10/07/2016

The Future of Your Commute

12:12 minutes

For commuters in Manhattan, the ride-hailing service Uber now offers a $5 flat fare for carpooling with other riders headed in the same direction.

Recently, the company inked a deal with the city of Summit, New Jersey, to offer commuters subsidized rides to and from the train station, as the area suffers from parking congestion. Does the future of commuting start with an app? Experts say there could be real benefits to merging ride-booking technology with our commutes, but for the moment, not everyone — or every place — stands to gain equally.

Priya Anand, a transportation reporter for Buzzfeed News, says Uber has been striking deals all over the country, like the one with Summit, a bedroom community of New York.

“What remains to be seen is how far this can spread into the suburbs outside of major cities,” she says. “But partnerships that they’ve launched do provide sort of a glimpse into what the future of our commute could look like.”

Anand says that when Summit’s city manager did the math on what a new parking lot near the train station would cost, the number came out to about $10 million. And the project would take time, not to mention the process of finding and acquiring land for a new lot. But the city manager realized that subsidizing Uber rides for about 100 people each day — charging them the same as parking for a lift to and from the station — could give Summit an immediate parking fix for under $200,000 per year. The program is now in a 6-month pilot.

“They could do this for 50 years and have it cost not the same amount as the parking lot,” Anand says.

David King, a professor of urban planning at Arizona State University in Tempe, calls himself a “strong supporter” of pilot projects like the one in Summit. But he’s cautious about the environmental implications, as well.

“One of the ways to interpret what Summit is doing is that they’re so scared of raising the price of parking that they’re subsidizing more people,” King says. “They could solve their parking demand problem by raising the cost, which is what we should be doing — raise the overall cost of driving, so then people will start shifting to mass transit.”

In Summit’s new deal with Uber, King notes that increased demand for one-way trips to and from the train station could mean that lots of ride-booking cars leave the parking lot without passengers. And if someone who used to park at the station is now hailing rides there, the Summit deal could lead to more car trips overall.

“[It] doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re saving any fuel, or you’re saving any road space,” King says. “All you’ve done is you’ve increased one trip to two trips, one coming and one going.”

Where do deals like the one in Summit leave commuters who don’t have smartphones or credit cards? According to Anand, Uber is working on an online system where people will eventually be able to dispatch rides for other people. And in the future, urban commuters may even be able to pay for ride-booking with their transit passes, for example. But neither solution is online yet — and for King, that means there are still equity issues to work out before the ride-booking phenomenon can aid many commuters.

“Ten percent of the households in New York City don’t have access to a bank account,” King says. And he’s seen Metropolitan Transportation Authority data showing that people with lower incomes, or without bank accounts, don’t buy the unlimited MetroCards that could eventually be used as payment for ride-booking.

“They don’t have the extra money on their cards to spend on other modes [of transportation],” he adds.

When driverless cars hit the roads, both King and Anand see opportunities for hailing them as another way to get to work. But the roaming, empty cars could also lead to further congestion in some urban areas — an issue King says we can solve by charging driverless cars for road space.

“We generally don’t like road tolls,” he says. “Now, they’re politically unpopular. But I think that we will enjoy road tolls a little bit more when we’re taxing a vehicle that’s empty.”

And without a driver to pay, Anand says that hailing a ride could get cheaper overall.

“Many do believe that the cost of labor is the biggest barrier here with ride-sharing and ride-hailing,” she says. “So I mean, Uber is working on self-driving cars for a reason, right?”

Senior producer Christopher Intagliata tested out using a ride sharing app to commute to the Science Friday offices. Take a listen:

— Julia Franz (originally published on PRI.org)

Segment Guests

Priya Anand

Priya Anand is transportation reporter for BuzzFeed News in San Francisco, California.

David King

David King is an assistant professor of Urban Planning in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday, I’m Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour we’ll be talking to former astronaut Mike Massimino about his long and winding road into space, and to Robert Zubrin about colonizing Mars. But first, earlier this year the ride sharing company started offering a $5 flat fare here in Manhattan during commuting hours. Sounds pretty cheap. There is a catch, you’re carpooling with other riders. Which means you have to stop along the way to pick up and drop off other commuters. Could this be the future of commuting? And how does it stack up to the New York City standard, the subway?

Our producer Christopher Intagliata tried it out one morning this week, dialing up the Uber app at 9:30 a.m. for his daily commute.

CHRISTOPHER INTAGLIATA: I usually take the subway to work, but today I’m going to try Uber pool commute. They have a $5 flat fare. Dialing up the app here. Find best pick up. And it says it’s going to take 36 minutes for me to get to work. Let’s do it. Robert in an Acura is coming to pick me up on the southeast corner of Madison Street. So if I were taking the subway right now I would definitely make it to work around 10:00 a.m. It’s given me an update, it says we’re leaving in three minutes. I think that’s him.

ROBERT: Good morning.

CHRISTOPHER INTAGLIATA: Hello there, how’s it going?

ROBERT: Having a good morning?

CHRISTOPHER INTAGLIATA: So far so good.

