Uber, but for public transit


Your new ride to work, with the right imagination

Good gravy I’ve been waiting to write the Uber, but quip for a legitimate reason and now several years after it was lightly humorous I’ve done it!

Anyway, Jeff Spross writes in The Week about the possibility of using private ride-sharing services to supplement, or in some instances replace, public transit options. A pilot program already exists in Pinellas County Florida, while other areas of the country are mulling similar alternatives which could potentially provide congestion relief and greater access to under-served areas:

A hundred families could use 100 cars to get around, but those cars would spend at least 92 percent of their time parked. But if the cars were constantly shuttling people around, those 100 hundred families might really only need 5 or 10 total. At a theoretical level, that’s basically what Uber and Lyft offer. Making the math even more favorable, the rise of the apps’ carpool-style services, like Uberpool, allow an even smaller number of cars to serve more people.

Now, this is particularly important for suburbs, which sit on the outskirts of existing metro and subway systems. Because they’re less dense, suburbs are particularly expensive to reach and support with public transit. And the big shifts in the U.S. economy are pushing more people in poverty into those neighborhoods. So government support for ride-sharing services has the potential to do a lot of good for places that need it the most — and for a lot less money, a particularly important concern in a time when Congress and many state legislatures are irrationally opposed to any new taxes or debt.

At a glance this seems like a typical win-win for your standard market-oriented modern liberal; public transportation is expanded in areas where they’re either contracting or provided well-below demand, and private firms are enriched providing the supply for a price much-less than what a fully-public option would probably cost.

Of course this public/private hybrid model would have it’s flaws. It would presumably cost potential riders more because private companies need to turn a profit and state and local governments often need to balance budgets. In this three-stool arrangement the public will always be treated more as a consumer than a beneficiary—and pay accordingly. With all actors having their budgetary limits the impact of all this would be smaller than possible under different arrangements. This would similarly be an imperfect deal for the people providing the labor, who would be paid less as independent contractors rather than employees while enjoying few to no benefits. Honestly, I don’t know why this isn’t happening more quickly.

I think there is a better idea. Let’s have the United States Postal Service do it. For the last several years some of the wonkier left folks have suggested expanding the scope of USPS services to provide basic guaranteed banking—both to provide an unmet need as well as shore up the finances of an institution that’s losing gobs of money every year. Postal banking isn’t an unprecedented idea, and neither are other non-traditional services. Posti, Finland’s post service, is piloting several such programs, like mowing lawns for a monthly tax-deductible fee and providing basic chores for citizens with disabilities. Why not ride-sharing? Okay, so it wouldn’t necessarily be ride-sharing as such. USPS would simply pick you up and take you where you want to go, which would basically just be a public taxi service. But the benefits and advantages would be far greater.

The post office already operates one of the largest civilian fleets in the world, making this proposition equally as adaptable to implementing public transit as contracting a private company. With an infrastructure that reaches every corner of the country USPS would also be able to serve rural areas that aren’t being discussed in the public/private pilot programs. The federal government could help fund it so that it would operate at cost, charging citizens less than an Uber or Lyft. Drivers would need to be hired and paid well with benefits as actual employees at a time when historical public employment is below its 2010 peak. A fully-operational postal transit service would provide all of benefits Jeff mentions in his piece, and then some.

Which, unfortunately, is why it’d be a lot less likely to happen. Yet a dude can dream that what strikes us as a quirky Finnish policy could be a radical solution here in the United States, and achievable with the right kind of imagination.


One response to “Uber, but for public transit

  1. I think the matter would be how to really make it affordable for the Post Office, considering that it only delivers mail once a day Mon-Sat, except on major holidays.

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