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How secure is the future of ridesharing?

Just a couple of recent stories that got me thinking. Item One:

Uber’s business model isn’t all there: While there’s optimism about elements of the core business, the company lost more than $3 billion on operations in 2018, revenue growth slowed between Q3 and Q4, and there’s a possibility that the company might continue to offer big incentive payments to drivers for quite some time and never reach profitability.

But one detail in particular caught my eye. About 24 percent of Uber’s bookings—all the money that customers pay through the app and in cash, including driver earnings—occur in just five cities: New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, and São Paulo.

[…]

This vulnerability casts a new light on, for example, Uber’s 2015 humiliation of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, when the company fought off the City Council’s proposed vehicle cap. That was a warning to other politicians, and a show of power, but it was also a vital business move. The company’s filing also mentions, as a cautionary tale, what happened afterward: Just three years later, the City Council approved minimum rates for drivers and a cap on the number of new ride-hail vehicles. The company also mentions its regulatory challenges in London and San Francisco.

During Uber’s previous skirmishes with cities, I always thought the company’s huge reach and light footprint (very few local employees or inventory) gave them a lot of leverage. They could afford to play hardball with Austin, Texas, one week and San Antonio the next, with little impact on a business distributed so widely.

The filing reveals that certain cities actually have a pretty strong negotiating position. So do the company’s drivers in those places. And its rivals. What appears to be a global, decentralized platform is in fact highly dependent on the whims of a few local politicians, drivers’ groups, and taxi cab unions that can engineer big chokepoints for the company—as London Mayor Sadiq Khan must have done when he revoked the company’s license in 2017. (They got it back last year.)

Another example of the company’s vulnerability by concentration: 15 percent of the bookings pot comes from trips that begin or end at an airport. That might not be so surprising, since airports tend to be cab trips even for car commuters, and being a long way from town, produce high fares. But airports offer a preview of the changing municipal economics that could be coming for Uber. The airport in Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, made more money in 2017 from parking fees than it did from American Airlines. Parking accounted for more than a quarter of the airport’s revenue. As passengers shift to ride-hailing, airport revenues are declining. Airports are an easy place where public authorities can implement a fee on Uber rides to make up for the lost revenue.

That same dynamic is set to play out in cities as well. Congestion pricing, which will soon exist in two of Uber’s biggest markets (New York and London), is just the first way that governments are exerting more fine-grained control over how cities raise money from automobile use.

So Uber continues to burn through money with no end in sight, and is particularly vulnerable to the regulatory whims of a handful of large cities. Hold that thought as we look at Item Two:

Lyft’s initial public offering headache just got worse.

Bloomberg reported Wednesday that following Lyft’s initial public offering, which didn’t exactly go super well, the company is now looking at two separate lawsuits from its investors. At the time the company went public last month, Lyft’s shares were initially priced at $72. But shortly after, its share price began to fall—and kept falling—with the company at $58.36 as of Thursday.

According to Bloomberg, investors allege in their suits—both of which were filed in state court in San Francisco—that Lyft’s claim to 39 percent market share was maybe not quite in line with reality.

The suits also reportedly faulted the company for failing to alert investors ahead of its recent electric bike recall, yet another problem facing the company at present (aside, of course, from ongoing controversy over Lyft’s labor practices).

Lyft, which also loses money hand over fist, had a disappointing IPO and is dealing with shareholder lawsuits and problems with their bike-related subsidiaries. They would also face the same potential regulatory challenges as Uber.

My thought in reading these stories is that the future of urban transportation is increasingly being sold as ridesharing powered by autonomous vehicles. We should be wary about investing in big transit projects because 10 or 20 years from now we’re all going to be taking robot-powered Ubers. But what if Uber and Lyft fail as companies before we get there? What if a combination of technology challenges, cash flow problems, regulatory roadblocks, and competition from other interests stop them in their tracks? Maybe light rail will be seen as as white elephant in twenty or thirty years, but right now our existing light rail lines move tens of thousands of people around every day; in a different political climate, that number would be much higher.

