How the Uber wars reinvent Ontario's transit landscape

By John Michael McGrath - Published on Jul 24, 2015
Drivers on Toronto's Don Valley Parkway have had to contend with HOV lanes during the Pan Am Games.

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Uber expanded to four new cities in Ontario this week, bringing the popular and controversial car-for-hire company to London, Hamilton, Guelph and Kitchener-Waterloo. That news was followed by a new legal challenge for the American tech firm, in the form of a $400 million class-action suit launched by Toronto taxi license-holders.

Increasingly, consumers who want more flexibility than scheduled transit offers, but do not want to use a personal automobile are taking advantage of new options to get around. While the practice of carpooling is not new, technology paired with the rise of the sharing economy has given new prominence to alternative transportation options.

Generically called “microtransit,” smartphone-enabled apps – everything from basic carpooling to digitally-generated on-demand bus routes – aim to provide something more tailored than transit. Uber itself offers a carpool option that it opened in Toronto during the Pan Am Games, allowing UberPool users and competitors to take advantage of thetemporary high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes around the GTA.

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While the HOV lanes will disappear when the Games end, the Ontario government has pledged to introduce high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes that encourage carpooling and charge single-passenger vehicles that use them. Premier Kathleen Wynne said this week Queen’s Park will be guided by the lessons learned from the Games when they roll out future HOT lanes, so commuters will have incentives to carpool for the foreseeable future.

“We’re suffering huge gridlock, partly because many of the cars on the road have a single occupant in them. The greatest excess capacity is in the back seats of people’s cars,” says Matti Siemiatycki, professor at the University of Toronto.

Siemiatycki notes that governments have offered services analogous to microtransit for decades, without a lot of success.

“We’re seeing these commercial enterprises as entrepreneurs use new technologies to optimize both the convenience and the payment. These might have more potential.”

Jarrett Walker, transit planning consultant and author of Human Transit, is more blunt.

“What UberPool does is called dial-a-ride,” Walker says. “Dorothy Parker said every new generation thinks they invented sex, so it’s not surprising we have millennials who think they invented dial-a-ride.”

What’s different is the use of smartphones and the growing public acceptance of the sharing economy.

“If you think about it, the sharing economy is all about using the roads and cars we already have in place,” says Lisa Nisenson, founder of Greater Place. “Airbnb, Uber, use the things we already have – which is great in an era when people don’t want to build grand projects anymore.”

Both proponents and critics of microtransit agree the key question is one of efficiency, but the question is which way passengers are going: are people abandoning the least efficient transportation mode (single-passenger cars) for car-sharing, or are people ditching relatively efficient transit services for the comforts of less efficient cars for hire?

“When you bring in another solution that uses space less efficiently—because it’s a smaller vehicle—then the overall outcomes for the city depend entirely on whether that vehicle is supplementing transit, or competing with it,” says Walker.

“So much of their marketing is ‘transit systems are old-fashioned and we’re inventing something new and wonderful.’ Well, the geometry isn’t there to replace high-performing transit systems.”

Nisenson is optimistic that the best, highest-capacity transit systems will be able to compete with microtransit.

“These high-capacity lines that have been high-capacity since 1910 (like New York City’s subways) aren’t going to suffer,” she says. “But some of the ancillary routes are going to show a decline if they manage to offer better, cheaper service.”

Transit networks are a balance of high-capacity, high-frequency service and less frequent local lines. The risk for traditional transit service isn’t that Uber is going to replace the Yonge subway line anytime soon. Rather, it’s that ridership on marginal local bus lines could be diverted to the point where those lines become even less economical for transit agencies to run – abandoning passengers who can’t afford one of the novel car-sharing services.

Nisenson says, however, the reverse may also be true: microtransit services could also demonstrate to transit agencies where there’s ridership they haven’t been serving.

There’s still the sticky question of whether these sharing services are only convenient because of their lower pay and non-union workforces.

“We want to be providing the broadest range of options, where all of the providers are working with the same set of conditions, keeping in mind fundamental values of equity of access and workplace safety,” says Siemiatycki. “Part of the reason transit is expensive is that workers are unionized and they get a living wage. What happens if we shift transit to more precarious labour where people may make a decent living, or not?”

Having succeeded based on technological changes so far, the future of microtransit will depend on which way technology evolves further. Siemiatycki notes that self-driving vehicles like those being championed by Google and Uber could change everything once again.

But Walker says the next wave of transportation technology will be a service that aggregates the data from many different services – ride-sharing, taxis, transit, and anything else that’s available.

“We’re still in the era of online travel planning where all we have is airline websites, and Expedia hasn’t been invented yet. Once Expedia’s invented, the airline websites no longer have anything that special, and everyone understandably goes to the aggregators.”

Image credit: Danielle Scott/flickr

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