Can SEPTA Plausibly Offer an Uber-like Bus Service?

The skeptics come out.


The prospect of on-demand mass transit — basically the Uber model, but with buses or vans — has been the subject of plenty of speculation in recent months.

Citified recently wrote about the growing number of private companies in other cities that seem to see a market opening in what’s sometimes called “microtransit,” including Uberpool, Bridj and Lyft Line. There’s also at least one company, TransLoc, that’s trying to convince public mass transit agencies to embrace on-demand, dynamic routing technology.

How does all this work? As a City Lab story on TransLoc put it:

Open an app, punch in your origin, destination, and arrival time, and the dynamic system could search for others in your area going the same way to help lower the cost. The system would then schedule a pick-up (maybe at a nearby corner) and send a right-size vehicle (maybe a van or a 10-passenger bus) to serve the flex-route.

That sounds pretty great. But is it feasible? Can it be done at all affordably? And most important, from a mass transit point of view, can it scale?

Not a chance, writes Jarrett Walker at Human Transit. The problem with the Uber-ization of mass transit, he says, is that people conflate the benefits of privatizing operations with privatizing planning of public busing.

“Change routes, schedules, and fares?” This is the privatization of planning.  It features the abolition of “political approval,” which is a polite term for the abolition of democratic controls over spending the public purse.   It’s also produced some of the worst bus systems — in terms of both disutility and waste — that I’ve ever encountered in 23 years doing network planning.

Privatizing the operation of a public service, without overhauling the planning, has the potential to save money. (For example, Toronto has saved $10 million a year by privatizing half of its garbage.)

But Walker argues that in previous instances where cities turned over both operations and planning of public bus routes to private companies — such as Sydney, Australia in the mid-2000s — the results were “fantastically inefficient.” Obviously, that was during the age before smartphones. Even so, making an Uber-like fleet of 10-person buses operate cost-efficiently in traffic-dense urban corridors (without fixed routes) is farfetched, Walker contends.

Demand-responsive is such an intrinsically inefficient form of transit that deploying it downtown can only be for the purpose of serving relatively fortunate people at fares much higher than transit fares. That’s a great role for the private sector.

When Citified previously asked SEPTA about the feasibility of adopting on-demand transit technology in Philadelphia, the director of strategic planning, Byron Comati, pointed out some flaws: “I’m just thinking it’s hugely complex to schedule multiple people to go on one vehicle and have that trip be meaningful in the sense that it’s timely on its pickup and also on its delivery,” Comati said.

That’s largely the issue argued by Walker: we don’t know if on-demand technology can be scalable. But we know it’s popular. And Walker acknowledges, fleetingly, that the private sector could capture customers willing to pay higher fares with on-demand services. As Citified wrote before:

If (private transit operators) grow enough to skim a good chunk of middle and upper class riders — riders who can afford the premium of $6 fares — that’s bad news for the agencies not just because of the loss of fares, but because it will further marginalize mass transit busing as a service principally for the poor.

One way or another, private startups are due to change public busing.