Home Company Car Ridesharing Could Uber run the London bus network? It’s complicated

Could Uber run the London bus network? It’s complicated

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Tech firms are already making moves on our mass transit systems, but they run the risk of doing more harm than good and leaving vulnerable people stranded.

Uber wants to run city bus systems. And, as the UK’s bus coverage hits a 28-year-low, unless government and local authorities invest more in public transport, we may well have to give the taxi firm a shot.

Dara Khosrowshahi, the firm’s CEO, says he wants Uber to become a market for transport options from bikes to food delivery and more. “Cars are to us what books are to Amazon,” he said at a conference outlining his vision for the company. “I want to run the bus systems for a city,” he added. “I want you to be able to take an Uber and get into the subway… and get out and have an Uber waiting for you.”

Those plans are already in motion. Uber has a slice of food delivery via UberEats, is trialling bike sharing in San Francisco, and has been mocked for reinventing the bus via its now defunct UberHOP service. More successfully, it also introduced introduced UberPool, its shared ride-hailing option. Beyond that, Uber is already working with US cities to offer discounted rides to train stations for commuters living in areas with poor transport options, and offering ride-sharing to a small city in Canada as a cheaper alternative to rolling out a bus network.

That step into mass transit comes as bus services struggle. BBC figures suggest Britain’s bus network has shrunk by eight per cent to its smallest coverage size in 28 years, pinning the blame on a preference for cars alongside funding cuts to public services. In London, congestion and slow buses have contributed to the number of passengers has falling by 2.3 per cent, ripping a £25 million hole in budget plans.

Uber and its peers are already being seen as the solution to fixing those public services. Faced with criticism that bus funding has been sliced by a third, transport minister Chris Grayling said last year that on-demand “Uber-style” models could replace traditional bus services.

Profitable routes only?

Those without transport will welcome anyone who offers them a bus, regardless of whether it’s run by government, a tech firm or a community project, but Uber and its rivals may well prove an existential threat to public transport, says Greg Lindsay, Senior Fellow for mobility at the NewCities think tank. “Uber and other TNCs [transportation network companies] — the others are no more virtuous — have always been about disrupting public transport, about privatising the pieces of public transport that they found profitable and leaving the rest to wither,” he says.

While some bus routes do make a profit, that money helps offset services in less busy areas and pays for accessible services. Taking the easy customers and leaving behind more expensive challenges is an express route to profit, but it leaves authorities without the cash to ensure public transport reaches as many of us as possible. Dr Junfeng Jiao,assistant professor in community planning at the University of Texas at Austin, says that on-demand transport — be it bikes or buses — tends to be concentrated in high-density, high-income areas. “I assume by nature that a company like Uber or other TNCs will… run their lines in more profitable areas,” he says. “For other parts of a town, they don’t provide the service. As a business, profit is number one, so I don’t blame them, but that’s the problem.” Because of that, he argues they aren’t a good solution for “transport deserts,” his term for underserved neighbourhoods.

But Uber and Lyft could be the ticket for some of the tough jobs, too. Boston runs a paratransit programme called The Ride, which offers point-to-point, on-demand transport to less physically able people. It was costing the city’s transport authority $102 million (£73m) annually, but was heavily criticised for poor service. A trial using Uber and Lyft to provide those rides was last year seen as successful enough to extend — and no wonder, when it slashed costs from a pre-trial $45 (£32) per trip by 18 per cent and let users book immediately, rather than a day in advance.

That suggests there could be a good way to use ride-hailing apps to prop up public transport — we just have to make sure we get it right.

It’s not just Uber

There are plenty of trials on the go, as Uber isn’t the only corporate giant or tech startup with an eye on mass transit. Ford’s Chariot runs commuter bus lines in five US cities and recently kicked off a trial of four lines in London, complete with twee nicknames like “Wandsworth Wanderer” and “Battersea Bullet”. Journey-planning app Citymapper has also trialled buses in East London, after its data suggested routes were underserved — particularly on the way to its office and during weekend evenings near Shoreditch’s many bars. It followed that up with a trial of fixed-route black cabs.

