Sunday, October 4, 2015

Expanding transit and taxis

I wrote recently that by making taxi service more convenient and flexible, electronic taxi hailing services like Uber and Lyft have the potential to replace private car trips and even some car ownership. But some argue (or worry) that they can go further and replace public transit. I've already pointed out that even in this unlikely event, it would not necessarily be a bad thing.

The main value of transit is that it gets people out of cars, and the main challenge of transit in the 2010s (in large, walkable US cities at least) is that it doesn't have enough capacity to accommodate all the people who want to get out of their cars. The main goal for transit advocates right now should be to grow that capacity.

Since the days of Red Mike Hylan, transit advocates have focused on funding capacity expansion through government contracts, and big business has been a dirty word. But it's not at all clear that Hylan was right: the fact that the new 7 line extension was the first real rapid transit expansion in New York City since 1989 shows that we can't just forbid private investment in transit and expect the public sector to step in.

Some subway and commuter rail expansions are massively over-engineered and take forever (the Second Avenue Subway, East Side Access). Others are loaded down with park-and-rides (the Northern Branch), and eventually deep-sixed by ambitious politicians (the Rockland-Westchester corridor). Politicians have shut down many promising subway (Astoria extension), commuter rail (LIRR Third Track) and bus (Main Street bus lanes) proposals at the behest of NIMBYs or even cycling advocates (the Rockaway Beach Line).

The most shameful smothering of transit expansion was where ostensibly left-wing, pro-transit Manhattanites and their ostensibly left-wing, transit-loving representatives tightened constraints on the capacity for bus movement and storage, and blocked attempts to expand them, without a peep out of supposed bus advocates.

If we can’t count on government to expand transit fast enough to meet demand, or to even allow private buses to meet that demand, we have to see if someone else is willing to meet it. And that’s where Uber and Lyft, and less well known services like Via, come in.

These electronic taxi hailing services have essentially used venture capital to finance a massive expansion and upgrade of New York's taxi fleet. Hundreds of late-model Priuses and Suburbans have begun cruising the streets of New York, replacing Lincoln Town Cars and Ford Tauruses.

This is happening not because The People demanded an expansion and upgrade of the taxi fleet. (The bourgeois poseurs who claim to speak on behalf of The People would never demand such a thing, because it sounds too bourgeois.) It is not happening because the Sensible Bureaucrats conducted a study and decided to spend the money. (The Sensible Bureaucrats made some headway, but their colleagues were too busy cowering in pathetic fear of the power of the taxi medallion owners.) It is happening because Uber and others are making a profit on the financing of these vehicles, and the venture capitalists pouring money into Uber and Lyft are expecting to eventually make a profit themselves.

Of course, that's just taxis, and as I wrote earlier, by itself it won't get us to our goals. But is it a sign of a potential way forward for transit expansion?

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