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Commentary By Alex Armlovich

New York, Pave the Way for Uberized Bus Companies Like Chariot

Cities Infrastructure & Transportation

This week marked the launch of the new city-run ferry system — and while ferries are fun, the MTA bus system is the real transit backbone on which the city’s Department of Transportation has influence through its control of the streets. Alas, falling bus speeds and surging Uber ridership have worsened a 16% collapse in New York’s bus ridership since 2002.

But new transportation companies like Chariot could help — at no cost to the city — by “Uberizing” the bus instead of the car. They’re providing dynamic bus routes, hailed from your smartphone, that evolve in response to where riders want to go. NYC DOT and Gov. Cuomo can enable these bus companies to help ease congestion by doing three things: grant new “Uberized” bus companies permission to operate; put a price on congestion; and enhance the city’s high-occupancy vehicle and bus-lane networks.

In a recent report, transportation consultant and former city DOT official Bruce Schaller estimated that car services and taxis have added 2.94 million monthly trips since 2013, with about a quarter of those new trips occurring in the overloaded Manhattan core. During that same time, Manhattan core traffic speeds have fallen by 11%.

What could a better bus system do?

MIT researchers recently demonstrated that 2,000 10-passenger minibuses directed by ride-matching algorithms could serve 95% of the Manhattan trips now performed by 14,000 yellow cabs with a mere three-minute average wait time.

But those wait times may prove too optimistic if those buses are added to traffic without displacing many taxis and cars. A combination of congestion pricing and HOV or bus lanes would be necessary to protect both public and private buses from congestion by lower-occupancy cars.

Indeed, congestion pricing and algorithm-enabled bus services complement each other.


Without excellent and affordable transit alternatives, congestion pricing could appear to price the poor off the road. But without congestion pricing, excellent and affordable surface transit options get stuck in unpriced traffic.

Commuters hop on new Citywide Ferry from Rockaway to Wall St.

These new bus-based companies could make congestion pricing fairer even as congestion pricing would provide the incentives, street space and traffic speeds necessary to enable these services through our bridges and tunnels.

The foundation for private bus networks is already here. New York University enjoys the best-served rapid transit infrastructure in America, but still runs a fairly wide bus network and a ferry to directly connect its campuses and hospitals. “Dollar van” jitneys, both legal and illegal, serve transit deserts in the outer boroughs and provide express connections between the Chinatowns in Manhattan, Sunset Park and Flushing for some 110,000 weekday trips. Private shuttle buses and vans are everywhere.

Unfortunately, existing private transit networks operate in parallel not-so-splendid isolation, unable to complement the service frequencies, ridership, and trip-matching potential of one another.

That’s where companies like Chariot come in. By “Uberizing” existing private buses and shuttles-matching and dispatching varied trips through smartphones with the aid of trip-matching algorithms-they could stitch together these transit threads into a cohesive network without compromising the direct, express-like connections passengers crave.

De Blasio at Rockaway ferry maiden voyage for new service

All of this is possible in unsubsidized Chariot operations in San Francisco and Austin at roughly $3 to $6 per ride. Chariot’s unlimited monthly pass in San Francisco is an affordable $119 per month. Uber and Lyft have been accused of “cream-skimming” high-income riders away from buses, but that claim won’t stick to an unsubsidized service that’s already cheaper than the MTA’s $121 monthly pass.

In the future, the MTA could even explore outsourcing infrequent, lower-ridership services — the kind of routes with 15 minutes or more between buses-to these new bus companies. The MTA could use the savings to subsidize higher service frequencies and restore service coverage to areas cut by the MTA in 2010.

Most importantly, MTA and the DOT could focus on upgrading irreplaceable high-ridership bus lines into true rail-like bus rapid transit, or at least our watered-down version known as Select Bus Service. (Cuomo’s MTA operates buses, but NYC DOT builds and controls bus lanes.)

Chariot hasn’t made it to New York yet, but it has posted job ads for a launch team here. When new bus-based companies do come, we should at the very least permit them to operate. To get the best results, we must ready our physical streetscape and road pricing to reverse both the slide in total bus ridership and the car congestion festering in our central business district.

This piece originally appeared in the New York Daily News


Alex Armlovich is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Follow him on Twitter here.

This piece originally appeared in New York Daily News