If Uber and Lyft do fail, it is very likely that some other companies will spring up to fill in the gap. Driverless car technology is moving forward relentlessly, regardless of what its ultimate applications may be. Autonomous vehicles are going to be in the transit mix going forward, in some form and with some corporations behind it. I just remain wary of the bold predictions, and I remain convinced that we need to continue investing in things that we already know will work.

How does a 25 MPH speed limit for downtown Houston grab you?

Christopher Andrews makes the case in Gray Matters:

Does anyone know the speed limit in downtown Houston? Probably not. Casual observation shows speeds there normally range anywhere from gridlock to Gran Prix.

I don’t believe there are any speed-limit signs. But there is a speed limit. And no, it’s not “however fast you can drive between lights.” According to Section 45-91 of the City of Houston Code of Ordinances, in the absence of speed-limit signs, the speed limit is 30 miles per hour, just like any other local street in our city.

Until recently, 30 mph was also the local speed limit in New York City. But on November 7, New York City’s speed limits dropped to 25 mph, unless posted otherwise. This was part of New York’s Vision Zero initiative aimed ending traffic deaths and injuries — including the deaths and injuries of pedestrians.

[…]

It’s easy to make the case that Houston needs to slow down. Recent studies show that among large cities, Houston ranks above average for bicycle and pedestrian deaths, and that our average number of such deaths has risen. As Houston grows denser, and as more people choose to walk or bike here, that danger will naturally grow. Complete Streets — those new-style streets built with pedestrian-friendly wide sidewalks, street trees and other amenities — are great. But they’re not safe when drivers speed right through them.

Andrews’ original post is here. He references this Vox post about New York City’s Vision Zero initiative and the experience of London, which has lowered speed limits in some parts of town and seen a significant drop in accidents and fatalities as a result. This idea of lower municipal speed limits has an advocate in San Antonio, which I noted here. Another idea that has been proposed here for increasing pedestrian and bicyclist safety is Neighborhood Greenways, which aims to leverage side streets as a way of connecting neighborhoods to off-road hike and bike trails. That idea would be a complement to lower speed limits, not an alternative to them, so doing both is an option as well. Yet a third idea is making lane widths narrower. Michael Skelly advocated for that in a recent op-ed.

Every few years, the city of Houston revises its “Infrastructure Design Manual” to make sure it’s up to date. Public Works is reviewing its current standard of 12 foot-wide lanes. It’s time to put to work the free lessons being learned around the country and reduce the standard lane width to 10 feet.

You’d think that there’s not a lot new in road design – but you’d be wrong. Over the past decade, cities have figured out that one of the smartest things we can do is narrow traffic lanes – often from 12 feet to 10 feet. Reducing lane width reduces road fatalities, makes cities more walkable, saves precious real estate and gets us more bang for our limited tax dollars.

Cities like Chicago have figured out that drivers don’t respond to posted speed limits, but rather to conditions around them. The most effective way to influence driver behavior is by modifying those conditions.

When faced with a wide-open road, even if it’s in urban Midtown, drivers hit the gas. When conditions are more complicated, as when other cars are close by, cars are parallel-parked and pedestrians are out and about, studies show that drivers naturally slow down. You can see this difference yourself next time you find yourself driving quickly down Travis through Midtown or easing off the gas on Heights Boulevard. The former is treated like a speedway by most drivers, and the latter has slower, more cautious traffic. Lower speeds mean fewer, less deadly accidents. Speed matters. Pedestrians hit by a car going 30 mph vs. 20 mph are seven to 10 times more likely to die. The severity of automobile accidents increases dramatically with increases in speed.

There is simply no need for outsized 12-foot lanes. The iconic Texas Suburban has actually shrunk from 79.6 inches in width in 1973 to 79.1 inches today. Buses are wide, but cities around the country manage just fine with 10-foot lanes. And let’s not forget that for a bus system to work, we need safe sidewalks and a walkable environment to allow folks to walk safely to the bus stop.