But while Ford and Citymapper have buses on the road in London, they aren’t — as Khosrowshahi apparently desires — running bus systems. Indeed, as in Boston’s paratransit case, both the Ford and Citymapper trials are licensed by and working closely with the local regulator, Transport for London. That’s simply the model in the British capital, where buses are all run by private companies but managed and organised by that powerful government authority. “Citymapper has worked very closely with TfL… they’re not competing,” Lindsay noted.

Chariot worked directly with TfL to design routes that benefit both, cutting the initial six planned down to four. “We declined two of Chariot’s proposed routes following comments from local residents, concerns about where the services could safely stop and to ensure any new service complements existing services,” a TfL spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement.

The four Chariot routes are outside the direct centre of London and won’t replace any existing services — suggesting this solution could address Jiao’s “transport deserts” and help avoid concerns that these Uber and Ford buses cherry pick the best routes.

But that only works thanks to the power exercised by TfL. While Chariot plays ball in London, in San Francisco the Ford company attempted to serve the same routes as existing bus lines, copying the known good routes, but didn’t get far before the local transport authority quickly put its foot down. Similar behaviour has been spotted in Washington, hit by a host of maintenance delays that have knocked out commuter train lines.

“Uber, Lyft and others have dropped competing routes on top of the train line, basically to try to siphon off their customers,” says Lindsay. That’s akin to Virgin laying fibre broadband in the same place BT already has it: well-served customers get more choice, while those stuck on slow lines in rural areas continue to suffer.

Congestion woes

Chucking more vehicles on the road may actually exacerbate the decline in bus passengers. TfL pins its falling bus ridership on “slower, less reliable journey times”, saying roadworks and congestion have dragged London buses to an average 9.2mph.

Alongside construction and roadworks, TfL’s budget report claims congestion has also increased because of the flood of “private hire and small freight delivery vehicles”. The number of private-hire cars leapt from 49,854 in 2013 to 84,886 in 2016, and much of that increase is down to Uber’s cars simply being on the road. Alongside that, University of California research suggests the ease of ride-hailing apps has led to a six per cent reduction of bus use in the US and a subsequent increase in driving.

Fit and proper?

Even if it’s generically a good idea to let private tech companies nudge their way into mass transit — more buses are more buses, after all — whether Uber should be the one to provide that service remains debatable. The company lost its licence to operate in London after TfL deemed it “not fit and proper”, saying it lacked “corporate responsibility”; Uber has filed an appeal. “Cities have to be extremely careful with Uber,” says Lindsay. “Their corporate culture issues are well known at this point… Cities should think twice. Uber doesn’t play well with others.”

Plus, Uber is yet to actually make a profit, with estimates suggesting its investors are effectively subsidising 41 per cent of each app-hailed ride (though that figure is disputed). With buses, once investors step out, will it be left for government funding to fill that gap? Or will fare prices simply rise?

The limits of startup buses

Uber, Chariot, Citymapper and the rest should be used to prop up public transport only when it makes sense. Just as Boston found a use for ride-hailing apps to help disabled passengers, on-demand buses could be handy to offer train-to-door services at night or to boost supply after concerts or football matches, Jiao says. But Uber need not supply those; public authorities can borrow the on-demand idea and run it themselves.

Indeed, we need not rely on Uber to address any of these challenges — there are other options. As Bridget Fox, sustainable transport campaigner at the Campaign for Better Transport, says: “There may be areas where ride sharing can play a role in complementing bus services, but this may not be financially viable in the very areas and communities that need bus services most – remote or low income communities.” Community-run buses ferry about passengers in the West Dales here in Britain, and Germany even has a crowdfunded independent train running alongside Deutsche Bahn.

But regardless of who provides better buses — your neighbours, your government, or Uber — it requires better funding. “If we don’t take good care of our infrastructure… it’s going to hurt our lives,” Jiao says. “We shouldn’t assume buses will always be there.”

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