Quantcast

Uber and Lyft Revolutionize Public Transit

Business

Could Uber and Lyft make the dream of futurists for personal rapid transit come true?

Since the 1950s, thinkers such as city transportation planner Donn Fichter began to envision an automated public transit system for low-density areas where rail and even buses were not practical. Even in denser urban environments, it has always been a challenge to get people to leave their cars at home when mass transit cannot offer point-to-point and schedule on demand service.

The 1960s through 1990s saw research studies and a handful of demonstration projects in the U.S., Europe and Japan. In 1999, I visited the Honda R&D facility in Tochigi, Japan, where I could summon a self-driven minicar to take me to specific spots around the campus. The vehicle would then return to its home base on its own. Other proposed systems used guideways, separating the vehicle from existing road or rail systems but offering less flexibility.

The automotive industry is investing heavily in autonomous vehicle technology, some aspects of which are already available in mass-market vehicles from major manufacturers. Two major industry suppliers, Delphi Automotive and Mobileye, are teaming up to produce off-the-shelf autonomous vehicle technology that will be shown at the International CES in Las Vegas in January. This will enable automakers to more quickly introduce self-driving cars and spend less on their own research and development.

Uber has just started a pilot program in Pittsburgh involving up to 100 self-driving vehicles in partnership with Volvo. The company has also acquired Otto, a start-up company headed by autonomous vehicle engineer Anthony Levandowski.

Uber's modified Volvo XC90 for its Pittsburgh self-driving fleet.Uber

Earlier this year, General Motors announced a $500 million in investment in rival Lyft. This month, Ford said it would have a fully autonomous vehicle on the road for ride sharing by 2021. Google's 25-mph prototype vehicle is also testing on public roads.

Uber and Lyft are looking beyond competition with traditional taxi services. They may be creating the first practical, affordable personal rapid transit (PRT) systems that will compete with buses. In 2014, Uber launched UberPool, enabling multiple parties to share a ride along similar routes. The following year, the company announced uberCOMMUTE in China, which they described as " carpooling at the press of a button." In the U.S., it's being tested in Chicago. Then, in December, Uber launched uberHOP in Seattle, which operates along pre-selected commuters routes.

Virtually all mass transit systems are publicly subsidized. Farebox revenues rarely cover more than 50 percent of expenses, which are labor and capital-intensive. In Pinellas Park, Florida—a Tampa suburb—has just replaced two bus lines with Uber service, subsidized to the tune of $3 per ride. It's cheaper than running the buses. The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority budgeted $40,000 a year. Running the two bus lines cost four times as much.

In the Denver suburb of Centennial, Lyft launched a program this month providing free rides to the Dry Creek light rail station. In this case, the program is designed to encourage mass transit use by enabling commuters to get to the station without having to park a car there all day. A self-driving bus is already being tested in Washington, DC.

A key benefit of a self-driving vehicles is greater fuel efficiency. The computer can drive better than you can. It will drive at a steady speed, will avoid jackrabbit starts and won't exceed the speed limit. Ultimately, a preponderance of autonomous vehicles could reduce traffic congestion by communicating with each other and traveling together in a controlled caravan. Car-sharing and carpooling make for more efficient use of roadways, vehicles and infrastructure devoted to parking.

There are concerns, however, that self-driving cars will encourage more driving. That remains to be seen, but if the technology is accompanied by more car-sharing and greater use of electric vehicles, that may act as an offset.

A KPMG/Center for Automotive Research study stated, "The new technology could provide solutions to some of our most intractable social problems—the high cost of traffic crashes and transportation infrastructure, the millions of hours wasted in traffic jams and the wasted urban space given over to parking lots, just to name a few. But if self-driving vehicles become a reality, the implications would also be profoundly disruptive for almost every stakeholder in the automotive ecosystem."

Personal rapid transit is no longer a pipe dream; it's a business.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Justin Trudeau delivers remarks during an election rally in Markham, Ontario, Canada, on Sept. 15. Creative Touch Imaging Ltd. / NurPhoto via Getty Images

By Chloe Farand for Climate Home News

Canadians are voting on Monday in an election observers say will define the country's climate future.

Read More Show Less
Activists Greta Thunberg (2ndL), Iris Duquesne(C), and Alexandria Villaseñor (3rd R) attend a press conference where 16 children present their official human rights complaint on the climate crisis to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child at the UNICEF Building on Sept. 23 in NYC. KENA BETANCUR / AFP / Getty Images

By Jessica Taft

Fifteen kids from a dozen countries, including Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, recently brought a formal complaint to the United Nations. They're arguing that climate change violates children's rights as guaranteed by the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a global agreement.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Cleanup costs for abandoned oil and gas wells once the producers have moved on could fall heavily on the public.
Susan Vineyard / iStock / Getty Images Plus

By Justin Mikulka

Increasingly, U.S. shale firms appear unable to pay back investors for the money borrowed to fuel the last decade of the fracking boom. In a similar vein, those companies also seem poised to stiff the public on cleanup costs for abandoned oil and gas wells once the producers have moved on.

Read More Show Less
Blue tarps given out by FEMA cover several roofs two years after Hurricane Maria affected the island in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Sept. 18. RICARDO ARDUENGO / AFP / Getty Images

Top officials at the Department of Housing and Urban Development confirmed to lawmakers last week that they knowingly — and illegally — stalled hurricane aid to Puerto Rico.

Read More Show Less
Actress Jane Fonda (C) and actor Sam Waterston (L) participate in a protest in front of the U.S. Capitol during a "Fire Drill Fridays" climate change protest and rally on Capitol Hill, Oct. 18. Mark Wilson / Getty Images News

It appears Jane Fonda is good for her word. The actress and political activist said she would hold demonstrations on Capitol Hill every Friday through January to demand action on the climate crisis. Sure enough, Fonda was arrested for demonstrating a second Friday in a row Oct. 18, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Only this time, her Grace and Frankie co-star Sam Waterston joined her.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
Visitors look at the Aletsch glacier above Bettmeralp, in the Swiss Alps, on Oct. 1. The mighty Aletsch — the largest glacier in the Alps — could completely disappear by the end of this century if nothing is done to rein in climate change, a study showed on Sept. 12. FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP via Getty Images

Switzerland's two Green parties made historic gains in the country's parliamentary elections Sunday, according to projections based on preliminary results reported by The New York Times.

Read More Show Less
A mural in Richwood, West Virginia, a once booming Appalachia coal town, honors the community's history. Jeff Greenberg / Universal Images Group / Getty Images

By Jeff Turrentine

The coal industry is dying. But we can't allow the communities that have been dependent on coal to die along with it.

Read More Show Less
ThitareeSarmkasat / iStock / Getty Images

by Jillian Kubala, MS, RD

Every fruit lover has their go-to favorites. Bananas, apples, and melons are popular choices worldwide and can be purchased almost anywhere.

Read More Show Less