Uber, Lyft and crew should replace public transit at night

I have a big article forthcoming on the future of public transit. I believe that with the robocar (and van) it moves from being scheduled, route-based mass transit to on-demand, ad-hoc route medium and small vehicle transit. That’s in part because of the disturbingly poor economics of current mass transit, especially in the USA. We can do much better.

However, long before that day, there is something else that could be done. Many mass transit systems shut down at night. Demand is low, and that creates a big burden for the “night people” of the world, who are left with taxis and occasional carpooling, or more limited night bus service.

I think transit agencies should make a deal with companies like Uber to operate their carpool services (UberPool and LyftLines) during transit closure hours, and subsidize the rides to bring them down equal to, or closer to a transit ticket. This could also be the case for other seriously off-peak times, like weekends and holidays.

Already the typical transit ticket in the USA is heavily subsidized. The real cost of providing a transit ride is much higher. In the transit-heavy cities, fares pay about 50-60% of operating cost, but in some cities it’s only 15-20%. The US national average is around 33%. And that’s just operating cost, it does not include the capital costs in many cases. One thing that pushes the number the wrong way is operation during off-peak hours on lightly loaded vehicles. So while the average ride may cost $6 to provide, it can be more at night. Already the mobile-summoned based carpools are close to that price. (For promotions, they have actually gotten to less. They also subsidize to get going, though.)

There are some big issues. First, not everybody has a smartphone, a data plan or even a phone. You need a method for those without them to summon a ride. You could start with an 800 number so any phone (or the few remaining payphones) could summon a ride. You could also make mini-kiosks by building a protective case and putting a surplus tablet at every subway stop and many bus stops.

Another issue is that these services, particularly the carpool versions, depend on not having anonymous riders. People feel much safer about carpooling with strangers if those strangers can be identified if there is a problem. Transit riding is anonymous, and should be. The solutions to this are challenging. On top of all this, riding in a mobile-hail car is never paid for with cash, and the drivers are not going to accept cash. At the least, this means you would need to provide tickets that people buy (from machines at stations or in advance) which the driver can scan with their phone. So no just deciding to take a ride with cash. Transit cards are an other issue, though there is no requirement that they work, because at least at first, this service is meant for hours when the transit was not even running, so it’s OK if it’s an extra cost.

Dolmu? Finally, there is the issue that this is too good. A ride in a private car vs. a late night transit bus, for the price of a bus? People will over-use it, and that would of course get the Taxis angry, though there is no reason they could not participate as they are all going to supporting mobile-app hail. But the subsidy may be too expensive if people over use it.

One solution to that is to only allow it to take you between transit stops. Even that’s “too good” in that it may be faster than the transit, and much faster if the trip involved changes, especially changes during limited service times. You could get extreme and only allow it between limited sets of stops, or require 2 rides (for the same price) to simulate having to change lines. This also makes carpooling much easier, as the drivers would mostly end up cruising close to the transit lines. IF they do it in vans it could be quite efficient, in fact.

We probably don’t need to go that far in limiting it, but we could. You could tune the ease and quality of the service so the demand is what you expect, and the subsidy affordable. And the ride companies could actually use this as a way to gain extra revenue. They could offer you a door to door ride with a subsidy for the portion that would have been along the transit line. For example, today you can take Uber to the subway station, ride the subway for $2 and then take Uber from the end station to your destination, and that can be cheaper than just taking the Uber directly. This ride could be offered at some subsidized price and keep up the volume. The taxi companies can either get into the 21st century and play, or not compete.

Aside from improving transit service (by making it 24 hours) this also lets us experiment with the future world of ad-hoc demand based public transportation, when we get to the future where the vans are driving themselves. More on that to come.

already there, in some sense

In some countries in Europe, at low-traffic times, there is a cooperation between taxis and public transport similar to what you are suggesting.

Imagining no busses/LRVs/trains..and no peak hours or urban life

"with the robocar (and van) [public transit] moves from being scheduled, route-based mass transit to on-demand, ad-hoc route medium and small vehicle transit"

Only when you completely ignore peak hours and urban areas. You know, those 2+ hours in the mornings, and 4+ hours in the evenings (i.e. 25%-30+% of every weekday). And encompassing approximately 55% of the world's population in urban areas, with that percentage expected to rise to 66% by 2050. (Population data taken from the 2014 revision of the UN's World Urbanization Prospects report.)

