Over at FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver and Rueben Fischer-Baum claim mass transit is Uber’s best friend.
They use data from New York to show that Uber is most frequently used in areas with effective mass transit. They explain that residents in areas with poor access to mass transit are more likely to assume the fixed cost of car ownership. Once that overhead has been assumed, these residents are more likely to use the personal vehicle they’re already paying for rather than rely on alternative modes of transportation. There’s variation in use depending on the intersection of income level and transit accessibility, but that the big takeaway is that mass transit supports Uber. And that Uber as well as other TNCs will be most successful where effective mass transit is already in place.
It’s a great analysis. And it’s partially right–but not entirely.
Mass transit does support TNC growth just as the authors describe. But TNCs, in turn, support mass transit by solving the last mile problem. The two systems are complementary. But without a supportive urban environment, neither system stands any chance of success. Mass transit and TNCs may be allies, but both rely on urban density as their benefactor.
Residents in densely developed cities with mixed land use consume less transportation per capita because the distances between work, housing, and recreation are all much shorter. And below a certain level of consumption, the minimum fixed cost of car ownership ceases to make sense. Alternative forms of transportation like a mass transit system or a TNC platform entail only marginal cost, so they begin to look more attractive.
Imagine putting a mass transit system–commuter rail, BRT, whatever you’d like–in the middle of Houston or LA style sprawl. It might be a net positive for a TNC, but in no way would it be as beneficial as if those cities had Manhattan levels of density. To take an empirical approach, the authors’ analysis could be reapplied to Uber use in city like Atlanta. Atlanta has mass transit and TNCs along with urban sprawl.
While mass transit does support TNC use, it’s not the single biggest variable in getting people to give up their cars. That has to do with shifting the relative costs of car ownership in favor of a multi-modal alternative. And that has everything to do with embracing urban density.