A man holds a sign reading: We are fighting for our rights, Uber and Lyft"
Uber and Lyft drivers protest during a day-long strike outside Uber's office in Saugus, Massachusetts, on May 8, 2019 Brian Snyder/Reuters

How Ride-Hail Companies Can Help, Not Hurt, Cities

A veteran of municipal transportation regulation advises ride-hail companies on how to make cities into friends, not foes.

Dear Ride-Hailing Companies: As someone who has spent my career working on how to move people through cities, I have some advice about how to use your powers for good.

For ride-hailing companies, this is a time of reflection and strategic realignment. The two biggest U.S. players, Uber and Lyft, have gone public and are facing pressure to become profitable. This is looking harder when not just New York City but also Seattle and Los Angeles have recognized the full extent of the hardships faced by your drivers and are working to ensure they make a fair wage. On top of that, human drivers aren’t disappearing in favor of driverless cars as soon as some thought they would a few years ago. Even the federal government, which traditionally left for-hire regulation to local and, controversially, state governments, is now interested in setting some ground rules for you.  

Your companies are starting to reflect this new environment. Uber did three rounds of layoffs and has a new(ish) CEO. You’re becoming more multi-modal, incorporating bikes and scooters and integrating better with public transit. You are hiring more staffers with transportation and government bona fides.

Cynically, this could be seen as window dressing. But I’m not cynical. I’ll take this as a sign that you now know your long-term success lies in deepening your transportation expertise and better aligning with what cities really need to succeed. You recognize that success requires becoming the real partners of cities that you say you want to be.

Here’s how to use your powers for good.

Solve problems cities really have

You were right. Taxi service in many cities ranged from pretty good to awful. Even public transit, biking, and walking devotees sometimes need a ride, and you improved that experience. Promises of ending private-car ownership were premature. Yes, some people, like me, were able to give up their cars and still have a way to get a sick kid to the doctor or an outdoorsy spouse to the mountains, thanks to ride-hailing and car share. But this is mostly because I already live in a walkable city, in a neighborhood with good public transit.

So, let’s work on a different problem, closely aligned with cities’ needs. Big, dense cities require high-capacity buses and trains to move people efficiently. They don’t need people opting for a private ride when there’s a good public option. Even shared rides are too inefficient. Integrating your ride-hailing apps with public transit and shared bike and scooter options were good moves. What can you do to make public transit or other high-efficiency modes work better?

Smaller cities and suburbs might be an even bigger opportunity. Can you set up shared rides suburbanites will actually use to get to commuter rail instead of driving two miles and parking? Working with multiple smaller governments takes time, but communities not dense enough for quality traditional public transit are a real opportunity, and so are places dominated by a large institutions, such as college towns that are faced with growing populations and limited parking. You are doing some of this. Making it sustainable is really hard. Don’t stop trying!

Mitigate the problems you’re exacerbating for cities

Last year, more U.S. cyclists and pedestrians were killed in traffic than in any year since 1990. Congestion is a systemic problem in many cities and an acute problem, occurring at specific times and places in most. In Manhattan, 30 percent of traffic is from ride-hail vehicles. In downtown San Francisco, it’s 20 to 26 percent of traffic.

Trying to deflect responsibility for congestion by pointing out other causes misses the point. Instead of pointing elsewhere or trying to make the speculative case that you’ll somehow actually decrease congestion, raise your hand and say what you can do to make it better.

One way is to get serious about double-parked cars. You should direct your drivers to stop where they won’t double-park, such as in a loading zone. Where there aren’t enough loading zones, partner with cities to create more, and establish robust monitoring and incentives to ensure your vehicles use them. This requires behavior change, but fortunately you are the masters of nudges. You’re already optimizing for better pickup points, especially for shared rides. Projects like this are underway in places like Washington, D.C., Vancouver and Boston. Do more of this!

Solve important problems

It’s hard for an agency official worrying about bus speeds to feel kinship with you when you are developing an on-demand helicopter service. Helping people get their food delivery faster might matter for your business, but to most of us this sounds frivolous. Instead, tell cities how you can keep your cars from obstructing bus travel.  

Become credible advocates for progressive transportation policy

There have been times, such as when you supported the push for congestion pricing in New York State, when you advocated for progressive transportation policy. Improve your effectiveness and credibility as progressive voices in transportation by doing the right thing on matters already within your control—like right-sizing your fleets. Regulations shouldn’t be needed to get you to stop adding more drivers to your platform than you need. Regulation also shouldn’t be needed to get you to provide good wheelchair-accessible service. You could improve street safety and air quality by phasing out huge SUVs. Your policy teams likely have long lists of what they would like to do within your companies. Listen to and empower them.

Play nice

Being a partner requires trust. Earn this. Enough with your publicity firms fighting cities. Enough running to state or provincial legislatures asking them to take away cities’ authority over their streets. Enough misleading emails to drivers and customers. Enough litigation.

Use your powers for good

I’ve followed you closely for a long time now. Your people are smart and most of them want to do the right thing. I can’t wait to see you apply that ambition and talent to the serious, but solvable, problems facing cities. That’s the long game.

About the Author

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