ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Earl Kaing is a Transportation Planner with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA), where he supports the Transit Effectiveness Project, a package of service changes and "Complete Streets" engineering treatments designed to improve the walking, waiting, and riding experience for customers.
Prior to joining the SFMTA, Earl spent a year as a planner/engineer with Fehr & Peers Transportation Consultants, and three years as a management consultant with Accenture. He has a Master of Urban and Regional Planning from the University of California, Los Angeles, and a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley.
Earl's love affair with the taxi spans years of experience as rider, regulator, and scholar. He spent a summer volunteering with SFMTA's "Taxi Services" department; studied informal "bandit" taxicabs in Koreatown, Los Angeles; mapped the "taxi-friendliness" of Los Angeles neighborhoods; and authored a master's thesis exploring taxi regulations and the potential of car-service to reshape the politics of urban transport.
In his free time, Earl enjoys watching cat videos. And that's about it.
GOT THE BRT BLUES?
Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) has been lauded as a transportation solution that delivers the speed, comfort, and reliability of a "subway" experience at a fraction of the cost. At its heart is the dedicated right-of-way: a single traffic lane, typically carved out of an existing roadway, and reserved exclusively for transit.
While the economic costs of BRT are relatively low, the political costs of taking scarce road space away from drivers and giving it to transit riders are notoriously high, especially in congested urban areas. This explains why, a full 40 years after the first BRT system debuted in Curitiba, Brazil, examples of true BRT in the United States remain few and far between.
Even where political champions have pushed BRT through, the dedicated lanes so critical to its success have rarely survived the negotiation process intact. Circumscribed by compromise, these fragmented, diminished, "BRT-in-name-only" solutions offer—at best—marginal improvements over existing transit service. At worst, they "poison the well," tainting the public's opinion of BRT and making it politically impossible to implement such systems in the future.
We've got the BRT blues in the United States: It's a technically perfect, but politically impossible solution to our urban transportation woes. How do we fix this?
WHAT IS COMBINED MOBILITY?
The potential of taxi-transit integration can be understood through the lens of "combined mobility."
Combined mobility scholars argue that transportation modes other than the car can serve most mobility needs, but that a lack of integration between these modes leaves a mobility gap that can often only be bridged through car ownership.
The problem with car ownership as a solution to this mobility gap is that, once the significant upfront costs of car ownership are “sunk” into the purchase of a vehicle, the marginal costs of using the vehicle for any given trip are essentially negligible.
As a result, driving becomes a relative bargain compared to alternatives like transit, bicycling, walking, or taxis. A car purchased to fill a 20 percent gap in urban mobility ends up—because of the economics of car ownership—serving the full complement of all trips.
This situation is referred to as the “mobility trap” of car ownership, and is a key reason why it is so difficult for mass transit to retain and attract riders.
TAXIS, UBER, LYFT: WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE?
On-Demand Car-Service: Traditional taxis are commercial transportation providers that predominantly operate on an on-demand basis (on-demand in the sense that they are generally found in dense parts of the city, circling around for passengers). There are a host of economic reasons for heavily regulating traditional on-demand taxi service, the primary one being the idea of information asymmetry: passengers don't know anything about the car they're getting into or the price they'll be charged, and generally don't have the luxury of shopping around.
Pre-Arranged Car-Service: Services like Uber, UberX, and Lyft are different from traditional taxis in that they connect customers to commercial transportation providers that operate on a pre-arranged basis (pre-arranged in the sense that customers pre-arrange service either in person, over the telephone, or via a smartphone app). The same economic rationale for regulating on-demand taxis doesn't apply to pre-arranged service, and so these providers do not (should not?) come under the jurisdiction of municipal regulators. These providers are typically registered with and regulated at the state level (in California, it's the CPUC), and are treated like any other business in a perfectly competitive market.
Pre-Arranged Ridesharing : Services like Sidecar and Tickengo operate in a different space entirely. These "ride-sharing" services (purport to) connect private citizens who need a ride from point-a to point-b to other private citizens whose journey will take them from point-a to point-b. These types of trips are non-commercial, and legally viewed as no different from asking a friend for a ride. For this reason, they are not regulated or restricted in any way—yet.
