The Virtues of Private Transportation Services

Kevin Roose laments the rise of private transportation services:

Companies like Uber and Lyft didn’t cause the public sector’s problems, but they’re profiting from them. And when policy-makers begin to see these services as legitimate replacements for public infrastructure, their incentives to make public services better will disappear. The BART strike has shown how decades of erosion of the tax base, coupled with the rise of a tech-savvy elite that can afford to pay for private services, has reduced public transportation to a second-class alternative and taken away much of the subway unions’ negotiating leverage. After all, with so many private options for getting around, why does it matter if a few hundred thousand BART riders are stranded?

The founders of companies like Uber say they want to make private transportation cheap enough for everyone to use. It’s a noble impulse, and it should be applauded. But public transportation will always be more cost-effective than even the cheapest private services. You can get from Oakland to South San Francisco on BART for $4. No private-sector app will ever survive by charging fees that low.

I’m guilty in supporting the rise of premium, for-profit transportation services. I use them all the time, and I’m generally glad they exist, for times when public transportation falls short or isn’t available. I might even use one to get into San Francisco this afternoon, for a meeting I’m scheduled to have. But if I do, I’ll do it with a tinge of guilt, while thinking of the people who are truly stranded by BART’s shutdown and left out of the private-sector schemes of Silicon Valley disrupters.

Roose’s analysis neglects a few important issues:

1. The Bay Area is a vast, sprawling, auto-dependent region, and San Francisco, the densest large city in the region, is far less dense than the five boroughs of New York city. (Recall that if San Francisco had the density of the five boroughs — including Staten Island and Queens! – its population would be 1.2 million, or 50 percent higher than it is in our universe.) Local land-use regulations that limit density have contributed to rising rents and home prices, yet they have also made public transportation less viable than it would be in a denser region. So if we’re going to point to a culprit, it might make sense to focus on opponents of upzoning rather than companies like Uber and Lyft.

2. Companies like Uber and Lyft, and car-sharing services like Zipcar and Getaround, can be understood as an alternative to public transportation. But they can also be understood — and indeed, they are perhaps better understood — as an alternative to private automobile ownership. Almost by definition, public transportation does not offer point-to-point travel. That is, the BART of the Muni won’t take me from my front door to my office building. The Census tracks “mode share” across U.S. cities, i.e., the share of commutes across automobiles (driving alone or carpooling), transit, biking, and walking. In New York city, transit mode share was 54.9 percent in 2009 while driving alone was 23.5 percent. In San Francisco, transit mode share was 31.8 percent while driving alone was 38.9 percent. Carpooling represented 5.3 percent of mode share in New York and 7.4 percent of mode share in San Francisco that year. So here is the question: are Uber and Lyft reducing transit mode share or are they reducing driving alone, which greatly outweighs transit in San Francisco? If it’s the later, it seems as though Uber and Lyft are doing a great deal of good, as reducing driving alone will tend to reduce congestion, which in turn will tend to benefit commuters who travel via bus.

3. Roose references the buses that large technology enterprises like Google and Facebook provide for their employees as an emblem of a “two-tier transportation caste system.” Once again, we have to ask if these buses are reducing transit mode share or if they are in fact reducing driving alone. Many of the big technology campuses in the South Bay aren’t convenient to transit, and so it is difficult to use Caltrain to access them — unless, that is, one is using a car at the other end. What Google and Facebook have done is allow employees who want to live in neighborhoods like San Francisco’s Mission District the opportunity to do so without owning automobiles and contributing to traffic congestion. Plenty of people who live in the Mission District might prefer that Google and Facebook employees lived elsewhere (on another planet, or at least in the suburbs), but I think it’s not such a bad thing for them to live in a relatively diverse society where they can serve as a customer base for less-affluent service workers who benefit from the city’s density. The public sector could finance bespoke transportation services designed to meet the needs of high-income technology commuters, yet it is not obvious that this would represent a sensible or for that matter egalitarian use of resources. One could argue that Google, Facebook, et al., should be located closer to transit, but this leads us back to the density question: low densities make it very difficult to sustain mass transit. 

4. Stephen Smith, a reporter at the New York Observer and a friend, observes that in dense New York city, the private sector picks up the slack among the poor, e.g., the dollar vans that flourish in Flatbush first emerged during a transit strike in the 1980s and have continued to flourish as a low-cost transportation alternative, and a wave of new van services serve Chinese-Americans communities in Brooklyn and Queens. The so-called “Chinese vans” perfectly illustrate the challenge: legacy public transportation systems tend to travel from outlying neighborhoods to the traditional central business districts, yet New York city, like many cities around the world, is evolving in a “polycentric” direction, in which commutes aren’t just from outlying areas to the CBD, but from outlying areas to other outlying areas that are emerging as centers for commerce and culture. New Yorkers who want to travel between Sunset Park, Chinatown, and Flushing can do so via public transportation, but the rides are long and convenient. Private services that rely on the road network can offer a faster and in some cases cheaper ride than public transit. This doesn’t reflect disinvestment, as it is unrealistic to imagine a public sector service that will cater to the small but non-trivial number of New Yorkers who want to travel from one ethnic enclave to another. Public sector and private sector transportation networks can and should constructively co-exist.

5. And finally, Roose attributes the low quality of transit in the Bay Area to “decades of erosion of the tax base,” yet Smith has noted that transit funding in the region has been fairly generous — the problem is that it has been deployed very poorly. Rather than invest in Caltrain, which connects San Francisco to job centers in the South Bay, local officials have invested in light-rail systems in San Jose and a BART extension to suburban San Jose. I don’t doubt that the erosion of the tax base is an issue in California, which severely limits local fiscal autonomy and property taxes. But it’s not true that large sums of money haven’t been invested in transit projects. It’s just that transit projects in low-density regions aren’t likely to make much of a dent in congestion, and they aren’t likely to benefit low-income commuters.

Basically, I think the underlying problem with the Bay Area and with transit in the Bay Area is restrictive local land-use regulations that limit density, as limiting density necessarily limits the potential of transit. But even if density were to increase, and even if transit mode share and investment were to increase in tandem, private transportation services would have an important role to play as an alternative to private automobile ownership in a polycentric urban region.

All that said, I like fulminating too. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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