City Visions: Ride-sharing in SF - boon or bust?
On November 13, 2017
City Visions with host Ethan Elkind discusses the impact of companies like Uber and Lyft on Bay Area traffic and transit.
The rapid growth of ride-sharing has undeniably changed the patterns of traffic on our roads. Has ride-sharing decreased car ownership as promised? Does it increase traffic congestion? What is its impact on public transit use? Can our existing infrastructure support this burgeoning practice?
Joe Castiglione, Deputy Director for Technology, Data and Analysis at the San Francisco County Transit Authority.
Joël Ramos, Regional Planning Director for TransForm
To see an interactive map created by SFCTA of Uber and Lyft pick ups and drop offs in San Francisco click below:
Ethan Elkind: Can you define for our audience what it means when we use the term "ride-sharing"? What is a TNC?
Joel Ramos: Well, I think that there is a few ways of looking at it, but for those of us that are just trying to get around, it's a way of effectively calling up a car, that is employing a driver, that is looking around for fares or for rides, not unlike a taxi service in the past. The difference is, of course, that the TNCs are a whole lot less regulated, and so that means that they're gonna be more affordable, so to speak, in the near term at least, for the people who are hailing the car and the ride. So, what that has turned into, of course, is a way for people to get around that is a lot more convenient than they may have in the past, with taxis, because the ride hailing is actually taking place in your phone, as opposed to calling up a number for a dispatcher or some other means of waiting someone down. Of course, the taxi industry has evolved and they've got their own apps. There are a number of different apps that are out there now for hailing taxis.
It's not that hard to find them. But these TNCs are transportation network companies, and like I said, they're regulated outside of the city, they're regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission, and they're operating from all over the state, really. We get people that are driving their cars to ideally make some money, picking up people, giving them rides, that are coming in from very far away sometimes. And they're coming from cities where there is not a whole lot of employment opportunities, where they're from. And of course, there is a lot of money to be made in mobility, getting people around. The taxi industry had a lock on it for years and years, but unfortunately, it looked like they were a little slow to evolve and to get ahead of the curve with respect to the new app-based technologies, and as such, these other Transportation Network Companies, or TNCs, have moved in and they are really saturating the market, so to speak, with rides that they're able to provide to people looking to get around.
EE: And Joe Castiglione, I wanted to ask you how these Transportation Network Companies fit into the landscape of San Francisco transportation issues more generally? How do they fit into the existing way that people get around?
Joe Castiglione: Well, I think that was one of the motivations for developing our TNCs Today report, which we released earlier this year in June. It's hard to understand exactly how a new mobility provider fits within the kind of ecosystem of transportation options within San Francisco, or the region or the state, without having some information about where they are. How many trips there are; where those trips are occurring; when those trips are occurring. And so the goal of the TNCs Today report was to really provide what we're calling kind of a profile of this activity. What we found in that report was that there were a lot of TNC trips that were occurring; on a typical weekday something like 170,000 trips, and that represented... And on Fridays and Saturdays, which were the days of peak usage, over 220,000 trips, in fact, every day. Those trips are primarily happening in the most congested parts of the city, at the most congested times of day, and are adding something like 570,000 vehicle miles traveled, which is kind of a key metric, on our city streets every day. So...what we found was... And I should say that our report [focused on] those trips that both have an origin and a destination in San Francisco, so just what we would refer as intra-SF trips. And by our estimate, something like 15% of all of the vehicle movements that are happening within San Francisco are TNCs, in a typical weekday.
EE: And anecdotally, it seems like people have noticed a lot more congestion downtown, and I think a lot of people do attribute that to the rise of these Uber and Lyft rides, and other TNCs. And I think the amount of VMT that you're talking about seems like that would bear out some of that anecdotal perception. Does that sound right to you?
JC: Well, I think it's a really important question. I think it's undeniable that if people are shifting modes and using TNCs, or making new trips via TNC that they would not have made otherwise, that that undeniably contributes in part to increased congestion and delay. However, I think it's really important to keep a perspective on the many things that have been happening in San Francisco at the same time. You know, TNCs started operating in San Francisco, I wanna say about 2010, and between 2010 and 2017 we've had something like 130,000 jobs added, and something like 80,000 new residents. So by mere fact of all of this increased activity, I think we would expect that there would be increased delay and congestion, 'cause there's simply a lot more people in the city, and a lot more people traveling around…
13:56 JR: One thing that I would add though to Joe's point is that, a lot of these... What is happening with the TNCs, what they are doing is, they are also keeping people from having to fight for a parking space as well. So when you do have somebody that's not driving and is taking a TNC instead, what they're also doing is they're freeing up a space for people that are looking for parking who don't have the choice of a TNC. That is certainly one of the theoretical benefits of a TNC versus driving by yourself.
