Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
D.C. offers an early look at how cities can take advantage of the data Uber makes available to them.
For a transit system that’s supposed to be the lifeblood of Washington, D.C., WMATA’s Metrorail is more often than not a source of frustration. Between service cuts and track work—and fires, and fare hikes, and unexplained delays (you name it)—it’s tempting for commuters to give up on it altogether and hail an Uber or Lyft. But with the city’s notorious traffic and road closures, it’s almost always unclear if it’s worth spending those extra dollars. In the end, it’s a bit of a gamble.
But a new analysis from the District helps minimize some of the guesswork by comparing how long it would take to travel between two stations via Metro and Uber, and what the cost difference might look like. Results are based on average travel time and are adjusted according to variables like train delays, wait times, the distance between the station and the final destination, and additional time needed for Uber Pool. And while it’s no surprise that some trips are faster by Uber, the study also finds that under the right conditions, they can also be almost as affordable as going underground.
The analysis comes out of the District’s Office of Revenue Analysis and is an early look at how cities can take advantage of Movement, Uber’s somewhat useful data tool that tracks the city’s traffic patterns based on millions of Uber trips taken over time.
So when is Uber the more attractive option? According to the analysis, Uber is faster than Metro in a whopping 99 out of 114 trips analyzed during times when the next train was 10 minutes away. And during rush hour, Uber is the quicker option for trips within the city that require transfers from one line to another—a result, the report notes, of the system’s spoke-and-hub configuration.
All that will cost you; as the chart points out, taking the Uber from Union Station to Benning Road (a 15-minute drive from the city center to a more suburban stop to the east) will save you 15 minutes, but cost an extra $11. With Uber Pool, though, you may be able to reach your destination 10 minutes sooner by spending just $2 more. That’s true as long as Uber, which has been known to slash fares artificially to one-up its rivals, is able to keep rides cheap. (Amid growing criticism over driver pay and regular annual losses in the millions—even billions—those rides could get more expensive down the line.)
Of course, there are limitations to the study. It doesn’t include other transit options like the bus or bikes, and not all of the 4,000 possible trips are included in the analysis. But with ride-hailing companies aiming to keep their prices low for the time being, the report highlights the competitive edge they have over D.C.’s Metrorail system. And Uber is making it easier for would-be commuters to make up their minds, by displaying the wait time of the nearest Metro station right in their app. It’s not uncommon, for example, for trains to run up to every 25 minutes on weekends and weeknights because of service cuts and track work. In fact, commuters have already started giving up on the Metro. Between 2015 and 2016, it saw a 14 percent drop in ridership, which was enough to bring down the entire nation’s subway ridership by 0.3 percent.
The system’s struggles have certainly been a boon for Uber and Lyft, but, as CityLab has previously noted, it’s at the expense of transit users, particularly those who are lower-income. The ride-hailing companies, for their part, have long contended that they see themselves as complementing the the public transit system—filling in the gaps where needed—rather than a competing force. As my colleague Laura Bliss recently wrote, the effects of ride-hailing services are also taking a toll on the city itself by, for instance, adding more gas-guzzling cars to the streets and attracting commuters away from bus and light rail.
The analysis also highlights something else: It doesn’t have to be this way. If D.C. trains ran every three minutes with no delays, more than half of the trips that researchers simulated would be faster and cheaper via Metro, with the train being especially efficient for longer rides (with no transfers) from downtown into the surrounding suburbs.
Yet the promise of efficient service and reliability has been a hard sell for WMATA. It’s trying to win back riders through its “Back2Good” campaign, which itself is an admission of the system’s past failures. If it can actually deliver, more Washingtonians might be able to avoid the guessing game of wondering if another transit option might’ve been a better choice.