A Note of Caution on Tech and Privatizing Transit

Is our new ride-hale tech tempting us to repeat past mistakes? Driveless cars has been a dream of road planners since the Interstate Highway System was first envisioned. Image source unknown.
Driverless cars have been anticipated by road planners since the Interstate Highway System was first envisioned. But is the near-realization of this dream tempting us to repeat past mistakes? Image source unknown.

At a recent SPUR meeting, an audience member asked why cities continue to invest billions in long-term projects, such as the Central Subway, when ride-hail services such as Juno, Lyft, and Uber Pool have rendered urban rail more or less obsolete. This sentiment is reflected in a recent piece in the Atlantic by former Los Angeles Times writer Alana Semuels, entitled: “The End of Public Transit?” She wrote about her experience riding Chariot instead of Muni:

Why should anyone use public services if the private sector can provide the same service more efficiently? On an individual level, after all, the private bus was much more pleasant and not much more expensive. On the government level, privatization could save money. Privatizing public bus services could save $5.7 billion a year, according to a paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in March.

The piece brings up some interesting thoughts, which have been discussed in Streetsblog as well. It’s worth a read–certainly, transit agencies such as BART and SFMTA should be, and are, discussing collaboration with private transportation providers.

But like the question asked at the SPUR meeting, there’s a danger that transportation planners will take things too far. As Jason Henderson, Professor in Geography & Environment at SF State and author of Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Franciscohas written before, new business models could also push San Francisco to a nonsustainable future and wreck livable cities.

The Bay Area is, of course, enamored with all things tech; the economy is driven by it. Smart phones represent a marvelous, transformational technology development in communications. They allow someone to broadcast their exact location and where they want to go directly to servers, which can then guide transportation services to them. And as Uber’s $62 billion-plus capitalization can attest to, it opens up potent new business models. But it doesn’t change the laws of physics. Moving people by car, even a driverless-electric-ride-hail mini-van, still requires more energy and generates more greenhouse gases per rider than most mass transit. And, yes, one always generates less CO2 walking or riding a bike!

This meme which floated around last week illustrates why driverless cars offer little progress towards building sustainable cities." width="580" height="435" /> A tweet by Jon Orcutt illustrates why driverless cars offer little towards sustainable cities.
This meme illustrates why tech offers less-than-advertised progress towards building sustainable cities. Source: Jon Orcutt

The Atlantic piece also seems to forget that an automobile is part of a two-part technology. The car, or Chariot bus, with its rubber tires, requires asphalt or concrete roads. In reality, the most expensive portion of the technology isn’t the vehicle–it’s roads, drainage, bridges and maintenance requirements, traffic signals and policing, not to mention the daily carnage caused by car crashes. Point being Chariot wouldn’t be profitable if it had to pay for its own roads; ride-hails wouldn’t exist without them.

Shared, electric, and driverless cars can reduce the environmental and societal costs of automobiles. But the costs don’t go away. Building and maintaining roads, and other associated expenses, are still tantamount to a massive subsidy covered by tax-paying citizens. “Private” transportation is a misnomer. The Atlantic piece, as with all of those enamored with ride-hail, seem to miss that fact. And if the state keeps widening roads instead of building more livable, walk/bike-friendly cities–if society gets too carried away with these new car technologies–we could end up making traffic and our transportation woes even worse.

There were rooms full of enthusiastic young government officials back in the 1950s who boasted about the coming age of motorization. Cities across America ripped out transit systems–Oakland took out the Key Car trains, San Francisco removed roughly half of San Francisco’s Municipal rail lines–and freeways were built through downtown. We’ve been paying for the exuberance of a previous generation of urban futurists for a half century.

Let’s usher in an age of “Mass Transit Reinvented,” as the Chariot web page proclaims. But let’s make sure that doesn’t turn into a smart-phone-and-mini-van-based rebirth of the asphalt-based cluster f*ck we built ourselves into a half century ago.

The last time cities got enamored with technology that would replace mass transit, we got this. Image source unknown
The last time cities got enamored with technology to replace mass transit, we got freeways cutting our downtowns into pieces. Image source unknown
  • Ray

    Congestion in itself drives away business. Road pricing is not a regressive tax as allows for the most local funding it the most used areas, and provides for public transit funding when congestion is high. Actually, the current sales-tax approach to funding public transit has always been the most regressive tax approach. Correct pricing of the transportation will let the market decide the best location for business, office, and residential development rather than bureaucrats. Not to mention, in SF, the rents are so high, that any congestion pricing will have a negligible impact on cost of doing business. Lastly, the only reason Amazon is able to ship small packages so cheaply to customers is because of free roads.

