The “last mile problem” is often invoked by Uber and Lyft to justify their attempts to cannibalize public transit ridership. From this article in the Examiner:
Both Lyft and Uber offer bus-like services for their vehicles, Lyft Shuttle and Uber Express POOL. The Uber Express POOL service is set to launch in six more cities nationwide Wednesday, though it has operated in San Francisco since November 2017.
Kate Toran, head of taxi services at SFMTA, who also helped craft the rules around private mass transit, said Lyft Shuttle is regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission, not the SFMTA, because it seats so few passengers in each vehicle.
While SFMTA officials have expressed concern about Chariot potentially competing with Muni, Uber staff argued Tuesday that the company’s new carpool service also may address routes public transit may not serve well.
In a Tuesday briefing with reporters, Ethan Stock, head of Product at Uber, said he viewed Uber’s Express POOL service as a solution to the “last mile problem,” where public transit doesn’t bring people to their destination doorstep.
“One of my favorite examples is my own commute,” he said. “I would love to take Caltrain up the Peninsula and have a seamless Caltrain ride to the Uber office (in San Francisco).”
Yet, he said, “the amount of time and frustration” he has trying to get from Caltrain to his offices at Uber on Market Street is a barrier to using public transit.
“I think this is an example of a gap in the public transit system I think Uber is in a position to fill,” he said. “Public transit works really well on core, high volume routes, but in the diversity of moving all over the city, it doesn’t.”
I’d like to answer both the specific and abstract arguments made by Mr. Stock. I can’t tell from his statements alone whether or not he takes Uber to his office from his house or from the Caltrain station at 4th & King. In the former case, it’s not feasible for everyone to have a one-seat ride from far away to their destination. If you want to know what happens when we try to give everyone a one-seat ride, you need look no further than awful 101 traffic. Either way, since he brings up the “last mile problem” I assume he’s proposing Uber as a solution for the latter.
The Uber office is at 11th & Market, so getting there from the Caltrain station is a direct ride on the 47. This is an incredibly frequent bus—one of the most frequent in the entire system. Ridership on this line is over 10,000 per weekday, and it shares a significant portion of its length with the 49, which has much higher ridership. By all means, this is the kind of “core, high volume” route that Mr. Stock thinks transit works well on. It picks him up where he gets off the train and delivers him to a point about a minute’s walk from his destination. More generally and as I talked about in my first post, the frequent grid covers San Francisco with these high-ridership routes, and this is especially true downtown. So why does Mr. Stock consider this frustrating and difficult, and what part of the last mile problem really remains unsolved?
Mr. Stock does not consider taking the bus, and the last mile problem is only bad in San Francisco if you do not take the bus. SFMTA has designed the bus network to have nice grid properties and help people within the city commute downtown, but it has also created a system with high connectivity at all of the rapid transit stops. Because rapid transit stops are so busy, it makes sense to serve them heavily with buses, so people can make many different connections more easily. Accounting for this when designing your network makes it useful for as many people as possible, even when those people are coming from far away. From Caltrain alone, we can connect directly to almost every downtown subway stop. Embarcadero is accessible by the N or T. Montgomery is along the 10 and 12. Powell can be reached by the 30 or 45. Van Ness is on the 47. Civic Center is a bit harder as the 19 is a few blocks away, but Muni runs the 83X during peak hours to bridge that gap. The 81X and 82X also provide additional commute service from Caltrain to other destinations like the Transbay Terminal. The Central Subway will make moving people to and from the Caltrain station even easier when it is completed next year.
This is still true, if not to the same absurd level, with just about every other rapid transit stop in the city. I talked with a friend who works out in the Bayview and he revealed that his company is part of the Lyft corporate program, which helps people take Lyft from nearby BART stations to the office. His office is also accessible from Glen Park BART via the 23 and 44 buses. The 44 is especially frequent during commute hours.
Further discussion centered on the fact that buses are slow. I won’t argue with this, but we can fix it, and getting people into cars is not the right way. One part of the solution could be expanding the rapid network, as I wrote in this post. (If the 44R proposed in that post existed, his office would be a 4-stop ride and short walk from Glen Park.) Another could be installation of more red lanes, which would speed up the buses we already have. For some people, taking their bikes along or using bike-sharing services might provide a reasonable solution. But we can’t ferry everyone to their jobs from busy BART or Caltrain stations via cars, even with carpooling. The more efficient your carpooling is, the slower your ride gets, and the more it approximates standard bus service. As we take more cars, everyone’s ride gets slower. And this speaks to Mr. Stock’s final assertion—it is not mass transit that performs badly when people in a city are trying to go from anywhere to everywhere, but car-based transportation such as that provided by Uber.
In places which have less useful local bus networks, the last mile problem is worse, and car service might be the best option for people once they arrive at a nearby mass transit stop. It certainly is a more sustainable practice than driving the whole way yourself. But in San Francisco, we can do better, and tens of thousands of people already use buses to get around after taking BART or Caltrain in. It might take some investment to make them more useful, but in the end everyone will have better and faster service. Uber and Lyft have again tried to position themselves as a supplement to public transit, but it looks like they are continuing to interpret “public transit” solely as rail and if they supplant bus service, we will all lose out.