Public Transit Needs Tech Solutions

aka. Why Uber and Lyft are winning

By Vidya Kaipa
Originally posted

I’m a die-hard public transit advocate. I travel cheap and as such pride myself on the various — sometimes creative— alternatives I’ve taken in order to avoid taxis. Living in the East Bay and traveling to San Francisco frequently, I rely on a combination of BART, MUNI, AC Transit, biking, and walking, to get around. With the exception of a few police-related brutalities, I’d say public transit is worth the wait and hassle in the long run.

However, with Uber and Lyft providing (relatively) low-cost and on-demand services, the argument for public transit has weakened. While I used to gently berate my friends for jumping in a cab instead of taking a convenient bus line home, I now must hold my tongue, as splitting a car can sometimes be cheaper than the $2.25 MUNI fare.

With the frequency of breakdowns and delays on BART (not to mention the unintuitive hours of operation), it’s not inconceivable to justify a $40 Uber to the airport. While cost might still be an incentive to take public transit for now, the business trend of racing to the bottom indicates that more affordable options might well be on the horizon.

I’ll be focusing on San Francisco for the purposes of this article, but this problem is evident throughout the rest of the Bay Area as well. Despite growing up in the suburbs of San Jose, I rarely took any form of public transit until I moved to Berkeley, and only then because I had a subsidized AC Transit pass.

CalTrain was prohibitively expensive, the closest BART station was 40 minutes away in Fremont, and the local bus lines were eschewed in favor of carpools and bike rides. While urban centers should certainly be the first to adopt widespread transit lines, suburbs should be taking note as well.

The city understands this. Programs like SFEIR (San Francisco Entrepreneurship in Residence) provide an opportunity for startups to bid for government contracts, applying tech solutions to areas of bureaucratic inefficiency. Innovate SF has a whole section dedicated to efforts by the SF Mayor’s Office to draw in subject-matter experts to resolve persistent bugs in the system.

Third-party consultants are also getting involved in this public-private partnership. Bayes Impact commits data scientists to studying and consulting on major infrastructure problems, then translating those findings into actionable items for governments and NGOs. Design consultants IDEO created OpenIDEO to apply design-thinking principles to global humanitarian issues and crowd-source relevant solutions from around the world. With all of these powerful minds at work, shouldn’t we see some drastic improvements to the infrastructure problems that plague tech’s heartlands?

And yet, it’s impossible to book a court date to appeal a CalTrain fare evasion ticket. It takes a week of waiting to begin to contest a hand-written MUNI ticket, which needs to be submitted within the three-week window. Meters and scanners are routinely broken, trains are habitually late, buses break down in the same busy intersections time after time. The experience of riding public transit has become one of unpredictable adventure, which isn’t amenable to the older, younger, or more affluent — which is becoming a larger subset of the population, due to increased rent and decreased low-income housing in the Bay Area.

I constantly encourage friends and family to take public transit, but recently it hasn’t been as effective. When my family from India visited, they were uncertain about the safety, route, and timings of the bus lines, opting to take Uber around the traffic-plagued city instead. To put that decision into perspective: taking autos, trains, and buses in India is actually an adventure, one that I feel unsafe embarking upon without another member of my family onboard. If my relatives feel an equivalent level of concern with San Francisco’s buses, which belong to one of the most progressive and tech-friendly governments in the world, isn’t that alarming and indicative of a larger problem?

With fewer riders and higher costs, administrators are failing to make their product compelling or adaptive to today’s environment. I understand that governments, particularly those in California, are operating on limited budgets. But that strain also comes from crippling inefficiency, loss of potential profits from land tax, and a horrifying amount of waste in resources, time, and management. Subcontracting tech companies, or better yet encouraging tech founders to invest in programs like Marc Benioff’s 1:1:1 Model, is a good start in highlighting the need for innovation in these critical spaces.

But it’s not going to happen if the public and private sectors fail to work together. In a fight between the two, the private sector will unequivocally trounce its opposition, a result we’re already seeing with the declining quality of public goods and increasing privatization and individualization of everything else. As East Bay Express explains in this must-read article, “BART’s Big Gift to Wealthy Corporations:”

…Experts say the biggest beneficiaries of the BART system — large corporations and real estate owners around the stations, especially in downtown San Francisco — have paid virtually nothing toward BART’s costs during the past several decades. It doesn’t have to be this way, though. BART has the authority under California law to seek revenue from more progressive sources, such as taxing the increase in land values its system has helped create. If BART tapped into this major revenue stream, it could reduce fares for riders, build out the system, minimize its dependence on difficult-to-obtain federal grants, and avoid the labor-management conflicts over the budget that precipitated the strike.
According to Robert Cervero, a professor of urban and regional planning at UC Berkeley, BART has failed to tap into potentially enormous streams of funding since it was built in the early 1970s. One of the biggest funding sources for the system’s initial construction and expansion should have been special real estate taxes levied on property owners who then experienced enormous land value increases after BART stations were built. BART, a publicly funded transit system, created huge windfall profits for the owners of land and buildings near train stations, particularly in downtown San Francisco.

If San Francisco wants to truly combat the deleterious effects of skyrocketing cost of living and forced emigration, it needs to protect the services of the underprivileged by encouraging community buy-in. When you see people of all ages, colors, status, and wealth, riding public transit won’t be a symbol of poverty or a method of last-resort. Rather, it’ll be a signal that San Francisco cares about its residents enough to provide a low-cost alternative to getting around, to reduce the number of cars on the road (and relatedly, the incidences of lung cancer and bike/pedestrian fatalities), and to break down barriers to accessing the rest of the wonderful, dynamic Bay Area.

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