Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Can Uber beat buses?

This is Joseph

In an interesting experiment, Uber is trying to reinvent the urban bus system.  At first glance this sounds insane -- we already have a transit system and it is subsidized.  That said, it has some pretty massive inefficiencies in it.  Consider:
As a small example, I was riding the bus on Sunday and getting annoyed with how frequently it stopped. If you eliminated half the stops, I tweeted, the buses would go way faster and DC transit would be much better. Nobody disagreed with me but everyone pointed out the problem: better eliminate the other guy's stop, not mine. That's the logic of politics, so change doesn't happen. A private company wouldn't do that. They would ruthlessly alienate a noisy minority of customers in order to drastically improve service at zero financial cost.
Not part of this argument is the odd cultural idea that private industry should favor efficiency above all else whereas the government should favor "accountability" or some such objective.  That said, Houston (of all places) seems to have risen above these issues to create a much better bus system

It also can't be a quirk of geography.  Canada has the same basic geographical issues (possibly a tad worse but that can be debated) and manages to have excellent public transit.  Just try taking public transit in Toronto to see the amazing difference.  And these are systems that, as a user, I could see ways to improve.

The last piece here is that the biggest barrier to being 100% transit is to have reliable and frequent transit.  I had this in graduate school and lived for five years without a car.  During part of that time I was quite disabled due to an injury, and I found the frequent service made up for the longer walks between bus stops.  Yes, you occasionally missed a bus.  But when the next one was 10 minutes away it was a completely different type of disaster. 


  1. Joseph:

    Buses in a lot of places are just crap. Besides the obvious constraints (without a dedicated lane, a bus can get stuck in traffic a lot), I'm also noticed that buses are huge, sometimes you even see these double-sized buses that take forever to load and unload at each stop. Why a bus with capacity 60 passengers rather than 3 buses holding 20 people each and running 3 times as often? I've always assumed it's because the priority goal is to keeping labor costs down. Also, I assume that public buses lose money on each passenger, so they don't have a direct motivation to make buses more pleasant or convenient.

  2. Andrew,

    My example of an efficient bus service is Vancouver, BC (Canada). They used a number of innovations to make big buses work. One of them is that you generally do not pay or validate to board a bus. So people enter and exit from all bus doors at the same time making loading more efficient.

    [they rely on random inspections to keep people honest about having a buss pass]

    The main line runs every 5 minutes at peak times. It's more reliable than trying to drive in that environment, and faster than bicycling (although that is also popular in BC).

    So innovation can improve efficiency. Here the key piece was to accept a small rate of people sneaking on the bus and hoping not to get caught to dramatically improve the efficiency for all riders.

  3. Joseph:

    If the buses are coming every 5 minutes, that's great. But my impression is that in most cities, including NY, they don't want to run buses every 5 minutes because they don't want to pay so many bus drivers.