What’s the future of your commute?

Man holding smartphone

For commuters in Manhattan, the ride-hailing service Uber now offers a $5 flat fare for carpooling with other riders headed in the same direction.

Recently, the company inked a deal with the city of Summit, New Jersey, to offer commuters subsidized rides to and from the train station, as the area suffers from parking congestion. Does the future of commuting start with an app? Experts say there could be real benefits to merging ride-booking technology with our commutes, but for the moment, not everyone — or every place — stands to gain equally.

Priya Anand, a transportation reporter for Buzzfeed News, says Uber has been striking deals all over the country, like the one with Summit, a bedroom community of New York.

“What remains to be seen is how far this can spread into the suburbs outside of major cities,” she says. “But partnerships that they've launched do provide sort of a glimpse into what the future of our commute could look like.”

Anand says that when Summit’s city manager did the math on what a new parking lot near the train station would cost, the number came out to about $10 million. And the project would take time, not to mention the process of finding and acquiring land for a new lot. But the city manager realized that subsidizing Uber rides for about 100 people each day — charging them the same as parking for a lift to and from the station — could give Summit an immediate parking fix for under $200,000 per year. The program is now in a 6-month pilot.

“They could do this for 50 years and have it cost not the same amount as the parking lot,” Anand says.

David King, a professor of urban planning at Arizona State University in Tempe, calls himself a “strong supporter” of pilot projects like the one in Summit. But he's cautious about the environmental implications, as well. 

“One of the ways to interpret what Summit is doing is that they're so scared of raising the price of parking that they're subsidizing more people,” King says. “They could solve their parking demand problem by raising the cost, which is what we should be doing — raise the overall cost of driving, so then people will start shifting to mass transit.”

In Summit’s new deal with Uber, King notes that increased demand for one-way trips to and from the train station could mean that lots of ride-booking cars leave the parking lot without passengers. And if someone who used to park at the station is now hailing rides there, the Summit deal could lead to more car trips overall.

“[It] doesn't necessarily mean that you're saving any fuel, or you're saving any road space,” King says. “All you've done is you've increased one trip to two trips, one coming and one going.”

Where do deals like the one in Summit leave commuters who don’t have smartphones or credit cards? According to Anand, Uber is working on an online system where people will eventually be able to dispatch rides for other people. And in the future, urban commuters may even be able to pay for ride-booking with their transit passes, for example. But neither solution is online yet — and for King, that means there are still equity issues to work out before the ride-booking phenomenon can aid many commuters.

“Ten percent of the households in New York City don't have access to a bank account,” King says. And he’s seen Metropolitan Transportation Authority data showing that people with lower incomes, or without bank accounts, don’t buy the unlimited MetroCards that could eventually be used as payment for ride-booking.  

“They don't have the extra money on their cards to spend on other modes [of transportation],” he adds.

When driverless cars hit the roads, both King and Anand see opportunities for hailing them as another way to get to work. But the roaming, empty cars could also lead to further congestion in some urban areas — an issue King says we can solve by charging driverless cars for road space.

“We generally don't like road tolls,” he says. “Now, they're politically unpopular. But I think that we will enjoy road tolls a little bit more when we're taxing a vehicle that's empty.”

And without a driver to pay, Anand says that hailing a ride could get cheaper overall.

“Many do believe that the cost of labor is the biggest barrier here with ride-sharing and ride-hailing,” she says. “So I mean, Uber is working on self-driving cars for a reason, right?”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Science Friday.

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