  • SF Guest

    “Congestion in itself drives away business.”

    Tell that to the Chinatown merchants who saw the congestion cease after the Loma Prieta earthquake.

  • SF Guest

    “the only reason Amazon is able to ship small packages so cheaply to customers is because of free roads.”

    One of the main mechanisms that makes free shipping feasible is that merchants are paying fees on the back end that you do not see as a consumer. Presumably, merchants have already priced those fees into their products.

    For Amazon to provide the quick turnaround that customers demand, they have to have inventory that is both sufficient and efficient — and that is where Amazon excels. Not only is Amazon good at handling inventory, they are good at pricing inventory fees to balance the needs between Amazon, consumers, and merchants.

    “Not to mention, in SF, the rents are so high that any congestion pricing will have a negligible impact on cost of doing business”

    As if SF is the only city that features high rents I wasn’t aware SF’s neighboring cities had substantially lower rents which means I should be able to find the same product purchased in SF in Daly City for a substantially lower price.

  • mx

    You’re in good company; we’ve all been there.

  • dawdler

    That’s exactly right. That’s what I’m saying. Autonomous vehicles are just a technology. It can be used to enable our current public transit model . Or it could enable different models.

  • PaleoBruce

    Alleged “subsidy”? Alleged? Pshaw. Don’t be coy. You know the dollar value of a parking space in your neighborhood, as you rent out five of them for profit. And you spin up a contrived rationalization about a regressive tax.

  • RichLL

    Paleo, it’s more complex than that. The value that I know is the value of a dedicated, secured, indoor parking space with 24/7 access.

    That is far higher than the value you can place on an on-street parking space, partly because it won’t always be available to you, and partly because it is outdoors, exposed to the elements and at risk of theft or damage.

    We as a society have decided that we want our roads to be wide enough to enable on-street parking. I don’t think it makes much sense to see that as a “subsidy” any more than the other things that we vote for and pay taxes for.

  • murphstahoe

    Ask not for forgiveness – just block the user. 106 comments on this thread – that’s only because people engage with him.

  • Clearly it is obvious to all that you are mistaken. Please disagree with me so I can refute things you did not say.

  • PaleoBruce

    I don’t buy it. I doubt there is a single neighborhood SF that has six unit apartments that does not have a critical shortage of vacant on street parking (especially after 5 pm).

    The fact that there is a shortage of vacant on street parking spaces is prima fascia evidence that the price of that street parking is to low. Put a price on it based on the market demand, and the shortage goes away. Econ101.
    You rent your garages out at free market prices, right?

    City Hall is the steward of public property, similar to you being the landlord of your own property. The City should charge the market rate user fee for parking and take that money and subsidize mass transit. Don’t insult our intelligence by claiming that the subsidy of the on street parking you enjoy is a regressive tax on you. It is a fat public subsidy.

  • RichLL

    Paleo, my point was that the market price of a secure dedicated garage space is far higher than that of a on-street space. That is hardly difficult to understand.

    I do not believe that the city considers it to be in the public interest to treat on-street parking as if it is a revenue stream that must be maximized. The one exception is SFPark in respect of meters but, even then, the claim is to make parking easier to find and not to price gouge for the sake of it.

    And I maintain that would be regressive and cause real hardship for many, at least in residential areas.

    Call it a subsidy if you want, but I see roads as a vital shared resource and not a matter of them benefiting drivers at the expense of non-drivers. That said drivers pay more because of vehicle fees and taxes.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    “As for the poor getting that money, how does that work. In London they have congestion pricing but AFAIK, the funds just go into their general fund.”

    London does put it directly into the general fund, but there’s no reason any city *has* to do this. It could be run like the Alaska Permanent Fund, where money collected from oil royalties is used to make annual payments to all residents. In general, if you’re going to start charging for a public service that used to be free, I think this is the most fair way to do it, so that people who choose not to use the service can get direct financial benefit, and only those who use more than their fair share end up with a net financial penalty.

  • Ray

    You’ve stated that the cost of doing business in SF is already very high. So, then what is the reason for it? And show me where in the world a density populated area is cheaper than a sparsely populated area? I don’t see how congestion-based road pricing has a negative impact. What it does do is remove the subsidy currently given to road-based transportation which will intern change how businesses operate.

  • Ray

    If you are pro-car, than you should support a more direct road pricing system. Otherwise, the equality of access (free) is what leads to overuse and eventual degradation of the road’s usefulness. The only way to make the roads useful again is to price them appropriately. Roads and road-based vehicles are the number one most useful transportation means we have, lets make them useful again.