EE: I was going to ask you, what are some of the benefits, 'cause we just talked a lot about the potential negative impacts from traffic congestion. So it sounds like maybe a reduced competition for parking, are there other benefits that you can site that TNCs bring?
JR: Yeah, I think that a lot of people are seeing them as being for lack of a better term, that last mile connection, where you're trying to get some place quickly and unfortunately we haven't sufficiently funded our transit to operate as frequently or to go where we need to go. And sometimes it's a long walk, or it's taking a lot of time to get where one wants to go. So having the option of a TNC has been... You know it's a nice option. I was trying to get down the peninsula and I go off a Cal train, or I'm sorry, I got off BART at Millbrae, and I had literally just watched the Cal train pull away and I was trying to get down to Mountain View and sure enough the next train wasn't going to come for an hour and there really was no bus service to help me. So in that respect having a TNC there or very close by at least was quite a benefit to be able to engage in. So I think that it does help in those capacities.
I would also add as someone that has lived in places that weren't very taxi accessible, there were some places where taxis just wouldn't go. If you lived out in the Sunset or out in the Bayview for example, you were gonna have a hard time getting a cab. Because, a lot of times the cabs wouldn't wanna deadhead there or deadhead back or they were so interested in just picking up an airport fare that they weren't as inclined or as interested in taking short trips. And if you got into a cab and you told a drive that you wanted to go a short distance they would drive at breakneck speeds to try and get rid of you, so to speak, to find a fare that's going to the airport of somewhere else.
JC: I'd like to link back to some of the other points that have been made. First, I want to note that as the congestion management agency for San Francisco, the San Francisco county transportation authority monitors travel times, and travel time reliability on the road ways and on transit every other year. We have absolutely observed empirically that congestion has increased, that speeds have declined over recent years. So that's not just a perception, that is a reality. And I think when we talk about TNCs, it is important to ground ourselves in that kind of reality of, what are the actual facts. For example, when we talk about things being theoretical, we can talk about the theoretical benefits with respect to parking or first and last mile transit access or reductions and auto ownership.
But if we're going to have a real conversation and if we're going to expect that our decision makers are gonna make fact based policy choices we need to have data that validates that those theoretical benefits are in fact real benefits. And I think we also need to talk not just about theoretical benefits but we also, or benefits, but we also need to talk about costs. Because there is a cost to increasing congestion and that's not to say that all additional congestion is attributable to TNCs. But some portion of it very likely is. And there is a cost associated with that. I also wanna highlight this idea of what I would call the kind of contextuality. So in the example of getting off of BART or Cal train, maybe in the evening when there's not great transit service, or taxis aren't really available, then for sure, the availability of a TNC as a mobility alternative or option is almost certainly an unmitigated good. However, the reality is that most of the trips are happening in the most congested parts of the city at the most congested times of day, when there's tremendous transit service in downtown San Francisco, in a highly walkable urban environment.
So I think it's important that when we talk about these costs and benefits we realize that they happen in particular context and that context... And most importantly, actual facts about what's happening on the streets are necessary in order to make important policy choices. And now to address your question about what's different about taxis, I would say first and foremost the most significant difference is that the fleet size is entirely different. So SFMTA estimates that there is something like 1,800 taxi medallions that are in service in San Francisco, which means at an absolute max that is the number of taxis that would be on the street. The city attorney sent notifications, based on information I think that was provided by the TNCs, to 45,000 TNC drivers in San Francisco. Of those, 21,000 registered for business licenses. And what we have found in our research is that at peak times, and I believe that the peak time was something like 6:30 to 7:00 on a Friday, there are almost 6,000 TNC vehicles on the street at any time. And that is one key difference. And that delivers benefits to travelers in the sense that when you have 6,000 vehicles, for example you tend to wait much less for a vehicle. And while there are 1,800 medallions out there in fact the number that are on the street at peak times is something less than that.
22:23 EE: So Joe Castiglione you mentioned data in your last comments and how important it is. Much has been made in the press about the fact that Uber and Lift do not share their data. So I wanted to ask you why that matters. What data do they have access to that we here in the public and maybe among the decision makers should care about?