ALEX: Usually is a packed car, three-four at least.

CHRISTOPHER INTAGLIATA: You take it every day?

ALEX: Oh yeah, pretty much for the commute hours. Alex. A-L-E-X. Alex.

CHRISTOPHER INTAGLIATA: And you live here in New York?

ALEX: Yeah, Lower East Side born and raised.

CHRISTOPHER INTAGLIATA: So it says it’s going to take 20 minutes to get to work now.

ALEX: Just bear in mind, if you have a meeting to make you gotta take transit. This does take a while.

CHRISTOPHER INTAGLIATA: It looks like we’ve added a pick up here.

ROBERT: Robert speaking.

SAMANTHA: Hi this is Samantha I requested an Uber.

CHRISTOPHER INTAGLIATA: Kind of exciting.

ALEX: Unless you gotta be somewhere in five minutes.

ROBERT: Samantha?

ALEX: It’s officially a party.

SAMANTHA: I don’t know how I’m gonna fit. Samantha, I’m from the Lower East Side.

CHRISTOPHER INTAGLIATA: This your first Uber pool?

ALEX: You should [INAUDIBLE].

SAMANTHA: It’s taking a little longer than I thought.

ALEX: Mass transit’s much better, just too many people.

SAMANTHA: Yeah.

CHRISTOPHER INTAGLIATA: So we’re now four people, 30 minutes. So that should get me to work around 10:20.

ALEX: And what time did you think you were going to get to work?

CHRISTOPHER INTAGLIATA: Maybe around 10:05.

ALEX: Yeah, see about 15, 20 minutes, yeah that’s about right.

CHRISTOPHER INTAGLIATA: Dropping off Samantha, bye Samantha.

SAMANTHA: Bye guys, have a good day.

ALEX: Have a safe trip.

SAMANTHA: Thank you, Robert.

CHRISTOPHER INTAGLIATA: 15 minutes away.

ALEX: I think the longest ever from work back to where we got picked up, an hour and 15 minutes.

CHRISTOPHER INTAGLIATA: Wow.

ALEX: Yeah. And, you know, what can you do? Every other block drop off another got picked up, we gotta go backwards. Hey Robert, thank you so much for the ride, man.

ROBERT: All right, take care, guys.

CHRISTOPHER INTAGLIATA: So it’s just me and one other passenger and Robert now. Says one minute left and it’s 10:23 so Uber didn’t lie. Thanks for the ride, have a nice day.

ROBERT: You too, take care.

CHRISTOPHER INTAGLIATA: And just walking down Fifth Avenue. Drops you off sort of nearby so you still have to walk a little bit to get to work. Door to door 50 minutes to get here. So about twice as long as my commute on the subway. But it was very pleasant, and I got to meet Alex, Samantha, and Robert. Oh I almost forgot. Gotta give Robert five stars.

IRA FLATOW: Can’t forget the stars. Christopher Intagliata taking a trip on Uber for us. So is this, is Uber or Juno or Lyft the wave, or should I say, the ride of the future? That’s what we’re going to be talking about with Priya Anand, transportation reporter at Buzzfeed News in San Francisco. Welcome to Science Friday Priya.

PRIYA ANAND: Thank you for having me.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. David A. King, assistant professor of urban planning at Arizona State University in Tempe. Welcome back to Science Friday.

DAVID KING: Thank you very much.

IRA FLATOW: Priya, Uber has been striking deals with cities and towns left and right to become a subsidized alternative to public transit. Is this the future?

PRIYA ANAND: That’s right. As recently as Monday they sealed the deal with Summit, New Jersey. It’s this bedroom community in New York, a 45 minute train outside of the city. And what they’re doing there is interesting because they’re sort of replacing a parking lot. They have this huge parking congestion issue. And now the city is just subsidizing Uber rides and saying, you know, if you don’t want to park your car in the lot, if it’s annoying for you to circle around for parking for 15 minutes every morning, take Uber instead, it’ll cost the same amount as parking. So they are striking these deals left and right. And what remains to be seen is how far this can spread into the suburbs outside of major cities. But partnerships that they’ve launched do provide sort of a glimpse into what the future of our commute could look like.

IRA FLATOW: So instead of building a new parking lot they’ll say, hey, we’ll subsidize your ride to get to the train station.

PRIYA ANAND: Yeah so Summit did the math, their city manager realized that, OK, you know what? It’ll cost about $10 million to build a new parking lot. But if we subsidize Uber rides for about 100 people, which for them makes a significant dent in the congestion around the train station. With the caveat that if you build a parking lot you’re not building for just 100 people, you’re adding an extra room just in case. They realized that subsidizing Uber instead would cost them less than $200,000 annually.

IRA FLATOW: Wow.

