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Uber and Lyft passengers are ultra-wealthy. Will this keep cities from investing in transit?

Turns out, a lot of Uber and Lyft users are rich. And not just a little rich: According to a new report, 45 percent of their customers in dense urban areas make over $200,000 per year. Eek. Only around 13 percent of Uber and Lyft passengers have incomes below $50,000. That could be bad for public transit — and the climate.

For years, ride-hailing companies have claimed their services will be a net-positive for energy use, traffic congestion, and urban planning. But research over the last year has suggested otherwise. Uber and Lyft pull riders away from public transit – rather than just away from their personal cars – and according to the same study, all those extra vehicles are choking up city streets.

In New York City subway ridership has fallen for the second year in a row, and transit authorities are blaming the rise of Uber and Lyft. And, given the new study, it could mean that it’s higher income transit riders that are increasingly avoiding mass transit.

The danger of this trend is that the most affluent city residents won’t see any reason to invest in — and vote for — big transit projects, which are essential to lowering transport emissions and creating more livable cities. “If the affluent voter or the swing voter is not taking the bus anyway, it’s really easy for people to just say: ‘Oh, we can just take Uber and forget about any kind of public transport,’” says Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute who researches transportation. Meanwhile, low-income residents who depend most on mass transit could be left behind.

Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers-funded conservative lobbying group, has used ride-hailing to attack public transit projects around the country. Organizers often use Uber, Lyft, and autonomous vehicles as examples of the future of public transit, ignoring the fact that these services will be out of reach for many low-income residents.

“If you’re wealthier and your subway doesn’t work [well], it’s not as much of a burden to take an Uber instead. But if you’re less wealthy and trying to get to work, you could easily lose half a day’s pay trying to find a different way of getting around,” Gelinas says.

And right now, no one using ride-hailing services is paying full price. “TNCs [transportation network companies] are at the moment still pretty heavily subsidized by venture capital,” says Carter Rubin, mobility and climate advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “These companies don’t make money, so everyone is getting a nice discount.”

For the time being, that means that Uber and Lyft are more accessible to low-income residents than they would be otherwise — but it also means that prices could shift at any time.

In some ways, Uber and Lyft have been a boon to low-income and minority communities. A recent study shows that their cars service areas that taxis have traditionally avoided, and that people of color face less discrimination when hailing a Lyft or Uber than a taxi.

But it’s worrisome that what some view as the transportation method of the future is, at the moment, mostly accessible to the ultra-rich among us.

And ride-sharing can’t save us from climate change: only high-density public transit can. As Rubin tells Grist: “The idea that TNCs and autonomous vehicles will get us out of our transit problems — it just doesn’t square with the geometric realities of our climate goals.”

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Uber and Lyft passengers are ultra-wealthy. Will this keep cities from investing in transit?

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The Future of Mass Transit Is Driverless

Mother Jones

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When we talk about driverless cars, we usually talk about driverless cars. But I was musing the other day about other driverless vehicles, and in particular how driverless technology will affect mass transit. I suspect it will make mass transit far more useful and more popular. I’m sure others have written about this in more detail, but here are my musings:

Driverless buses. First of all, if we can build driverless cars, we can also build driverless buses and driverless light rail/subways.

Cheaper buses. Especially in the case of buses, labor is a big part of the expense of operating a mass transit system. If buses become driverless, mass transit becomes cheaper, and that means metro authorities can afford to run buses more frequently. Frequency is one of the key features that determines how popular mass transit is, so this is a virtuous circle. The cheaper it is to operate buses, the more frequently they can run, and the more frequently they run, the more people will use them. Rinse and repeat.

The last mile. Driverless cars solve the “last mile” problem. If I want to use a bus or train to commute to Los Angeles, I still need to get from the station to my workplace. If that’s inconvenient—maybe my workplace is two miles away from the nearest bus stop, or maybe I’m just lazy—then I’ll skip mass transit entirely. But it’s easy to see how you could subscribe to a service that would track your progress and have a small driverless car waiting for you when you get off the bus. Hop in the car and it takes you the last mile. And since the car is driverless, it’s cheap and efficient.

None of this means that cars will go away, of course. Commuting via car will also become more appealing if you get to sit back and relax the whole time. That said, if buses can be made a lot more convenient by a combination of more frequent operation and fleets of little cars for the last mile—and a lot cheaper than commuting as well—driverless technology could be the greatest boost for mass transit since the invention of the subway.

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The Future of Mass Transit Is Driverless

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5 Major Public Transit Systems (Infographic)

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5 Major Public Transit Systems (Infographic)

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New York subway riders swipe back at fare hikes

New York subway riders swipe back at fare hikes

Today, the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority boosted subway and bus fares by another quarter, making it $2.50 per ride in the Big Apple (which is about equivalent to four actual apples).

