Every day, millions of people drive to work and back again with no one else in the car. But what would happen if all those drivers used on-demand ride sharing programs like Lyft and Uber to fill the empty seats in their vehicles? Would it be the end of public transportation as we know it?
In August, Lyft and Uber announced new ride share applications for commuters. Lyft Line and UberPool both offer riders the chance to pay lower fares and pair with other riders. The idea is that if two or more riders are going in the same direction, it is cheaper and more efficient to have them ride together. In exchange for sitting with a stranger, riders receive a discount of 30-60% each depending on demand.
For the moment, the services are only available in certain large metropolitan areas like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and London but the service is proving to be extremely popular. Lyft reports that in just two months, one-third of their rides in San Francisco are Lift Lines. Earlier this year, Lyft bought out Hitch, a local San Francisco commuter ride share start-up in order to jump start its new business model. Uber CEO Travis Kalanik suggests UberPool in London “could take 1 million cars off the road” and Lyft CEO John Zimmer predicts traffic in Los Angeles could plummet if more rides are shared.
In theory, the commuter ride sharing idea is very attractive. Ideally, cities would no longer have to spend billions of dollars on public transportation infrastructure and our commute to work would cease to be a congestion nightmare. But is that dream even remotely possible? Public transportation exists to serve communities. Will Uber and Lyft be wiling to offer discounted or free transportation to those who rely on public transportation the most? Will they make provision for the elderly, the disabled and the poor?
In an era when more people are leaving the suburbs for the city, cultural norms surrounding urban transport are changing. Recently, the MBTA in Boston extended weekend service until 3 am on some routes. Now weekend revelers don’t have to shell out $50 or more for a taxi at 2 in the morning; they can get home for nothing more than the cost of a subway token. The scheduling change is popular not only with T riders but also with the downtown night clubs, restaurants, and taverns that have seen a noticeable increase in business. Even the T is benefiting by collecting more fares.
Attitudes about ride sharing will change in the coming years. For instance, will it be OK for a driver to pick up another rider going to the same destination? Or should a rider who wants exclusive use of a car for the duration of a trip pay a higher price? Over the next few year, society will impose its expectations regarding timeliness, cleanliness and professionalism on ride share companies and their drivers.
In the end, commuter based ride sharing will probably become a complement to existing options like driving to work alone or taking public transportation rather than replacing them.