Uber Is Going to Replace Public Transit, And Drivers Need Not Apply.


There are probably a lot of things you do and don’t know about Uber.

You probably don’t know that the idea for Uber first popped up at the 2008 Le Web conference in Paris. You might also be unaware that Uber’s first CEO applied for the job on Twitter. Or that Uber is gunning to be the world’s first primarily automated mass transit company.

Wait…what?

Yes, the world’s first automated mass transit company. Decentralized, ubiquitous, instant, primarily driverless city transit.

While everybody with something to lose, from politicians to archaic and angry taxi unions, have been up in arms over Uber’s disruptive model, I can’t help but feel Uber sees them as merely temporary battles. These are decoys. The company is biding its time and humouring them on the way to a grander vision.

Though Uber is notorious in the ethics department, this isn’t about Machiavellianism — no, this one comes down to inevitable change. While cab drivers dig in their heels (often violently) against change in the thinly veiled name of self-interest, Uber has its eye on making them secondary as a whole. Checkmate. Here’s the narrative:


2008: Uber starts out as “UberCab”, an app to hail and monitor black cabs, and pay through the app as well.

Le Sortie de l’opéra en l’an 2000 Albert Robida/Library of Congress via TheAtlantic.com

2010–2011: It evolves into Uber, and eventually allows anyone to be a driver. It causes a paradigm shift in how we see technology and the on-demand economy.

2012–2015: Uber experiences explosive growth, battling predictable industry and, thus, political (read: lobbyist) opposition; its real battle, however, is against its own megalomania. Through desperate PR and unwavering investor support, they survive. Uber continues to insist they only operate an app, not the actual car service it manifests as. (Over 140,000 drivers use the service, but only 32,000 are full-time. Most see it as a temporary gig while seeking steady employment.)

2014–2016: Uber begins offering courier and local delivery services. It’s not just about getting you where you need to be, when and where you want, it’s about getting what you need to where it needs to be too, also when and where you want. Food delivery is the entry point, rolled out to have equal prominence as its taxi service. In the meantime, in a huge twist of irony, it becomes increasingly apparent that Uber’s achilles heel might be the drivers that power its service. As one might predict, untrained, lightly background-checked people are a liability.

2020–2022: Uber changes its tone. It is a technology company, and that does include operating a fleet of cars… but not with drivers. Uber purchases and puts into operation 500,000 electric, self-charging, driverless vehicles, leaving human-operated vehicles on the network to fill the gaps, with which it becomes more selective and stringent.

2022–2030: Uber faces its next wave of uncharted legal territory, this time more directly with government. Using past experience and a long runway of strategic marketing and grassroots engagement, they successfully integrate with existing mass transit systems the world over, in most cases partnering with government to become the world’s first MTaaS: Mass Transit as a Service. Uber becomes the first transient, ubiquitous, global transportation authority, ferrying people and things on-demand, anywhere, across markets, at competitive prices.


Let’s backpedal and put 1 and 1 (or 4) together to see how this all adds up.

1.

To date, there are over 8 billion people on earth. As the speed of our information has out-paced the speed of our travel, the desire for accessible, fast movement has never been greater. We live in fast, global times.

There are over 1,500 cities with over 500,000 inhabitants. How many of them have subway systems? 148. In the U.S., with its population of nearly 320 million, there are only 15 rapid transit systems, covering only 807 miles (1299 km).

Bing Maps transit coverage, North America (most major systems)

Our transit is wildly out of touch with our populations and our globalized, mobile, on-demand world.

2.

Of the transit systems we do have, many are “broken”. Broken means a lot of things to a lot of different people, and varying widely city to city. In Paris, “broken” means that while their transit has impeccable coverage and frequency, it is over-capacity, and not suited for such crowding (read: sauna-like lack of AC in summer). In Toronto, far from adequate coverage, it means the third largest city in North America relies on three subway lines that serve a tiny fraction of its metro area. In Canada and the U.S. overall, due to the realities of urban planning and political style, adequate transit expansion is often seen as a near miracle that usually — in the rare cases it succeeds — takes decades of campaigning to secure and finance.

If we are realistic, for much of the urban world, it is a losing battle if we aspire to acceptable timelines of improvement to our mass transit systems.

Our large, often sprawling cities are growing faster than our bureaucracy can handle, outgrowing our ability to service them conventionally.

Sao Paulo subway / REUTERS/Nacho Doce

3.

