Ride-sharing and the reinvention of public transportation

Coincidentally, both Uber and Lyft launched a similar car-sharing service this week aimed at reducing fees for passengers by having them share their ride. Instead of being single passengers in a car the new service tries to group people who are going the same way, or part of the same way, in the same car.

When I first read about this, I wasn’t sure it would work. After all, as an alternative to taxis, ride-sharing services were trying to provide a faster and easier (easier than trying to hail a cab or calling a dispatcher, that is) experience and that this multiple-passenger ride-sharing, with multiple stops on the way to a destination, seemed to counter that. Sure, some passengers were complaining about high prices (especially during what are called “surge” periods) but it didn’t seem like price was the overwhelming factor in deciding whether to take an Uber/Lyft or a cab.

Random people sharing rides makes sense after a common event like a game.

Random people sharing rides makes sense after a common event like a game.

Car-sharing does, however, seem useful in situations where there are “natural” groups of people going from one place to another, such as after a sports event/rock concert to different parts of town. In such scenarios there are more passengers than there are available cars and drivers and drivers could earn more by making a multiple-stop trip to a common neighborhood. It could even make airport shuttles more efficient by better groupings of passengers to common neighborhoods instead of today, where it’s all over the city. But could it be used regularly?

Then this Vox article pointed out what I had been missing: this isn’t necessarily a way to revolutionize carpooling but a way to revolutionize buses. I’ve never worked in public transport but I think I can safely assume that route changes happen infrequently and only after multiple studies and passenger counts. It seems like the biggest influence on a route is history: it’s always gone from here to there, why change? And why indeed, when there is no promise of passengers on a new route with current passengers objecting to a change?

Is it safe to assume that there will be some point in the future by which Lyft and/or Uber will have registered a large majority of non-driving-but-needing-to-get-somewhere passengers in a city? By analyzing single and multiple passenger routes over time and during different times of the day, crossing that data with events and seasonal changes, can they come up with better and dynamic bus-like routes? Should bus routes change throughout the day? Should they change throughout the week? Should they change throughout the year?

The Techcrunch article stated that the original goal of Lyft’s founders was to “increase the number of passengers traveling in a vehicle at any one time.” With this new ability to connect not just drivers and passengers but also groups of passengers I agree that they are getting closer to reaching that goal.

 

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