Lyft Invents Bus

Heather Yamada-Hosley of Lifehacker tried Lyft’s new Shuttle service:

I take Lyft or Lyft Line a couple times a week, usually because I’m traveling with other people and it’s the same or cheaper (and much, much cleaner, faster, and more pleasant) than taking public transportation. But Lyfts can add up fast and Lyft Line, while less expensive, can take you out of your way and make your travel time much longer.

Lyft Shuttle addresses both those issues by having you walk to a nearby pick up spot, get in a shared car that follows a pre-designated route, and drops you (and everyone else) off at the same stop. So, basically, you share a ride with other people (most of the time) so your ride price is lower, but you know exactly how long the ride will take because you’re on a pre-designated route.

Raphael Orlove of Jalopnik had basically the same thought as, well, most Lifehacker commenters:

Lyft is testing out a new service called Lyft Shuttle, which runs at a lower cost than its usual it’s-not-a-taxi app, but runs on a preset route picking up at preset stops. You may be familiar with this concept already, as in other parts of the world that are not Silicon Valley, this is known as a “bus.”

Apart from the sheer absurdity of Lyft claiming innovation to investors by copying and pasting ideas from Manchester in 1824, this seems like an insidious attempt at privatizing public transport. That’s a problem because the goals of public transport — to provide transportation to everyone regardless of income or mobility — tend to run counter to the goals of private companies. Most transit systems in the United States and around the world don’t turn a profit, and that’s okay. We all subsidize them because their goal is for all of us to use them. Besides, it’s better than public transit being subject to the whims of Silicon Valley investors.

I hear the public transport system in San Francisco isn’t very good, so it’s tempting to argue that Lyft could provide healthy competition. But one reason that Bay Area transit isn’t very good is that it’s desperately underfunded — in part because many tech companies based in the region, including Lyft, are engaged in various tax avoidance strategies.

Lyft and their investors can do whatever they want with their money and time. If they want to reinvent the bus, they should go for it. But they should also be contributing their fair share so that everyone may have equal access to safe, reliable, and fast public transportation.

Update: Brian Feldman, New York magazine:

… To spell it out for the tech crowd, what is annoying about Lyft’s new project, to those of us who ride buses, is that it describes and re-creates an underfunded and underappreciated public service as a revolutionary new endeavor. No one doubts that autonomous driving, if and when it actually arrives, will change how buses are operated. But that would happen regardless of Lyft’s invention, or reinvention, of the bus.

I use public transit extensively. I love the idea of making it easier and better to use for everyone. I dislike the idea of making it a VC-subsidized expensive private enterprise operating out of San Francisco.