50 years ago, these three operating models provided very different levels of service, and so did not really compete with each other. Today, almost everybody owns a cellphone, and many people have smartphones, leading to technological advances in dispatching technology that have obliterated such level of service distinctions. From a customer's perspective, it doesn't matter whether I'm hailing a cab off the street (on-demand), requesting an Uber (pre-arranged), or arranging a Sidecar trip (ridesharing), so long as they take me where I want to go. And today, all three operating models do this equally well. Unfortunately, from a social, economic, legal, and political perspective—how these different services operate "behind the touchscreen" matters a great deal.
This disconnect between what customers (and even many regulatory agencies) perceive, and how these different services actually operate behind the scenes, is why there is so much confusion and political and legal wrangling in the marketplace. Incumbents, with good reason, are doing everything in their power to protect an outmoded regulatory scheme that they have built their lives around. On the other hand, technology companies like Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar are trying to "disrupt" an ecosystem they don't fully understand, often flouting rules that exist to protect customers and the public good.
Taxi-transit integration can form the basis of a politically tenable compromise that paves the way for much needed regulatory reform, without completely abandoning a system that countless people—and their families—have entrusted their lives to.
BUT AREN'T CARS THE ENEMY?
Anne Vernez Moudon, Profesor of Urban Design and Planning at the University of Washington, said it best:
"The car is not the enemy, nor is the elimination of cars the solution. It is our
societal bias toward cars that must be questioned."
Technology is not the problem, policies—enacted by people—are. These policies channeled growth away from what were formerly fine-grained, densely built landscapes, toward a new pattern of porous and sprawling development—stretched thin by multi-lane arterials, high-capacity freeways, and ample free parking. The inflated scale of these new urban landscapes makes walking unpleasant (if not impossible), transit impractical (and not very cost effective), taxis too expensive, and thus leaves residents with little choice but to drive.
No, cars are not the enemy. Like most things—when consumed in moderation and as part of a balanced diet—cars help us reach places that would otherwise be inaccessible in our day-to-day lives. All the better if we could change the way we use automobile technology (for example, by turning private drivers into taxi riders, or by turning car owners into car sharers) so as to minimize some of its more pernicious social and environmental costs, such as congestion, pollution, and parking.
How the automobile can help solve automobile dependency
CALL A CAB! (UBER AND LYFT WORK,TOO)
BRT's political problem demands a political solution. The video proposal above presents
taxi-transit integration as a strategy for overcoming political barriers to BRT, specifically by opening up BRT's dedicated rights-of-way to taxis, Ubers, Lyfts, and other yet to be conceived car-service providers.
Politics in the United States means people (democracy) and money (capitalism). By making more visible use of the dedicated lanes (changing public perception), and by engaging a long overlooked stakeholder that stands to reap concentrated benefits ($$$) from these lanes, taxi-transit integration will not only help build support for BRT, but also increase the effectiveness of our transportation system in ways that maximize economic efficiency, social equity, and environmental sustainability.
Watch the video to learn how this all comes together!
FREEDOM TO CHOOSE
Strong, vibrant cities empower people through choice, and most Americans today have little choice when it comes to mobility. Taxi-transit integration can help expand transportation choices for all people, and help make existing choices—like transit, taxis, walking, and driving—work better.
WHEN CHANGE CHANGES EVERYTHING: THE RISE OF UBER
Uber, Lyft, and other upstart car-service providers are expanding transportation choices for all, and making it possible to live car-free without sacrificing quality of life. While this is undoubtedly a good thing, it does come at a price.
In San Francisco, (traditional) taxi driver incomes have been cut in half since the rise of Uber, Lyft, and other dispatched-by-smart-phone transportation providers. The president of DeSoto Cab Co., one of the largest operators in the city, stated in a recent interview that he wouldn't be surprised if the traditional taxi model was dead within 18 months. Companies will fail. Retirement savings will evaporate. Lives will be disrupted.
Change is never easy, but it doesn't always have to be so hard. How do we allow competition to flourish, without completely abandoning an established system—outmoded as it is—that tens of thousands of people have built their entire lives around? How do we "disrupt" an industry, without disrupting lives?
Taxi-transit integration offers a way out. We could provide the traditional taxi industry privileged access to the dedicated lanes, or prefered vendor status when bidding for feeder- or owl service contracts. These giveaways, while not ideal, could form the basis of a politically tenable compromise that would open the industry up to competition, without completely abandoning a system that incumbents have entrusted their lives to.