lyft and poorer or older people, first, their "hot zones" don't define their service area--users can in fact request rides in the entire big box you previously posted.

Second, it seems clear to me your analysis of these populations in particular is way too sweeping and increasingly dated. Specifically, smartphones (particularly those just a generation or two old and perfectly functional for most tasks) are often the cheapest way for poorer people to access the Internet, and Facebook and other popular social media sites are showing huge growth in use among older cohorts. There are always going to be issues in terms of using the very latest technology to provide crucial services, but the smartphone/social-media combination is rapidly becoming a mature technology with very high penetration rates, and in fact all that is creating a true revolution in terms of providing many more communication and community opportunities for the poor and elderly. Of course none of that guarantees that carhire services using such technologies will be affordable and abundant enough for every poorer/elderly person to use for every possible trip, but certainly they are a much better bet than traditional monopoly/cartel taxi companies to be able to provide at least some additional mobility to those populations.

On BRT, this may in part be the fault of some of the proponents, but there is a persistent misconception that the only beneficiaries of the proposed system would be those traveling between Oakland and Downtown (as you conceive of it, a wormhole of sorts). In fact, the proposal is to create a corridor stretching from the western border of Squirrel Hill through all of Oakland, all of Uptown, and into Downtown, with stops strategically placed along the way. This system can and should benefit riders using any substantial portion of that corridor, including riders entering the corridor from various points north, east, or south for access to some destination deeper in Oakland or Uptown (and of course vice-versa).

So properly understood, the totality of possible beneficiaries includes many, many riders in addition to your wormhole riders. In fact, most the riders on the existing 61 and 71 routes would be on that list, and in turn many of those riders are in fact poorer people, older people, or so on.

In that sense, your purple line should really stretch out into a branching web that traces the existing systems of routes currently using that corridor. Combine that big purple web with Lyft's actual service area boundaries, and I think the rhetorical point you were trying to make won't hold up very well.

The bottomline is that it is actually very hard to provide a significant new transportation system that won't be used by a lot of already relatively-advantaged people, because if it provides a decent service at a fair price, why wouldn't they use it? However, the fact that such people will use the system doesn't mean it won't also be a significant asset to a variety of other populations and communities.

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