Uber accused of "erasing public life"

We’ve grown used to seeing the endless attacks on Uber and Lyft in the press by now, but this new piece at the New Yorker from Nikil Saval is definitely breaking some new ground. The usual Uber hit pieces employ talking points about how ride-sharing services are driving up congestion in the cities, taking jobs away from taxi drivers and they raise suspicions about how Uber drivers are more likely to commit crimes. Saval touches on all those to be sure, but his main thrust appears to be how the gig economy is driving people away from using mass transit (buses, trains, the subway) which is not only bad for the transit authorities but bad for society as well. It’s destroying our “public lives.” (Emphasis in original)

Uber’s most significant contribution to mobility in cities may be our increasing lack of it. A growing chorus of engineers and traffic consultants have demonstrated that Uber, along with its smaller rival Lyft and other transportation network companies (T.N.C.s)—more commonly known as ride-sharing services (a euphemism, since most rides are not shared)—are sapping transit ridership and clogging streets. A study by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, published in October, concluded that, from 2010 to 2016, over fifty percent of the increase in traffic delays in San Francisco were due to Uber and Lyft—and that Uber and Lyft cars constituted an estimated quarter of the total delay on the city’s streets. Another study, of twenty-two large U.S. cities by three University of Kentucky civil engineers, which was presented at the Transportation Research Board’s annual meeting, in January, deduces that T.N.C.s create immediate declines in bus and rail ridership—declines so steep that, in the next eight years, some transit agencies would have to increase service by more than twenty-five percent just to retain their normal ridership…

A more serious proposal might start with the possibility that Uber is opposed to public transit by design—every ride taken on a subway or bus is competition for its growing supply of cars. The app’s interface—that empty map—declares its priorities: the individual, the vehicle, and a place to be. It erases public space and public lives. The public good is not far behind.

After reading this several times, I remain unsure of precisely what the author is driving at when he says that Uber is “erasing public spaces… public lives.” And eventually “the public good.” The accusations are embedded almost entirely in the summary of the negative impact Uber has on transit ridership. Are we to take from this that fewer people riding the subways means that we have less interaction with our fellow humans on the subway platforms and in the crowded rail cars?

If so, I’d like to know where Mr. Saval lives because it’s certainly not New York City or Washington. Have you seen the people you run into on the Metro?

He treats the loss of transit ridership as some sort of “trick” that Uber is playing on the world. It’s true that their early advertising made reference to a great way for you to get from your home to an airport, rail or bus station to get you on your way without taking a car. But people still do that. I’ve taken Ubers to both the airport and the train station. But that’s for longer trips. Uber will never be as fast as an airplane nor as affordable as a train over long distances. Where ride-sharing really shines is in short or even medium-range trips.

In those applications, hailing an Uber is far superior to waiting around for a bus or subway car and being packed in like sardines, assuming you don’t mind paying the extra five or ten dollars. And you are taken from your home to your destination, not to another transit station where you still need to find a ride to your actual destination.

So what Saval describes as a deteriorating situation is actually just another symptom of superior service overcoming inferior service in the free market. If Uber wasn’t such a substantially better way of getting around, public transit wouldn’t be losing riders at those rates. If they can’t compete, their market share is going to decline. It’s the way of the world, and I’m not going to be made to feel guilty about the Metro losing ridership over it.