In response to the hikes, some citizens are taking matters and MetroCards into their own hands with a “Swipe Back!” campaign. It’s simple enough: 18 minutes after you use your unlimited card (which now costs $30 per week or $112 per month), you can swipe someone else in for a ride. Says Swipe Back!: “Since you’re giving the swipe away, not selling it, this is perfectly legal.”

agent j loves nyc

A less legal form of swiping back against fare hikes.

The MTA tells Gothamist that fares are up to compensate for “costs for employee healthcare, pension contributions, mandatory paratransit service, energy and other costs out of our control.” No mention of a shit-ton of debt service. Here’s journalist and activist Jesse Myerson to explain how those debts work:

I asked Myerson how a small-scale campaign like Swipe Back! can make a difference.

“It helps out people who can’t afford a too-expensive public transit system. More importantly, though, it hopes to create a united community of riders, which is a crucial prerequisite for engineering the type of mass mobilization that can secure concessions from those in power,” said Myerson. “[Swipe Back!] is therefore a small but important part of the larger strategy to resist transit austerity, which, in turn, is a small but important part of the even larger strategy to liberate public projects of massive social benefit from the extractive clutch of finance capital “

Sarah Goodyear at the Atlantic Cities looks at the Swipe Back! campaign and the history of similar initiatives:

This isn’t the first time the free swipes have been used to raise awareness among the harried riders of the city’s transit system, which carries seven million passengers every day. A group called the People’s Transportation Program offered free rides during a previous round of fare hikes in 2009, with very few people taking notice (except, of course, the lucky ones who benefited directly).

It’s hard not to notice the rising costs of daily needs, though, at least for those of us not lounging in the 1 percent. The No Fare Hikes initiative has a breakdown of ridership and costs throughout the subway system compared to neighborhood incomes. Sure, it’s just a quarter — for now — but those quarters can really add up.

Susie Cagle writes and draws news for Grist. She also writes and draws tweets for



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New York subway riders swipe back at fare hikes

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NYC’s public transit system will raise fares — because what choice does it have?

NYC’s public transit system will raise fares — because what choice does it have?

New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority and its director Joe Lhota received broad (and largely deserved) praise for the speed with which the city’s transit system was brought back online after Sandy. One of the things that made that recovery remarkable was how expensive it was, with the agency tallying $5 billion in expenses linked to the storm. That cost came on top of the MTA’s ongoing budget problems.


An empty, dry tunnel under the East River.

Unsurprisingly, then, the MTA today announced plans to increase fares. As reported by The New York Times:

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority voted unanimously on Wednesday to raise the base fare on subways and buses by a quarter, to $2.50, and increase the cost of a 30-day MetroCard by $8, to $112. …

The cost of a seven-day subway or bus pass will also rise by $1, to $30. And the bonus on pay-per-ride MetroCards will decrease to 5 percent, from 7 percent, but will be available to anyone who places at least $5 on a card. Currently, the bonus applies only to purchases of at least $10.

Those increases are 11 percent for a single ride, 8 percent for a 30-day card, and 3 percent for a 7-day pass. Sounds steep — particularly when you consider that fares have consistently increased faster than the rate of inflation. Then again, so has the number of bus routes and subway lines.


Click to embiggen.

Given that we’re talking public transit, it’s tempting to label the hikes regressive, disproportionately affecting lower-income users. But it isn’t that simple. According to the most recent subway and bus rider data, the demographics of public transit users in the region are probably not what you’d expect.

In each of these charts, the data presented is the percentage of ridership meeting a particular criterion, or, in the case of the yellow columns in each, the percentage of all New Yorkers.

While the bus (as one would expect) has more lower-income riders and riders of color, the plurality of riders of both the bus and the subway earn over $75,000 a year. The MTA does have a reduced fare structure, but it is predicated on age and disability, not ability to pay. And what’s not depicted in the graphs above is how much of the riders’ income goes to transit. So, yes, the fare increase is regressive — but perhaps less than it may at first seem.

This is the challenge of an institution that is dependent on flat-rate public financing. At some point, the cost of maintaining or expanding service outpaces the revenue that is coming in. (See also: the federal government.) Hikes are unpopular and often unduly burdensome to lower income levels. But they’re also necessary.

Earlier today, Chair Lhota announced that he was leaving the agency. Many expect that he’ll announce a (doomed) bid for mayor of New York. It’s a weird note to go out on: After receiving praise for handling Sandy, he’ll certainly be remembered for this fare hike, even though it doesn’t go into effect until March.

Then again, championing unpopular causes to preserve public priorities is ideally what politics is all about. The problem for Lhota is that you have to get elected first.

Philip Bump writes about the news for Gristmill. He also uses Twitter a whole lot.

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NYC’s public transit system will raise fares — because what choice does it have?

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