22:44 JC: Data is essential. We elect decision makers to make informed decisions, and those informed decisions about how we spend billions of dollars, how we recognize impacts to all users of the transportation system because San Francisco is a fantastically multimodal city. In the absence of data we simply can't make informed choices, which very likely means we'll make bad choices. The TNCs themselves, of course, have tremendous information that they could in theory share with us and in fact they're required to report quite detailed data to the California Public Utilities Commission, including information on every trip, where it started at a zip code level I believe, and where it ended, with a detailed time stamp and all sorts of other extremely useful information for public agencies. However, the CPUC has determined that sharing that information with public agencies isn't in the public interest. So it's not as though there is no data being provided, it's being provided to the CPUC but there has been no ability for any agency other than the CPUC itself to access that data.
EE: And Joel Ramos let me ask you, if you could access any one particular ride-sharing piece of data so to speak, or datum I should say, what would you wanna monitor regularly and why?
JR: Well, from my perspective there's a number of things that Transform is especially concerned about. Our biggest concern with this, with TNCs and all of these emerging mobility services is about equity. We just wanna make sure that everybody is getting equitable access to transportation services that are being provided and are effectively... To Joe's point, are demonstrably having an impact on the rest of us that are depending on public transit to get around. So from my perspective, I would really be most interested in how accessible are these services or not to people of lower incomes or people of color or communities that are less accessible. From Transform's perspective, when we wrote this fantastic report that I would encourage everybody listening to check out if you're interested in really shaping how these emerging mobilities come about or how they're implemented.
At transformca.org you can look up... We wrote a fantastic report called "A Framework For Equity in New Mobility." What we're trying to do is, we're trying to make sure that as these new services emerge whether they're ride-share services or car-share services or bike share, whatever they might be, that they're done and they're rolled out in a way that really takes it up a notch from the current transportation system as we know it. There's no shortage of sad stories or unfortunate histories of transportation not really meeting the needs of the people who need them most. So I would be most interested in the equity component. Making sure that these services are indeed accessible. What's happening a lot in some cases fortunately or unfortunately is a lot of transit agencies in some of the more suburban places are starting to depend on these rideshare providers or these TNCs to provide service where transit agencies aren't seeing a significant amount of ridership to justify sending a bus out every so often. Instead, they're effectively contracting out the TNCs to provide those services.
EE: Let's go to Arturo next. Arturo, welcome to City Visions.
Arturo: Hi, I'm Arturo the bicycle rider so I take that point of view. I'd just like to point... I heard these figures about 80,000 this and 130,000 new jobs. I'd just like to point out that a lot of the people who are occupying the space is a... Formally occupied of those spaces are now out on the street in tents. One of the reasons there's so little enforcement of traffic laws is that the cops are out there persecuting people in tents. That said, just in regard to Uber drivers and Lyft drivers, one fact you're not taking into account is that they're extremely distracted. They're devoted to their screens and not paying attention to what's going on around them. I've narrowly escaped being hit several times by them. They don't obey traffic laws, they're constantly making u-turns. And that perhaps an accommodation should be made, there ought to be less micro management of traffic on the streets and have a new order of traffic control and perhaps a little less.
EE: Arturo, thank you for that comment slash question. I've definitely heard similar complaints from...other bikers that these TNC drivers are taking up the bike lanes, so Joel I know you wanted to respond to this, but Joe I also wanted to let you weigh in, in particular on enforcement practices and how the TNCs are kind of disrupting other movements that's particularly for bicyclists and maybe in transit lanes as well.
JC: Sure. Well...there was this recent study by SFMTA with information from SFPD about traffic violations within the Financial District and South of Market and Mission and something like north of 60% of those violations were associated with TNCs, so unquestionably there is really an enforcement issue that requires attention. I would also point out that with respect to distraction and being kind of wedded to an app to tell you where to go and lack of familiarity with the local streets and street network, and lack with familiarity with local laws, that's not entirely surprising given that what our research found was that something like 70% or more of drivers, and I think Joel referred to this earlier in his comments, are coming into San Francisco from outside of the city and the county, so it's not surprising when you have the vast majority of drivers coming in to make money in San Francisco, which is of course totally logical. There's a density of people and a density of activity, and an ability to very quickly do lots of trips which helps make money, all make sense. But those folks aren't gonna be as familiar with this city, and the outcome of that maybe challenges with respect to enforcement.
EE: And Joel did you wanna respond to Arturo's comment around the distracted drivers?
