The rise of innovative transportation companies has been the most important change in the way urban travelers get around in decades.
It is well understood that transportation network companies (TNC) like Uber and Lyft have changed the way middle class and affluent people travel within the cities they live in, but critics often say they don’t do enough to help the urban poor. Supporters, however, will point out that these companies make for-hire cars available in neighborhoods where cabs rarely roam.
Until recently, this debate has been largely theoretical. That changed last week with a new study by the Manhattan Institute’s Jared Meyer. Meyer received data on all trips taken using UberX technology in New York City in 2014, including the starting and ending postal codes. He then compared this data to info on New York City taxi trips.
Put simply, Meyer’s study found that compared to taxi services, UberX serves areas outside of Manhattan and airport terminals with far greater regularity. Moreover, Meyer found that UberX’s growth was strongest in lower income neighborhoods, and that the service was most used outside of typical peak commuter hours.
None of this should come as a surprise. New York City has long been the quintessential case study for cities where for-hire vehicles have been underserved. The city has explicitly limited the number of cabs available for decades, making New York harder to get around for millions of people. If poorer residents anywhere stand to benefit from increased for-hire vehicle availability, it’s New York.
It only makes sense: when cabs are scarce, they will congregate along streets where riders seeking to hail them are plentiful. It makes little sense for a driver to roam around a poor neighborhood’s side streets searching for the random person who happens to be looking for a cab. TNC companies allow travelers to signal their desire for a ride from these same side streets in poor neighborhoods.
What Uber has done is provide reliable rides at a reasonably low price in places where cabs rationally do not go. The reliability is what matters.
Take a typical case for a time when someone may want to use a for-hire vehicle. A 20-something, entry-level worker who lives in a cramped Williamsburg apartment is invited to a party at a colleague’s house in East Flatbush. Neither can afford to live particularly close to the subway, and buses are inconvenient and slow. The 20-year-old heads to the party in the evening, and leaves around 12:30 a.m. after a few drinks.
Without TNC companies, his options are to trek to the subway for a circuitous route home, or take the risky walk to a major street and hope he can find a cab that’s both driving by and doesn’t already have a passenger. Getting home is unreliable, and in the worse case, likely to see the person mugged.
With TNC companies, the 20-year-old can stay at the party and call an UberX directly to the house. An hour of mass transit or a risky trek across the neighborhood becomes a simple affair that rarely fails. One can reliably spend time in poorer neighborhoods without much risk to one’s time or property. Without TNC availability, attending this hypothetical party wouldn’t make sense for many people.
TNC companies have already become an important part of getting around for people living in cities worldwide, despite the best efforts of politicians like New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio. These politicians will need to be convinced, either on moral or practical terms. While some have decried these services as creatures of the rich, Meyer’s data shows that this critique is simply not true.
Cities exist because of so-called agglomeration economies, the value people and companies get from being close together. Chance encounters between people matter, and cities that are easy to move around in facilitate this serendipity.
The rise and proliferation of companies like Uber not only make going about everyday life easier, they also accelerate these chance encounters. By expanding the number of people who can take advantage of these encounters, TNC companies help urban residents both in the short and long term.