  • neroden

    Flagged and blocked.

  • neroden

    Leap violated federal law (the ADA). That’s why it was shut down. Dumbass bigots at Leap.

  • neroden

    Buses had higher operating and capital costs than rail systems (and they still do!), but at the time the bus capital costs were subsidized by the government in the form of “free” roads (and they still are!) while the rail systems were heavily taxed.

  • neroden

    No, it’s not easier to change bus routes to meet demand. Look at the history.

    The cost of maintaining the road infrastructure for heavy buses with their high axle loads is monumental.

  • neroden

    0. Public rail transit can simply carry far, far more people in 15 minutes than any private sytsem can.

  • neroden

    On the other hand, according to some people, autonomous cars will cruise around with nobody in them looking for parking. So double the number of cars on the road per person for the autonomous cars — they’ll be WORSE than regular cars. 🙁

  • neroden

    Dividing the farebox intake by the overall cost of operating the system (including the central dispatching office, bus base, etc.) is just meaningless gibberish. I don’t know why it’s so common.

    Public transportation has economies of scale. If Muni took over all the Chariot, Google Bus, etc. operations, they’d all cost less because they’d leverage economies of scale.

  • dat

    “According to some people”… who? SFParkRipOff? These some people are just wildly wrong.

  • RichLL

    Doubtful. You’d have to hire more people for Muni and the pay and benefits package for Muni workers is high relative to (often non-unionized) private sector equivalents.

    I’d argue we should do the exact opposite. Let private entities and enterprises operate wherever that is viable, and let Muni operate more as a subsidized service for routes that are necessary but where demand doesn’t justify a private operator.

    The model is Obamacare. Most people can afford to pay for healthcare, or at least for insurance through work, so the cost to the public is limited to the poor, the old and the uninsured.

    The trend for the last 40 years has been “privatize where you can and subsidize only those who need it”

  • p_chazz

    Maintaining road infrastructure is not a cost that is intrinsic to buses since roads are used by private automobiles, commercial vehicles, fire trucks, ambulances, etc.

  • @neroden – The other half of the gibberish is leaving out the higher, and more-heavily-subsidized costs inflicted by the automobiles that public transit replaces.

  • @Flatlander – It’s always Groundhog Day when drive-by commenters share their “wisdom” with us.

  • @dawdler – I agree that public transit could be improved with responsive scheduling, etc. My problem with most of the discourse around this technology is that it has so far been very directed at individualized single-occupant convenience, and it always gets brought up as an imminent utopian solution that will obviate fixing anything else (e.g. public transit).

  • @SF Guest – I’m not sure what you’re talking about. There is a myth, used for political gain, that the earthquake and subsequent demolition of the Embarcadero Freeway hurt Chinatown businesses. The reality is that these businesses weathered a recession along with every other business in the city at the time.

  • @p_chazz – You basically never need to reroute a streetcar line, because development follows it. Development is less likely to follow bus routes precisely because they’re more “flexible.”

    While the up-front capital costs of installing rail are higher, the ongoing maintenance is a fraction of what it costs to maintain roads.

  • @neroden – Yes, the streetcars and rails are all accounted for in one budget, whereas rolling stock and roads are accounted for in two budgets. Thus we get years and years of bogus comparisons that make buses seem cheaper.

    The costs inflicted by pollution are externalized for both modes, and thus generally ignored. But the greater efficiency of rail means that these, too, are lower than they are with buses.

    (The comparisons within San Francisco are suboptimal, though, since we are currently saddled with heavy trains on light rail lines. One hopes that the new fleet will bring us up to the cutting edge of the 20th Century, maybe even the 21st.)

  • baklazhan

    Interestingly, London apparently exempts Uber from paying its congestion toll, on the grounds that it is a form of transit. Apparently that’s causing problems now, because it accounts for so much of the traffic in the center.

  • baklazhan

    I suspect that in SF, the poor tend not to own cars at all…

  • Ray

    Interesting, the dynamics of pricing are being worked out as they are in their infancy. You can correlate the Uber/Taxi as transit issue to any HOV lane. Current policy is to reward carpooling which includes paying someone to drive. We all know this doesn’t take cars off the road. I believe correct road pricing should eliminate any special incentive to carpool as the cost savings alone should be the only incentive to ride share. Hopefully London will eliminate any multi passenger or uber/taxi incentive on their pricing. This would shift the demand to larger passenger vehicles during peak times.



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