JR: Yeah. Just very quickly, I think that it's important to acknowledge that because a lot of these folks are from out of town, which you gotta give a shout out to the taxi drivers, a lot of them are very familiar and don't need to depend on apps to get around. It's always refreshing when you get into a cab and the guy just knows exactly where you need to go and isn't looking at an app. It's really rather terrifying for me as a bicyclist, and I would imagine many people like Arturo who are on bicycles, when you're having to pass a TNC like an Uber or Lyft, you gotta pass by 'em on the left because they're double parked, and then they start to accelerate out and they're looking at an app, and they're not looking for bicyclists, they're looking for other cars and the next thing you know, this car that you're trying to pass is starting to take off and they're just not seeing you, they clearly need training. That the answer in that is helping these TNC companies come to terms with the fact that San Francisco is not like any other city. Well, very few cities with the terrain, with the amount of people, the amount of buses, there's so much happening in such a small amount of space, it takes a different kind of level of training to be a professional driver here.
EE: Yeah, it seems like training and enforcement would be helpful.
JR: Yeah. To the gentleman's point, there has been a study…[called] A Framework for Equity in New Mobility at transformca.org. We were able to cite a study that was sourced from the Natural Bureau of Economic Research in 2016 that demonstrated that discrimination exists in the TNC drivers as well. We were able to see that both Uber and Lyft drivers were cancelling requests that were coming in from people who had names that sounded a certain way. And it's unfortunate, but it exists, and that's where I do think that this emerging new mobility has the opportunity to change things, to do things very differently from the way that we did in the past. Giving one more shout out to cab drivers that I think that the TNCs yet to have to pick up on and respond to, is the fact that a lot of these cab companies, this is a benefit that I think that we take for granted, and it hasn't been discussed yet. They also operate ramp taxis, which are vehicles that would allow for people with disabilities to be able to call a cab on demand very quickly and get to where they need to go very quickly. They were, as part of the regulated services in San Francisco, they were required to provide so many rides via ramp taxis.
And this is a tremendous benefit for people with disabilities, because unfortunately, the para-transit services that the county offers just aren't where they need to be in terms of level of service. They just can't provide rides as quickly as people would like, and the operators there are doing amazing things. They're wonderful people doing great stuff, but the demand just really, really out paces what we have, and the cab companies help with that.
Question from Julia: ...It seems that TNCs are responsive to market needs, where people live, where they're moving to, if they're able to serve those much, much faster than public transit. What is public transit doing to be able to respond more quickly to changing places where people live in their cities? For example, Bay View, Hunter's Point, Mission Bay and those areas?
JR: So I think that the issue that we started the show off with which was the fact that San Francisco is a growing place, with respect to the amount of people. It's not growing geographically anymore and it's impossible to grow the streets anymore and so something’s gotta give. You've got more people coming in making more demands of the limited space that's available. And when we don't make it easier to get around in transit, it's inevitable we gonna suffer because of the new amount of people on the streets. So Transform has always been a big proponent of maximizing the efficiency of transit itself. And you see this in ways of getting these red transit only lanes throughout San Francisco or creating these services that are skipping stops that are going a little faster. The rapid services or the, what some people might have called "limited" in the past. Everything that you see in the Muni forward plans, where you've got some bus stops that have been designed to have ball bouts so that the bus can spend less time pulling in to and then away from the curb. The challenge of course, is that there are plenty of people that are adverse to these ideas. And so they get in the way of them and then a lot of the improvements we were pushing for, like getting the 7 to operate faster.
People are, particularly folks that are accustomed to the way that things are, were reluctant to see any changes in the way the street is laid out. And the people that suffer, obviously they're transit riders because there's no real improvement to their transit ride. It's just getting slower and slower and slower.
EE: I'll let Joel the advocate weigh in then with a policy recommendation.
JR: There're a number of things that we can do. I think probably the most important thing is to limit the amount of externalizing of the operational cost of these TNCs, or anybody that's driving into the city. And the city talked about a congestion fee a few years back, and we were just beaten over the heads by people that were reluctant to implement it. A congestion fee meaning that if you're gonna drive in from outside of the city, like you're driving across the bridge, you would pay a toll, or you would pay a fee, that would then go towards raising money towards improving transit, improving bicycle infrastructure, improving enforcement of these TNCs. One of the ways that we can do that is particularly on the freeways, and effectively using any kind of tolls that would be implemented to raise money to improve transit services, and effectively make it so that there isn't a need for these TNCs, or anything other than just the mass transit that we all really love, even though it sometimes can be annoying.