Saturday, April 27, 2019

Buses, Lyft and the Cost of Time

Recently, I wasn't feeling up to driving to work like I usually do, but I still wanted to go, so I tried using Lyft.  Round trip it cost me about $48, including tip, and took about 50 minutes each way.  The equivalent trip by bus would have cost me $5.70 and taken two hours each way.  In other words, I spent $42.30 more to save two hours and 20 minutes of travel time.  This works out to $18.13 per hour.  This is a 24 km, more or less suburb to suburb commute.

In Southern California, transit ridership has been in decline in recent years ("Falling Transit Ridership" study).  This is complex phenomenon that isn't attributable to a single cause, but the rise of "app taxi" services like Lyft and Uber have played a role.  I don't use Lyft much, mainly because I have my own car and have pretty easy access to free parking for most of my trips.  However, the few times I have used it, I found the experience easy, convenient and fast, albeit certainly expensive compared to other ways of getting around.

In Southern California heavy transit use is correlated with being on the lower end of the income scale.  If you are low-income, you can save money by riding the bus, but at the cost of greater time spent travelling.  If you are higher-income you can use your money to save time in transportation, either by buying a car or by using services like Lyft.

The downside of all this is it feeds into a vicious cycle where transit loses riders and as a result loses money and can't offer as much service, meaning the travel time cost rises, making it even less able to attract riders.  This means society loses out on the benefits of bus travel, like efficient use of road space and reductions in air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.  So, how do we break that cycle?

Travel by bus takes too long to attract people with choice in places where it is easy and cheap to drive and park.  Therefore, bus travel needs to be prioritized and accelerated.  This requires more public investment to increase the service frequency (wait time between buses).  It requires dedicated bus lanes that allow buses to travel unimpeded by other traffic.  It requires all-door boarding to speed up the process of getting people on the bus.  It requires designing cities with higher population and job density and affordable housing near transit so that you don't need to travel so far to get to things on a bus.  It requires parking reform a la Shoup, to get drivers to pay the cost of their parking, which incentivizes the use of other modes of transpiration.

Services like Lyft aren't going anywhere.  I can see why they are so popular.  As a society we need to shore up transit so that the vicious cycle of ridership loss doesn't become a death spiral.

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