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Lyft tries to explain why their bus lines matter

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Ride-hailing app company claims it’s here to fill in gaps from existing transit

A car painted pink and covered with the Lyft logo driving in New York City. Roman Tiraspolsky

Back in April, Lyft announced a shuttle service (then called Line but now simply “Shuttle”) in San Francisco and Chicago. As the Verge explained at the time:

Rather than arriving directly at your door and then dropping you off at your exact location, the driver operates along a fixed route, with predetermined pick-up and drop-off locations. So people using the service may save a little money on fares, but they’ll also have some walking to do.

Leading a great many people to remark, isn’t that basically just a bus?

In a Medium blog this week, Lyft’s Director of Transportation Policy Emily Castor finally admitted that, yes, okay, that’s pretty much true.

So why would San Francisco, already blanketed by a tangled hydra of bus lines, possibly need more? Well, here’s Castor’s argument:

The vast majority of Americans live in places outside of mass transit’s “sweet spot” — which is why only about one third of jobs in major U.S. metropolitan areas are reachable by the average commuter within 90 minutes one-way by public transit.

Many potential transit riders live too far away from train stations to be able to use them, a classic challenge known by transit agencies as the first-and-last-mile problem. Here again, we think Shuttle can help.

Since launching Shuttle in San Francisco, we’ve found that our single most successful route is a first-and-last-mile connector to the 4th and King Caltrain station.

That last point seems telling, because of course a score of Muni lines intersect at Caltrain.

But in April this year (the most recent month for which data is available), the nine regular Muni lines servicing the station had a combined on-time rating of just 50 percent, and were “very late” 15 percent of the time.

A year prior the same figures were 57 percent and nine percent respectively. Better, but obviously not great. This of course is part of why the city plans to relocate Caltrain to the new, more centrally located Transbay Transit Center. But that idea is years away and short on funding right now.

Patricia Chang

To buttress her argument, Castor also cites the U.S. Census findings that only about five percent of Americans regularly use public transit.

At first this seems off-topic for San Francisco. After all, in 2014, Five Thirty Eight found that the San Francisco-Oakland metro zone has the highest use of public transit per capita of any city in the US except for New York.

But as the San Francisco Chronicle noted a year later, transit use in the city is high but also flat:

While ridership has hit record numbers on BART and Caltrain as the Bay Area’s population has grown, per capita usage of transit has dropped 14 percent since 1991.

In other words, despite all the BART extensions and the new light-rail and bus lines, the slice of the morning commuters jumping into their cars to go work has pretty much stayed the same since before Bill Clinton was president.

Ouch.

So Lyft does a fair job of diagnosing a chronic civic problem. Whether their app-based solution will fix it for a significant number of people remains to be seen, but for now it seems the company means to continue Shuttle service.