Not so uplyfting

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I’m ashamed to admit that the first time I rode the 51B by myself was a month ago.

Displeased by the surge pricing on my Lyft app one day, I finally opted to not circumvent public transport options after not touching my three years of free Clipper card benefits — and I rode the bus. 

It was a sublime experience. The sweet, silent exchanges between people who’ve never met, the regulars with their knowing nods and smiles, the cute little puppies excitedly hopping on and off, the assortment of seating tiers, sights and smells — all of it was tinged with an unadulterated liveliness and humanity that I, for long, had abstracted away from with a few taps on my phone. And with the aid of Apple Maps’ real-time bus stop tracking, I knew exactly when and where I was at all times on the ride. I was kicking myself; why didn’t I utilize the bus before?

Convenience. Comfort. Caution. With the spectacle of safety, the prioritization of convenience and promise of comfort, ride-sharing apps commodified my every travel experience. It seemed so much easier, and it felt so right. Because despite public transit’s long-standing and indispensable history in urbanism, when there’s a multimodal alternative for every route length, topography, rider capacity and even vehicle preference, individuals like me who can afford the liberty of choice are quite easily enticed. And the aggregate sum of seemingly harmless enticements is altering city infrastructure altogether. 

Cities were built to be scalable systems, not noncommittal playgrounds pandering to transient, individualized needs. They weren’t modeled for thousands of underpaid drivers to “pick up Divya and drop off Varsha next” all day. They weren’t designed to entertain hours of “deadheading” or aimless driving in anticipation of the next fare instead of a final destination. And they certainly weren’t constructed to be polluted with scattered fleets of electric bikes and scooters that pedestrians can trip on when at rest and drivers decelerate to maneuver around when in motion. 

The diversion from public transit by riders who can spare it is eroding the ideal of public transportation as a principal service for everyone, shaping the “elite opinion” that ride-sharing is the only avenue to efficiently travel. And while scanty efforts of data monopolies, such as Uber Movement, to enable data-driven transportation planning in the public sector to exist, unlike data, physical space is finite. Reconfiguring cities for optimal mobility must be met halfway with ridership.

But as long as these companies capitalize on users as consumers rather than citizens or constituents, and while new autonomous vehicle and ride-sharing companies emerge from unknown abysses with billions of dollars in fresh venture capitalist funding, BART, Caltrain and Muni will still develop at their excruciatingly slow rates while Lyft and Uber upgrade to verbs in our vernacular. Interventions such as the addition of bus lanes on San Francisco’s Mission Street sped up transit services by nearly 25% and reduced bus bunching, leading to more predictable commute times. Seattle is decriminalizing fare evasion, encouraging low-income residents to access public transit, subsidizing free passes for students and redesigning the Dial-a-Ride Transportation service network to be workable in a car-dependent city. Despite such promising ways to “democratize” urban mobility, public transit largely remains too undesirable of a problem to tackle for the “solutionists” of Silicon Valley, for whom the sky really isn’t the limit when private transport alternatives such as flying taxis and helicopters are in sight.

Don’t get me wrong — ride-sharing is not all evil. A three-year study in 150 cities and counties reported a 16.6% decrease in DUIs, and fatalities significantly lowered after the introduction of Uber. The flexibility of the gig economy offered by services such as Lyft and Uber has been glamorized as the paragon of autonomy, enabling individuals to supplement their incomes from the driver’s seat. And in an ideal world with ruthlessly perfect routing, carpooling through ride-share might even reduce the number of cars threefold. 

But that’s in an ideal world. 

The reality is that ride-sharing services compound congestion in metropolitan areas, increasing the number of miles that cars travel in some areas by more than 80%. A proposed solution is taxing drivers, but with ride-sharing companies already bleeding millions of dollars, I have little conviction in its effectiveness.

Coupled with ride-sharing, mapping apps such as Waze — which are on the quest to finding the shortest routes — are gridlocking neighborhoods, rerouting drivers toward wildfires or onto narrow residential streets, and calculating ETAs based on the drivers’ speeds instead of actual speed limits. Congestion and traffic storm aside, the community of drivers that depend on gigs as full-time job opportunities receive absolutely no insurance, no medical benefits, no workers’ compensation and in most cases, no minimum wage. With fewer than half of the gig-economy contractors making more than $2,500 in a year, ride-sharing has built a new trapped underclass of drivers, some of whom may have purchased vehicles under false promises of making around $5,000 in their first month of driving. Along with other public transit networks, BART in its inception had great plans. And while its original complexity was never realized, as creatures of habit I feel great power in our ability to think twice about how we get to our next destination. Let’s get back on the line, not Lyft line.

Divya Nekkanti writes the Friday column on tech, design and entrepreneurship. Contact her at [email protected].