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From Charlie Cards to Uber Cars

Tech & Innovation | October 10, 2016

This past June, Uber offered a deal for app users in the metropolitan Boston area: $75 for 40 trips, or $40 for 20 trips. The following month, the MBTA raised their fares between 0.10 and 0.15 cents for buses and trains, coming to approximately $2 a ride, similar to the aforementioned Uber coupon. Uber’s notoriety in changing the transportation game has been extended to public transportation.

Though Uber’s deal was temporary, Boston’s public transportation is still fighting to remain an affordable alternative to more convenient ride-sharing services. According to Uber’s statistics, as of 2015, “Each Friday and Saturday between 10:00 p.m. and 4:00 a.m., Uber facilitates nearly 70,000 trips in Boston.” And, according to a study done by Certify, a business expense report management firm, these “ride-hailing services” were used more than both taxis and rental cars in the third quarter of 2015. This cements the company as a legitimate mode of transit in the city, a fact that the public sector is beginning to acknowledge.

Yet Uber’s popularity is not the only factor at play in this shift away from Boston’s public transit. For years, the MBTA has faced scrutiny by its riders, whether for its outdated facilities, fare increases due to consistent deficits, or transportation quality. While some may boast that Boston has the oldest public transportation in the country, many complain about the creaks and slow speeds, especially on the Green Line at Park Street during rush hour.

Some argue that these struggles are a natural reason for privatized intervention.

“If they can provide better outcomes for your population and do it at either the same cost if not lower, that’s a win-win for society,” Adie Tomer, a fellow at Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, told Bloomberg.

In order to stay relevant and address this competition with ride-sharing services, the MBTA has made a unique choice to partner with these very same companies. This past month, the MBTA announced that it will reduce its spending by defunding its disability program, The Ride, in order to work with Uber on providing transportation for those who qualify—typically those who are physically disabled, sight-impaired, and/or of a senior status.

“This initiative represents the MBTA’s efforts to increase accessibility in a more cost-effective and efficient way that also delivers more convenient service for its paratransit customers,” Governor Baker said in a prepared statement. The initial customers of the pilot program will pay the first $2 of the ride, the rest of which will be subsidized by the MBTA. This partnership, though unusual, is not the first of its kind. Cincinnati, a city whose population is less than half of Boston’s, has been working in conjunction with Uber on providing free rides to help transport people from bus stop to bus stop, a problem in a city which has no underground subways and whose routes are disjointed.

However, there is notable reluctance from many to widely integrate these private services throughout Boston’s transportation. Tabling outside of Tufts Campus Center in September, the Transportation for Massachusetts coalition has been seeking to provide “safe, convenient, and affordable transportation to everyone.” They have fought (and beaten) MBTA fare hikes, created networks of community members to assist in carpooling, and provided coupons at local businesses to those who choose to walk as part of their commute. Though they do not explicitly reject ride-sharing services, their commitment is towards a public, community-oriented system that works with the state and holds these services accountable. This also means working towards better bikeways, improving walkability, and “smart reform.”

For many, smart T reform involves pushing against privatized transport, and advocating instead for investments in the public system. James Aloisi, Former Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation, has already begun to express concern over the pervasive trend of ride-sharing. In an opinion piece for Commonwealth Magazine he wrote, “It stands to reason: If you raise T fares to a point where the regular fare isn’t much different than the [Uber] fare, people of means will choose to take the nicer alternative and will move to [Uber]. Other competitors and private sector shuttles will follow. The T will soon become the transit mode of necessity, and not of choice. Once that happens, the T is doomed, because its riders will never have the political clout to argue effectively for a proper level of investment and service quality and reliability.”

Aloisi’s worries about the future of the MBTA cannot be confined to the ride-sharing component of ventures like Uber much longer. These companies are at once moving to replace traditional transportation and working to change it entirely.

In August, Uber rolled out a fleet of self-driving cars in Pittsburgh, a move that has a wide range of implications for transportation. The chance to hail a self-driving car seems innocuous—it’s a way for curious people to try out the technology. But one of the mutual benefits of Uber’s investment in self-driving cars economic—once there are no drivers to pay, Uber rides will be cheaper for both the customers and the company.

Bill Messner, a Professor of Mechanical Engineering in Tufts’ School of Engineering, thinks that this opportunity will cause the public to begin to trust self-driving cars more readily than they might have otherwise.

Messner anticipates that Ubers will create even greater competition for buses. “Buses may still be cheaper, but who wants to get on a bus? That’s a big reason why people don’t take public transportation, is because they’re scared,” Messner said. “[In a self-driving car] you’re by yourself and you’re protected. It’s like I’m in my little castle. And that means a lot to people, it really does.”

Boston, along with cities across the country, is facing a difficult choice when it comes to transportation. The infrastructure is old and expensive to maintain, and the private sector is offering convenient, comfortable alternatives. As more people take advantage of those options, public transportation may cease to be the default mode of movement. Though this may be an unfamiliar landscape, it’s the choices we make today that will determine our route for tomorrow.