PRIYA ANAND: Building a parking lot, A, is not a short term solution, right? If you decide you’re going to build a parking lot it’s not going to crop up overnight. You have to deal with the whole process of actually making that happen. And you have to find the land to make it happen near the train station. And they were like, well, we don’t even have the land in the first place. So what do we do if we– A, it this won’t fix it overnight, B, we don’t have a place to put this thing that’s convenient. So instead they decided, we’ll subsidize Uber. We’ll do a six month pilot program. If it works and people like it, we’ll keep doing it. And they could do this for like 50 years and have it cost not the same amount as the parking lot.

IRA FLATOW: Now David, now services like Uber when you share ride with them they don’t pick you right up at the spot, they make you go to a certain point to get picked up along with other passengers. Isn’t this what we would call in another lifetime a bus stop?

DAVID KING: In many ways it is. The story that Chris told earlier, one of the problems with these types of shared rides is what we called dwell time. And that’s every time you pick up a passenger, you add a few minutes to the ride. And the idea that we’re going to take people and we’re going to put them in vans of five or seven or 10 people, and each of those people takes two to three minutes to pick up, that all of a sudden it’s going to add 20 to 30 minutes to your commute. That’s going to be a real problem. And so buses get around this by consolidating everybody at stops. And then everybody gets on and off at the same place. So getting to and from the stop is your problem and then moving between stops is the transit agencies problem. So in many ways it does resemble a bus, because that’s the most efficient use of the street space.

IRA FLATOW: And Priya, is this technological fix really a good solution for everybody? Considering that many people who ride transit may not have credit cards or smart phones or data plans, things like that.

PRIYA ANAND: Well, let’s talk about the bus thing again real fast. So Summit actually had explored the bus option before. And what they found is, because they’re more suburban, it’s North Jersey, everyone’s got a car, multi-car garage. They had an issue where if they had a bus system they realized people would still need to take something to get to a bus stop, right? Where as Uber will pick you up in front of your door. That said, Uber is working on a solution where they can eventually have a dispatch system online and people can dispatch rides for other people to eliminate that sort of credit card problem. And people have talked about in the future at some point, potentially, maybe you can pay for these things using your metro card and things like that.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah you’re already carrying a metro card to take it to the bus, why not just have a little metro card reader on in the Uber like you have them on the buses? So swipe the card. David, what about the environmental angle? With this idea ride sharing as an alternative to mass transit, you know, is that like going backwards? Putting more cars on the road instead of less cars. Instead of taking the subway, you know?

DAVID KING: Well so thinking about the bus in an urban context, like the story that began the segment, and thinking about a suburban rail station, those are two very different markets. And they’re going to be two very different solutions. In the context of Summit, one of the ways to interpret what Summit is doing is that they’re so scared of raising the price of parking that they’re subsidizing more people. They could solve their parking demand problem by raising the cost. Which is what we should be doing. And raise the overall cost of driving so then people will start shifting to mass transit and these types of ride share systems will look more attractive, because you’ll be able to reduce that cost a little bit.

As far as the environmental impact, it really depends. Right now if you have a peak load issue, a peak hour issue where you have a lot of demand for one way trips to a train station before the train leaves. So if you have a taxi that brings somebody to the station and then they leave empty, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re saving any fuel or you’re saving any road space. All you’ve done is you’ve increased one trip to two trips. One coming and one going. So the environmental cost will really have to be seen after these pilot projects go on for a while. And I say this as a strong supporter of trying these types of pilot projects. Will they work? I don’t know.

One issue on the credit card, you know, 10% of the households in New York City don’t have access to a bank account. And the MTA has data on their metro cards, and the people who don’t have access to a bank account and the lower income people, they’re not buying unlimited metro cards. They don’t have the extra money on their cards to spend on other modes. So there’s a lot of equity issues that are also tied up in this.

IRA FLATOW: How will the self-driving car, which does away with the driver altogether, going to impact having this ride sharing? Are we going to have a lot of empty cars running around picking people up?

DAVID KING: My view on the self-driving cars is how much they actually increase driving really depends on how we charge them for road space. And I am a strong advocate that self-driving cars need to be charged for road space whether they’re occupied or whether they’re empty. We generally don’t like road tolls. Now they’re politically unpopular. But I think that we will enjoy road tolls a little bit more when we’re taxing a vehicle that that’s empty. Don’t tax you, don’t tax me, tax that robot behind the tree type of a thing. I think that will be a way that will be able to control the total amount of cars that are driving our roads.

IRA FLATOW: And Priya, one quick question. Will it get cheaper, than, if we have these driver-less cars?

PRIYA ANAND: Many do believe that the cost of labor is the biggest barrier here with ride sharing and ride hailing. I mean, Uber is working on self-driving cars for a reason, right? Because if they don’t, other people will bring the cost of that service down so much that they’ll have no choice but to do the same anyway.

IRA FLATOW: We’ve run out of time, I want to thank both of you. Priya Anand, transportation reporter at Buzzfeed News in San Francisco. David King assistant professor of urban planning at Arizona State University in Tempe. Thank you both for joining us today.

DAVID KING: Thank you much.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. After the break a former astronaut Mike Massimino is going to join us to talk about his sometimes terrifying journey to becoming a shuttle astronaut. Stay with us. We’ll be right back after this break.

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