At those times, for those people, standard busses are typically at their 80+ person capacity, double length/double-decker busses are at their 130+ person capacity, light rail vehicles are at their 120 to 200+ person capacity, commuter rail trains are at their ~1,000 person capacity, and freeways and central business districts are simply over capacity, slowing down to a crawl with bumper to bumper traffic.

Be sure to factor these details into your "big article forthcoming on the future of public transit."

You also might want to consider percentages of population taking trips by rail in various sample countries (per Wikipedia's "Rail usage statistics by country" page): Japan - 70%, Switzerland - 41%, Germany - 22%, South Korea - 20%, France - 17%, South Africa - 11%, Russia - 9%. (Data missing for many other countries with large rail networks, like China, India, and the UK.) This rail data of course excludes busses, but it also excludes metro railway systems like subways and trams.

And don't forget to research and include statistics on total percentages of population commuting via public transit--especially outside of the U.S., as the U.S. is really an odd outlier when it comes to its abnormally low degree of public transit usage.

US, Europe and elsewhere

Yes, I have a focus on not so much the Asian mega-capitals which have extremely high density and decently efficient transit but the other places you name — especially the USA — which have inefficient transit. And while the USA is low (92% of miles in cars) Europe is 82% of km in cars, so not as much better as people imagine.

However, you might be surprised what smaller vehicles (12 to 20 people) can do over the larger ones. The larger ones win at the peak of rush hour, but then you own them and you run them all day. I am in Tokyo right now and sometimes they have to have people push you into the subway car, but last night i also road in subway cars with 8-10 people per car.

Trains stop in stations so they tend to run on 3 minute headways at best, 5 is more common. Vans can one on one second headways if driven by robots. The math suggests if you want to buy that many buses and vans you can put more people down highway lanes than down subway tracks.

Then there is the quality of the experience. Being in a packed bus or subway, standing up, swaying, starting and stopping, vs. having a quality private reserved business class seat on a van or bus, with a desk and screen, and not stopping and starting to pick people up. It’s such a vastly better experience it’s hard for it not to win, even if it did cost more, which it probably doesn’t!

Public subsidization of private enterprise

As for Uber and/or Lyft, etc. taking over for public transit at night:

To be clear, you are suggesting that city governments subsidize the fare costs of corporate-run systems of privately operated fleets of individual vehicles, with public funds... right?

(May I direct your attention to various proposed school voucher systems as an example to estimate the potential success of such a suggestion...)

Happens all the time

A great example is paratransit. Paratransit laws require that the ticket be no more than 2x the cost of a transit ticket. In the USA the average paratransit ride costs $30. In some cities it is $50. And it sucks. Many of the paratransit operators are private companies. And in some cities, when they saw the average cost was $30 and the equivalent taxi fare was $10, they started telling the disabled who were able to ride in a taxi, “Just take a taxi (following the rules) and we’ll pay for it” because it was cheaper for the city.

In other words, it happens all the time. In the rest of the world, there are lots of private bus services, often quasi-legal but still operating, as well.

Uber & Public Fund Expenditures

Look up Uber and Altamonte Springs, Florida.

That was fast

Even easier to predict the present it seems (this was announced just a week after my article, but not caused by my article.)


I am glad to see you returning to transit, enjoyed some of your old blog posts. One factor you seem to have overlooked in the past has been the effect of weight on pavement wear. Weight is a 4th power factor in pavement wear, so a vehicle which weighs twice as much does 16 times the road damage/wear. Some of the large hybrid buses do as much road wear as 30,000 cars. I do not have good numbers for carbon footprint for road wear, but have seen web sites which suggest an economic approach, ie road taxes are about 10% of fuel costs, so the carbon footprint would be that of 3,000 cars, for each mile driven.


Do you have some references on the relationship of weight to road wear. Presumably it also depends on velocity, and the number of axles and tires plays a role too?


You are correct that number of axles and tires play a role, the 4th power is a simplified rule of thumb. I have not seen any studies on velocity, although weather is a factor. Freeze thaw cycles have an impact, and many cold weather states have winter load restrictions on trucks. Curiously, there are no winter load restrictions on buses.

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