Ride-Hailing Companies Eye Public Transit Opportunities for the Wrong Reasons

Uber and Lyft say they want to improve public transit, but the focus on profit could have serious consequences.

2 minute read

June 10, 2019, 8:00 AM PDT

By Camille Fink

Uber Car

mikedotta / Shutterstock

E. Tammy Kim writes about the move by ride-hailing companies into the public transportation sector:

Uber and Lyft have been clear about their intentions. At Uber’s apex of candor, in documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, it identifies a "massive market opportunity" in the estimated 4.4 trillion miles traveled by people on public transit in 175 countries in 2017.

Ride-hailing services can supplement transit and help with the "first mile/last mile problem" of getting riders to and from stations and stops, and the companies see public transit as part of their potential business growth. But the long-term outcomes could pose problems, says Kim.

Uber and Lyft have been seeking out public-private partnerships with transit systems in cities such as Denver. The arrangements have often been advantageous for them because the discounted trips are subsidized by public money and drivers remain independent contractors without public-sector employee protections or benefits.

And the financial motives of Uber and Lyft often do not always align with the goals of transit as a public service. Ride-hailing fares in general are cheaper than they should be, argues Kim, and this siphons off riders from transit while the additional vehicle miles lead to an increase in congestion and pollution.

In addition, notes Kim, Uber and Lyft are not held accountable to the public the way public agencies are. "Nor are they required to serve low-income neighborhoods or cater to the elderly, non-English speakers or people with disabilities."

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