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Don't vote against mass transit just because Uber is so cheap

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This is a bad argument

Uber stock image

It’s Election Day, and there are dozens of ballot proposals across the country that could potentially raise up to $200 billion for public transportation. But some opponents are using the rising popularity of ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft to undercut these proposals. These critics are arguing that cities and states shouldn’t be pumping so much money into mass transit at a time when more and more people seem to prefer taking Uber and Lyft.

The observation about Uber and Lyft’s strange role in these opposition campaigns was made by Andrew Doughman, a vice president at transit strategy group TSC2, which is keeping a close eye on the 45-plus transit proposals across the country. On this Election Night live blog, Doughman writes:

In campaigns in metros across America, these critics note that “there is significant uncertainty over the future of mass transit” and that voters should “question … the focus of billions of dollars on waning mass transit modes even as Uber and Lyft soar in popularity.” In Detroit, Indianapolis, Atlanta, and other jurisdictions, opponents have all been saying voters shouldn’t invest in bus/rail because technological innovation will soon outstrip the relevancy of those modes. Then, the argument goes, local governments will be saddled with huge costs for maintaining outdated rail and bus systems that few people use.

It’s an argument that I’ve made myself: that super-cheap services like UberPool and Lyft Line are out to compete with — and eventually kill — public transportation. The idea is that if Uber and Lyft are cheaper than public transportation, then transit ridership will bottom out, transportation budgets will crater, and eventually those services will fall into disrepair and irrelevance.

But that argument is not as cut-and-dried as it once was. In the past year, Uber and Lyft have positioned themselves as complementary to public transportation, especially as they seek new and innovative ways to answer the so-called last mile challenge of connecting transit riders from their homes to faraway bus stops and subway stations.

Uber and Lyft have realized it can make common cause with public transportation agencies in its quest to usher in the end of personal car ownership. Uber has forged partnerships with transit agencies in Dallas, Minneapolis, Atlanta, and Los Angeles, and has struck deals with suburban communities to help connect residents to commuter trains.

There are some cases where Uber has taken a heavy hand in its quest to supplement public transportation. In Altamonte Springs, Florida, for example, Uber has basically taken over that community’s transit system with the blessing from the town’s officials. It raises serious questions about equity and transparency as the future of transportation grows to include more ride-sharing services.

That said, what Doughman has noticed is certainly troubling, especially if it convinces voters that they can reject these proposals to expand and enhance public transportation because Uber and Lyft are so convenient and cheap. This is a bad argument that could gain some traction on Election Day, especially with voter suspicion in government agencies at an all-time high.

“I tend to think that line won’t sell very well for voters who want real transportation solutions today, not some promise of Uber [and] more unspecified innovation tomorrow,” Doughman writes, noting that Uber has even endorsed the Atlanta sales tax question and the $54 billion Proposition 1 in Seattle because the company believes it goes “hand-in-hand” with public transportation. Let’s hope he’s right.