sharon: Hey folks. Welcome to our second installment of the Mobility Water Cooler. This week we're following up on a story that got the Twitterverse giggling a couple of weeks ago — Lyft's big announcement that they are introducing a shuttle service that looks a lot like Ye Olde Bus Route. Everything old is new again.
sahmed: I will admit I partook in the mass mob to poke fun at Lyft for 'inventing' a bus service, I have no shame.
sharon: I did too. It's was an easy laugh.
Last week, Emily Castor, Lyft's director of transportation policy, wrote an in-depth explanation of the thinking behind Lyft Shuttle. You can find it here.
So, what did you guys think? Did she convince you that this is a good idea, or does it still seem lame?
katieburke: I definitely see the merits of her argument, but as a frequent Lyft Line/Uber Pool rider in San Francisco, it didn't seem all that different from what's already being offered.
Yes, fixed routes streamline the process, but it still seems to face the same issues those carpooling services do -- what happens when only one rider is in the car?
sharon: Yeah, there were parts of this that left me more confused than I was before I read the explanation.
sahmed: I read her post as rehashing some of the common complaints with public transit agencies: They're slow to adjust and they're too cash-strapped to really innovate
sharon: Yeah, and that's a solid point. They're also sometimes dirty and inconvenient.
katieburke: The NY subway system at the moment seems to be a glaring example
sharon: Yeah, the NY subway system ain't never gonna be fixed.
And it took NY, what, 40 years to put in the Second Avenue subway line? That's definitely slow.
katieburke: 100 years!
sharon: OK, wait. I have to Google that. I can't believe 100 years.
OK, Wikipedia says 98 years.
sahmed: FACT-CHECKED @katieburke
katieburke: I rounded up.
sahmed: We'll have to pass that by the copy desk.
sharon: They might nitpick, but I think Katie was close enough. That's a long time. It kind of underlines Castor's point on the timing, though.
katieburke: But while ride-sharing may be adding routes a bit faster than every 100 years, Castor's argument doesn't really address the near-term effects these services have had on cities
sharon: How so?
You're the only one of use who can use this system, given you live in San Francisco.
sahmed: There's studies out there that show in some new mobility initiatives have increased congestion. I believe there was one in NYC that showed Uber drivers were clogging up roads trying to pick people up
Basically, four out of five cars you see driving has Uber and Lyft stickers all over it — and a recent report by the SFCTA backs that up.
katieburke: When it's happy hour in the city, it's going to take you at least a half hour to drive anywhere outside of your neighborhood.
sahmed: Castor kind of flips that on the head by arguing buses are even more inefficient when riding around with one passenger.
sharon: Both of those cities are really interesting, given that they are both big wealth centers. So people can afford to have privatized car sharing and eschew public transportation. It's like these systems are just a cheaper way for rich people to get around.
sahmed: That's my biggest issue. Mobility companies seem to totally disregard the value of public oversight or input and further discredit mainline transit in the process.
sharon: The income issue is interesting, and Castor touches on it a bit by saying these kinds of services can benefit underserved, poorer areas that are too far from public transit. But to me, that shows she's got a big blind spot when talking about poor areas, given you need a smartphone and a credit card to access these cars.
sahmed: And the fact that a lot of drivers don't go to these areas cause they don't have the numbers they need to make it worth it (note that is entirely from anecdotal experience.)
It's a noble calling but the execution isn't quite there yet.
katieburke: Most of the carpooling rides I've taken, the ridership isn't that diverse -- mostly young professionals that are familiar with the service and frequently use it (also anecdotal).
sharon: The flexibility argument is intriguing, though.
sahmed: yeah definitely
sharon: Buses can change routes but trains can't, that's fixed.
sahmed: Bus routes are mainly a political problem from my understanding - each route has its champions.
