Ride-hailing could kill public transport … or be key to saving it

smart city public transport ride-hailing
Image credit: chombosan / Shutterstock.com

ITEM: We hear a lot about the impact of ride-hailing and the sharing economy on things like car ownership, road congestion, air pollution, etc. But there’s another potential outcome of ride-hailing: deepening economic inequality, mainly due to its impact on public transport services.

At least in the US, where urban public transport systems vary widely in terms of budget, quality and availability. Most are already underfunded and undermaintained, and the problem could get worse as more people shun public transport in favor of Uber, Lyft and other services, reports Motherboard:

“I think there are clearly equity issues that cities should probably be concerned about,” transportation researcher Regina Clewlow told me on the phone from Palo Alto, California, where she was attending a conference on the future of mobility. “At a city level, what one should be considering is, how are the streets used and are they being disproportionately used [by] people who are higher-income?”

Last October, the report says, Clewlow wrote a paper with Gouri Shankar Mishra which said that people who typically use car-sharing/ride-hailing services tend to have relatively high incomes – and often would have taken public transit if ride-hailing wasn’t an option. As that demographic abandons public transit for ride-hailing, that could result in higher fares for lower-income people who can’t afford either their own car or a service like Uber. It could also mean less funding for public transport.

Mind you, that’s in the US. In other countries with more robust public transport systems, the impact of ride-hailing might be less pronounced. On the other hand, if it contributes to a dropoff in public transport usage, that could change.

That said, the extent to which ride-hailing could undermine public transport systems may depend on whether they’re cultivated as part of a broader city-wide effort to improve overall mobility infrastructure.

Late last year, a working group of international NGOs launched the “Shared Mobility Principles for Livable Cities” initiative at the 2017 Ecomobility World Festival in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. The coalition – co-founded by Robin Chase, co-founder of Zipcar – created ten principles aimed to align city governments, private companies and NGOs to make them more livable in part by harnessing the potential of ride-sharing/ride-hailing technologies and services.

At the start of this month, Zipcar and 14 other transport tech companies – including Didi, Lyft, Mobike, Ofo, Ola, Scoot Networks and Uber – officially signed onto the initiative. It may come across as self-serving, but the basic thrust here is that ride-sharing companies and NGOs are proposing a shift of city planning for public transport to a sort of open-source model where various sharing-based services are among the many integrated options for more efficient public transport development. Ostensibly the idea isn’t to replace public transport so much as reinvent it in a coordinated way with all stakeholders involved.

As for inequality, the Shared Mobility Principles take this into account, stating that this new mobility model must guarantee physical, digital, and financial access to everyone. Interestingly, it also states that all vehicles and transportation modes “should pay their fair share for road use, congestion, pollution, and use of curb space.”

It’s an interesting idea, although as we’ve seen with smart city projects – which are also essentially about harnessing technology to rethink urban planning and drive greater efficiencies for public services, including public transit, traffic management, parking, etc – it’s challenging to align all the various stakeholders (to include the ones whose livelihoods will be disrupted by the plan – taxi drivers, for example) and stick to timelines and budgets.

Also, flowery goals about fair, equal and affordable access for everyone – while admirable – tend to be hard to achieve in practice. That’s not to say it can’t be done or there’s no use trying, but even where such plans are executed properly, there will inevitably be a transition period where lower-income people could be at a disadvantage.

Still, the concept of transforming public transport infrastructure into an open, integrated public/private hybrid based on sharing economy principles is an interesting one. I’m skeptical that the Shared Mobility Principles would result in the delightful public-transport utopia its mission statement suggests. On the other hand, it ‘s worth considering incorporating the sharing model into smart public transport initiatives, if only because it’s outside of the usual public transport strategy box. There’s little doubt that in many countries, public transport systems could do with a radical rethink in terms of investment, efficiency and affordability. Ride-hailing by itself isn’t the answer – but perhaps it could be a key component of a more comprehensive solution.

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