The Equity Factor

By Yuppies, for Yuppies? The Problems With Uber, RidePal and Other Gated-Off Transportation Systems

So you need a lift, huh? But you either (a) can’t find a taxi or (b) are insanely impatient. There’s an app for that. Several, in fact. And anyone who works at a start-up, or who uses the term “disrupt” in regular conversation without a hint of irony, will likely tell you that these apps are game changers. They’re innovative transportation alternatives.

But who are these apps good for? Not licensed, certified taxi drivers — the folks who make a living ferrying people around in yellow cars. And they’re certainly not of much use to non-wealthy people, regardless of race. (Also: Good luck getting Uber to come out to the South Bronx or Detroit’s eastside.)

There are scores of different transportation start-ups today, from the well-known Uber to San Francisco’s RidePal (a bus service that gets employees from San Francisco to Silicon Valley) to LEAP (another San Francisco commuter service). “Leap,” according to its website, “is the best way to get to work.” As opposed to, say, public transit like everyone else?

Which is what bothers me most about these so-called innovative approaches to transit. Sure, they are nice if you want to get to work quicker or hail a cab at your leisure. But aren’t we just creating more gated systems? We’re walling off services — especially in the case of LEAP and RidePal — to fellow citizens. “Say goodbye to your crowded commute,” RidePal preaches, right after a bit about leather seats and Wi-Fi. I don’t want this to come off as crying poor, but isn’t it a little cruel and unfair to the rest of us — even though users are paying their own way — to load up a bus with upper-middle-class folks and ship them off to work?

The cynic in me pictures normal, taxpaying citizens watching these shiny, Wi-Fi-equipped buses flying through both impoverished and middle-class neighborhoods. Which can’t be far from the truth. Companies reserve seats on RidePal for their employees. We want you to get to work unscathed. I can’t imagine small local businesses can afford that expense.

And what does it mean for cab drivers? Are their jobs at risk? Asim Akhtar, outreach coordinator for the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, told me his organization was concerned at first, but has faith in its model. “A yellow cab is relatively cheaper than the black cabs,” he said. “So we feel the yellow cab rider will continue to take yellow cabs.”

Akhtar remains confident. But Matthew W. Daus, former chairman of New York’s Taxi and Limousine Commission and current president of the International Association of Transportation Regulators, expressed his frustration with Uber in a December interview with the New York Times, calling it a “rogue” app that behaves in a destructive way. A March Mother Jones story said Uber was skimming driver’s tips.

The best argument I’ve seen against these apps, and Silicon Valley in general, was in a May New Yorker article by George Packer. “It suddenly occurred to me that the hottest tech start-ups are solving all the problems of being twenty years old, with cash on hand, because that’s who thinks them up,” Packer wrote.

There are most certainly people in their 30s taking RidePal and LEAP to their jobs in Silicon Valley, but it does seem that apps like Uber were designed by young professionals for young professionals. Although Uber doesn’t scare me as much as the fancy commuter buses. If someone wants to pay out the nose for a black car and the taxi workers alliance is fine with it, that’s OK with me. And, if you want to take the hard-line economics argument, innovation is part of capitalism.

But if private, Wi-Fi-equipped buses become more rampant, I fear that means less diversity on public transit and, more importantly, diminished ridership. Fewer people coming through the turnstiles means a smaller budget for the public transit that the rest of us rely on every day. You can’t force people onto a city bus. And if an employer offers a clean, alternative option, you can’t blame employees for taking it. But these services could turn out to be more disruptive then their developers think.

The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

Tags: infrastructure, transportation, equity factor, san francisco, informal economy, apps, public transit, uber, silicon valley, taxis