We are witnessing a breaking point in the above systems. A perfect storm of system overload and social media ubiquity (and thus perpetual expression), is occurring in conjunction with startup mania, i.e. the citizenry taking matters into their own hands (for profit). In San Francisco alone, alternative transit services like Leap, Loup, and Chariot have cropped up.

Nor is Uber alone, to begin with. Lyft (valued at $2.5B), BlaBlaCar (nearing $1B valuation), and many others are vying for a piece of the pie around the world, with Ola Cabs in India ($2.5B valuation) and the “Uber of China” Didi Kuaidi doing 3 million rides per day. Meanwhile local, on-demand delivery services are cropping up at an astonishing pace as well.

4.

On June 3, 2015, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick gave his 5 Year Anniversary Remarks:

Even though this company grew out of a desire to solve a very common problem, you’ve put Uber in a position to help tackle some of the biggest challenges facing our cities in the years ahead.
[…]
Public transportation of course is part of the answer. But public transportation alone isn’t enough. Not everyone can live by a bus stop or a subway station. And today, there are still too many places that mass transit doesn’t serve; places where it’s hard to get a cab — the poorest neighborhoods and suburban communities where millions of people don’t have access to reliable, affordable transportation. It creates an unequal transportation ecosystem that makes people’s lives that much harder and more expensive to live.
Throughout North America and Europe, the transportation status quo is a real problem. But in developing countries like China, like India that are adding tens of thousands of cars to their roads every day, it is existential.
[…] By complementing the existing mass transit system, we’re helping to build the world’s most reliable transportation network for everyone, everywhere.
[…] One major innovation we’re really excited about is UberPOOL. […] And not only is it much less expensive than taking a cab or owning a car, it has the potential to be as affordable as taking a subway, or a bus, or other means of transportation. And that’s what we believe is the real game-changer. Those are the things we’ll be working on in years to come.

5.

Silence speaks volumes. Last week, the following tidbit made waves after Tesla’s latest investor call.

Musk was reportedly asked about a partnership with Uber and waited six seconds to respond.
“I don’t think I should, uh, answer it,” Mashable reported him as saying during an earnings call.
The news comes after Steve Jurvetson, an Uber board member, said that CEO Travis Kalanick would buy 500,000 autonomous cars from Tesla if the company made them by 2020.

Now, this could mean they will collaborate. It could also mean they won’t. After all, the field is packed and seems to be taking an everyone-for-themselves approach. It’s jut as likely Musk’s silence was speaking toward the possibility of Tesla applying their self-driving cars to their own shot at MTaaS.

As per autoblog.com:

Jonas then queried Elon Musk as to whether he saw supplying vehicles to ride-sharing companies as a good business opportunity or whether Tesla might just “cut out the middle man and sell on-demand electric mobility services directly from the company on its own platform?”
After a four-second pause, Musk responded with, “That’s an insightful question,”

Now, setting aside the hilarious over-analysis on the length of Musk’s pauses in speech, these are quite telling signs, one way or another.

Uber seems to be hedging its bets regardless, recently acquiring 100 Microsoft mapping engineers and “unknown assets” from Bing, Google’s mapping competitor. Add to this Google’s own well-publicized driverless car efforts, and now their opening of Sidewalk Labs, aiming to “fix broken cities”. And this all goes without mentioning Apple’s disruptive potential, with their all-but-assured entry into the automaker ring around the corner.


The truth is we don’t know who is going to deliver automated Mass Transit as a Service, but with the above data points we can be confident it’s going to happen, and Uber is in pole-position. When it does, it will likely spread to every corner, and become the modern equivalent of an official private-public transit-taxi hybrid… only automated, yours with the tap of a button, and very likely cheaper than many of the transit options at our disposal today. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?

Hasbro’s surprisingly prescient 2009 title “Monopoly Free Parking: The Toppling Taxi Game”

Taxi drivers and politicians can squabble over insurance and the application of pre-modern-technology rules, but they would be wise to think more broadly and longer term of the sea change just ahead. They are clutching at roles that, try as they might, are just not cutting it for increasingly gridlocked populaces.

There is no debating that sharing economy companies need to adequately cover the well-being of their users, both directly and in the event of accidents. Uber and its like, afterall, are directly soliciting and enabling people to do specific things in the real world. For the most part, however, much of the vitriol is not against these growing pains, it is against change in general.

Ultimately, however, as is proven time and time again, from social justice to industry, the best-suited solution inevitably takes hold. Transit, public and private, is no exception to the rule. The future is coming, whether politicians or “official taxis” like it or not. It’s just a question of time. My bet’s on 2022.


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