I don't disagree with any of the individual arguments, cities have been too slow to adapt to learning from data and experimenting with new services, albeit that's assuming experimentation is their role at all.
katieburke: But with these "shuttle" services — what motivation does the driver have to participate? It seems like driving a pool or line service would make more money.
sahmed: Well, from a driver perspective there is a sweet argument that you'll stay in one zone generally and have steady passengers
katieburke: Personally, driving a fixed route would drive me nuts.
sahmed: I don't know, you can end up in some really far-flung locations if you're just driving freely.
sharon: Yeah, and one of the selling points Castor puts out there is that the Shuttle line is actually just regular Lyft cars. I thought they would be actual shuttles to fit more people.
sahmed: That's what I thought too. The personal car angle I think is almost a detriment, you basically can't use it if you have like, a bike, or are disabled.
sharon: From a congestion standpoint, you're never really going to solve the problem that some times are more crowded with people than other times of the day. I feel like we're getting too soft. What happened to enjoying complaining about being smushed into the armpit of the guy standing next to you on the subway?
katieburke: Hahaha yeah, commuting stories will get way more boring if everyone is just riding in the backseat of a car.
Though I was smushed with two other people in the backseat of a Honda Fit during a Lyft Line ride the other day.
sharon: It's interesting that in Silicon Valley, a lot of these big companies already operate their own private bus lines to get people to and from work. Yahoo, Google, Facebook, eBay. They have these comfy private buses with free wifi that will take you from San Francisco right to your office, for free.
sahmed: Also another big politico-social issue.
katieburke: Talk about creating traffic! I almost run into one of those things about twice a week
sharon: Here's the bus route in case you want to avoid those buses, Katie.
sahmed: I think that kind of speaks to what people's problem with Lyft's announcement was -- this kind of Silicon Valley hubris. Castor kind of falls into the same trap talking about microtransit as this new phenomenon, then acknowledging a lot of countries have done it for years.
sharon: Once I read Castor's defense, though, I was left feeling more like they are on to something.
But I just don't think they're there yet.
It could be a good economic equalizer, if there were a way to pay for it with cash and summon it without a smartphone.
Which, obviously, totally goes against the whole idea and would make it unworkable. Because then it's just a bus.
sahmed: I'm not even sure what Lyft's role would be there, insurance? Branding?
katieburke: It definitely has a place in the transportation ecosystem, especially alleviating the first mile/last mile issue -- but people need to be encouraged to use it as a complement to public transit rather than a substitute
sahmed: She kind of hints at that, but I'm interested in knowing how Lyft actually pursues it
sharon: And if you really want it to be something that upends social norms, you'll have to spend a lot of time marketing it in lower-income neighborhoods and listening to people who live there to figure out how to make it work.
sahmed: Or just go straight Robin Hood and price rides by some kind local income index.
katieburke: I'd be curious to see how many people are actually familiar with these services outside of the "hot spots."
sahmed: I wonder if Lyft planned on having this service be a pillar in its offerings, or if it was forced into this big defense by the outcry.
It's a lot lamer, but possibly truer, to say, "Hey guys, we're just trying stuff out over here."
sharon: And hey, there's value in trying stuff out.
sahmed: Amen to that.
sharon: But Silicon Valley sometimes gets so caught up in itself that it can overhype things that should be simple. It makes sense to introduce it with all the microtransit, first-mile, last-mile buzzwords out there, but the rest of the world would probably be more receptive to a more humble marketing pitch.
Lyft Shuttle: Whaddya Got To Lose?
sharon: Lyft Shuttle: Just Try It Once, OK?
katieburke: Hahaha, those are definitely going to decrease the internet eye rolls
...but may encourage some other reactions
sharon: Lyft Shuttle: This Could Make Sense Someday
sahmed: this falls somewhere below Amazon opening up a brick-and-mortar book store and above Facebook trying to reinvent email.
sharon: Before I read Castor's Medium piece, I was thinking it was in the neighborhood of the Juicero.
sahmed: Wow the parallels are eerie, the CEO even wrote a Medium post defending it.
sharon: Boy, I guess everyone is using Medium as a place to defend their questionable strategies.
katieburke: Hahaha only if they were charging $400 for access to rides people could find themselves
So, we should wrap up. Final thoughts? Has Castor convinced you this is a worthy experiment?
katieburke: While I'm not 100% on board with the idea that a ride-sharing shuttle service is the silver bullet to city traffic, I do think it's a worthwhile experiment
And I hope companies like Lyft continue to try this kind of thing out.
sahmed: I have my issues with how they frame it, but I would say yes, she made some solid arguments around demand and flexibility
This Medium post probably would've been smarter prior to the email they sent though announcing the service
sharon: Yeah, I agree. I think it's easy to be snarky on the Internet, but I hope they and others keep trying out new things. Otherwise we may be waiting another 98 years for a new subway line.
Thanks guys! Chat with you next week.