How Mini-Buses End Uber

Uber drivers are not happy. Uber pool is broken. Everyone's second cousin has a to-your-door food delivery service. This is a logistical nightmare that deserves to be an opportunity. And, eventually, there is one natural solution: Mini-buses.

Ride-hailing apps must fail, because they do not coordinate driver placement and path-coordination. It’s up to each driver to figure out where to be. Fares appear ad hoc. It’s a competition between contractors, creating a lazy waste. Termites are smarter than that.

A mini-bus network, with employee drivers, can receive your current location and destination, and combine that information with other riders’ routes. Your bus would tell you a place to meet nearby, and, while it wouldn’t be as immediate as a Lyft, it would be significantly cheaper for long rides.

Think about your commute. Here, in the Bay, traffic is a purgatory. Would you hop in an Uber to ride from Hayward to the Embarcadero? A mini-bus, by pooling commuters densely, is a viable option. Uber may hold on to the market of 1–5 mile rides, but that is a tiny niche compared to the daily grind.

And, mini-buses that corral commuters at eight a.m. become business couriers by lunch time. In the evenings, they are your food-delivery service… from any participating restaurant or farm-fresh veggie boxers. Instead of having branded vans for each new SpoonRocket, a consolidated FedEx fleet can handle every last-mile problem.

Bundle to the Last Mile:

That last mile problem is really a graph problem. Each item and passenger is on their own trajectory, and the goal is to bundle them for as much of their path as possible. Realistic solutions to this problem involve lay-overs. Yes, like airlines, but without long check-ins or $10 snacks.

This solution to the last-mile problem is no surprise to the post office. You walk to a mail box on your corner (a tiny inconvenience, compared to Lyft arriving at your door). Your mail is picked up by a van (a mini-bus bundle), and goes to a depot (similar to lay-overs, but with stuff instead of people). From there, it can take long journeys as part of a bigger bundle of mail (mini-buses and commuter buses, here). This big bundle may be split and sorted along the way (Walmart is really good at this). And, as your mail nears its destination, it is un-bundled in stages, too.

Most of our travel and transport operates on slim margins, compared to a taxi. Uber can’t squeeze its drivers’ pay and still meet our massive demand. DHL can. Inevitably, it is a business that will do this, because municipal buses are fragmented solutions, only serving major transit arteries, with horrific lag, and abysmal levels of capital utilization. (I am often one of only three occupants, when I take the bus down San Pablo.) The solution must come from a business that already serves wide regions contiguously. They just need the software to respond to commuters’ route-requests… and a few lawyers, I’m sure.

What would that look like?

You have a regular commute-route. You text your route-request to DHL’s commuter cab service, and it responds with a time and location nearby. You may have to walk a block or two, and you may have to wait a few minutes. You hop in your shuttlebus with a half dozen other commuters, and a few of your fellow passengers are dropped off at a hub, to transfer to another shuttlebus. Someone at that hub is selling $3 snacks. You get to your transfer hub, grab a snack, and wait a few more minutes. Next shuttle takes you within three blocks of your office. Done.

When that shuttle is done handling rush-hour fares, it switches roles — fold down the seats to become a courier van. Your office deliveries, your foodie box at your house. Evening rush follows the same pattern. Late at night, that same minibus is delivering pizza and mushu pork, from any restaurant that signs a contract with DHL. Done.

Key to this concept: each company relinquishes their private delivery fleet, and instead has a contract with a committed logistics company. They already do this. Amazon uses existing postal services. (And, aren’t they doing alright?) Grubhub doesn’t need it’s own vehicles. Neither do those farm-egg-people. And you could ride in those vans, too. Uber will wither as drivers are priced below living wages (already happened). So — please, let me hop on the back of that FedEx truck! They know what they’re doing.