No, SiliValley, It’s Not Easy to Replace Public Transit

Photograph by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

With just one bridge going into San Francisco’s city center, a transit strike turns traffic into a nightmare snarl.

The San Francisco Bay Area, cradle of the technology industry, is wrestling with a very 20th century problem: its first transit strike since 1997. Agonizing anywhere, a public transportation strike is particularly bad for a modern city that seems to have been designed like a medieval fortress, with the minimum number of roads going in or out.

As Bloomberg’s Ari Levy and Mark Milian report, the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) strike has been an opportunity for the Bay Area’s alternative transportation startups. These have proliferated thanks to funding from the tech investors, who are convinced that through some combination of cars and smartphone apps they can build a solution to decades of transportation problems. The choices for Bay Area commuters include Uber, the high-end taxi service, and ride-sharing services Lyft and Sidecar.

All these services have tried to put as many cars on the road as they can. For the ride-share services in particular, this is a chance to prove they can offer a better alternative to (crowded, inconvenient) public transportation and (expensive, and still inconvenient) driving. It’s in these “times of crisis,” a post on Sidecar’s blog says, that alternative services are at their best.

The problem with this “time of crisis,” though, is that the new taxi and car-sharing services aren’t a very good replacement for commuter trains. A little math can show you why: In its 2012 fiscal year BART riders took about 110.8 million trips. With expenses of $668 million, of which transit fares pay for $367 million, that comes out to a total operating cost $6.02 per trip (each way).  The digital age, it’s worth noting, hasn’t lessened the need for transit; the number of commuters has grown with the tech economy, as the chart below shows.

In a digital economy, commuters still need to get to the office.About two thirds of the weekday trips are to or from San Francisco’s city center, with 119,000 riders a day getting off at just four stations. $6.02 is the price of a very short cab ride in San Francisco. The total cost per trip of operating BART, in other words, is much lower than any price point that taxi or even ride-share services could economically offer for a daily commute. Even if BART charged commuters the full cost of running the system, it would beat the alternatives. And from a comfort standpoint, riding the train usually beats sitting in stalled traffic on the bridge. There’s a reason commuter trains are called “mass” transit.

So does this mean there’s no role for these services in solving the daily commuting problem? By no means. In fact, BART — when it’s not on strike — is very good at handling one part of the commuter puzzle: getting folks into the city center. Unfortunately, it offers no good way for commuters to get the mile or two from their homes to their local stations.

Solving that problem might not be as exciting as the prospect of swooping in and saving the Bay Area from its transit strike. But it’s a major issue for just about every public transit system in the world, and a hassle for tens of thousands of commuters in the Bay Area alone. Informal taxi services can help a lot here; Sidecar’s web site says some drivers can make $30 an hour or more. They won’t earn that much competing with BART to take commuters into the city center, but they might if they can string together several ten-minute, five-dollar trips to the train station.

A common impulse in the tech industry is to say, “Hey, we can solve things if we can just scrap everything and start from scratch.” The reality is that the new services aren’t a good replacement for the infrastructure that’s been built up over decades. They are, however, an excellent addition to it. That’s a real opportunity for services like Lyft or Sidecar. We’ll have to wait for the strike to end to see if they can take advantage of it.

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