The Future Public Transit Explosion

I was debating with a friend of mine earlier this week about the future of mass transit and public infrastructure. Naturally, the conversation moved toward autonomous cars and Uber/Lyft. The basic argument, which you can read in stories like Spencer Woodman's tale from Altamonte Springs, is that Uber and self-driving cars are just going to outright replace public transit.

I think that is completely wrong for several reasons.

First, few large cities can transfer everyone to private vehicles and still maintain any flow of traffic. New York City, for example, has some of the slowest car transit in the nation, at just 8.51 MPH in Manhattan. It's hard to believe that everyone who takes a subway today (1.76 billion rides in 2015) are going to move to cars and consider it a better alternative.

Now, maybe there will be some efficiency improvements for traffic with self-driving cars. Cars won't "block the box" at intersections as often during rush hour, improving flow. In a more futuristic scenario, cars may even be able to weave between each other at intersections, which would mean that cars might never have to stop.

The reality is that traffic signals are going to have to function, since pedestrians are still going to need to cross streets. And as much as the efficiency of self-driving cars seems alluring, it is hard to imagine all human drivers being replaced by computers in the medium term. Without that transition, our traffic efficiency is going to stay roughly the same.

Of course, New York City and other large cities are special beasts, where density can make public transit thrive. What about suburbs like Altamonte Springs that are removing their bus fleets and replacing them with on-demand Uber rides?

Yes, it looks like mass transit it being replaced by private cars here, but that is a misnomer because the existing bus system in these suburbs is atrociously bad on nearly every metric that matters to people (wait times, speed, availability, etc.) To put the question another way, if you are one of three people on a bus, is it mass transit? Most cities in America have no mass transit system today, regardless of what they call their systems. So Uber is not really harming mass transit.

So it's hard to believe that mass transit systems are going to be replaced. But the second reason why we will see an explosion of public transit use is easier to grok: people are going to give up their cars.

Perhaps the number one reason why bus and subway systems have struggled in America is that the personal automobile has always been a superior option in almost all cases across the country. But as Uber fills in more of the last-mile problems in these systems, suddenly more and more people feel free to give up their cars.

If a significant portion of people do this, it would cause massive demand spikes in the ridership of existing systems, and may even encourage policymakers to grow existing networks to accommodate the increased interest.

Public transit is not going anywhere. And for that reason, there is an incredible opportunity to build companies that can help keep construction costs low and create more resilient infrastructure in a climate change world.

Photo by NYC MTA used under Creative Commons.


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