I can’t say that I’d expect any lower speed limit proposal to be popular in Houston, at least at first, but all of these ideas deserve consideration. There’s a petition in support of ten-foot lanes, if you want to sign it. What do you think?

Bike sharing in London

Write On Metro notes the one-year anniversary of London’s bike sharing program.

In London’s first year of operating a bike-share program, it has proven so popular that riders can’t always find a bike, and when they finish their trip, often can’t find a docking station.

The program, Barclays Cycle Hire, has 6,000 bikes at docking stations throughout London, which users can unlock with a credit or debit card. The first 30 minutes are free to encourage short trips. Stats for the first year: 6 million trips, 12 thefts and fewer than 100 accidents, reports Transit Wire.

That latter link points to this Guardian story, which notes some of the successes and complaints about this program:

When Barclays Cycle Hire, London’s newest mass transit initiative, celebrates its first birthday at the end of the month, its unmistakable bicycles will have crisscrossed the capital 6 million times. If the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, wanted to raise the profile of cycling then he has certainly succeeded – from the title sequence of The Apprentice to an endorsement from Arnold Schwarzenegger (“You can eat a few extra Wiener schnitzel and get away with it”), the so-called “Boris bikes” are impossible to miss. But has the scheme made a substantive difference to the lives of Londoners?

[…]

Not everyone has retained their affection for the scheme. “It is a very good idea but in practice it is unusable,” says Stephen Bayley, who was jury chair of the 2011 Brit Insurance Design awards, which actually gave Barclays Cycle Hire the transport prize. “I used it from nearly day one, but I gave up about three months ago when I had to go to nine different docking stations before I could park my bike, which took over an hour. It’s not a reliable transit system for working people, it’s an amusing curiosity for tourists.”

This is a recurring complaint. The bikes make 20,000 journeys a day, but in a relentlessly predictable pattern, with huge spikes during the morning rush hour at the major rail stations and then again, in reverse, as commuters dash back to catch their evening trains. The largest terminal, at Waterloo station, can house 126 bikes, but [Transport For London] admits it could have five times as many and still not satisfy demand. More frustrating, as Bayley discovered, is when you successfully hire a bike but cannot find a place to return it at your destination.

On a tour of the nerve centre for Barclays Cycle Hire, near King’s Cross, I raise the issue with Kulveer Ranger, Boris Johnson’s director of environment and digital London. “It’s true,” he says. “We can’t guarantee that you will be able to find a bike or be able to dock it. The bus network can carry 6.5 million people a day, the tube 4.5 million, but there are only a few thousand bikes, so not all Londoners are going to get them when they want them. If you have to make an urgent meeting, you’ve got to think, ‘This scheme does not do it for me.’ But it does work when I’m relaxed and I want to make a journey.”

Ranger can point to some notable successes, not least the fact that there have been fewer than 100 accidents and none of them serious. But a residual concern remains who is using the scheme: overwhelmingly white men aged between 25 and 44, many of whom earn more than £50,000 a year. For a scheme that has already cost £79m, with a further £45m for the extension to cover the Olympic Park next year, can we really justify this “posh-boy toy”? “If you look at the normal demographic for cycling, it’s exactly the same,” says Ranger. “But that will change as we move into year two or three and we see people getting comfortable with it.”

Worth keeping in mind, but I think that’s much less likely to be an issue in Houston, since we don’t have anything like London’s rail stations; Park and Ride buses from the suburbs are the closest equivalent, and they’re much lower volume and tend to take people right to their offices. Still, if peak demand far exceeds average demand, you’re going to have a problem with bike supply.

Quite a few American cities are getting on board with the bike sharing idea:

Last year, Washington, Chicago, Miami Beach, Denver and Des Moines, Iowa started bike-sharing programs. Boston and New York are scheduled to start programs later this summer.

Washington’s Capital Bikeshare, launched last September, has more than 1,100 bikes and 118 stations. So far, 500,000 rides have been logged. Capital Bikeshare was partially funded with a $4.8 million grant from the Department of Transportation, reports the Seattle Times.

Nice Ride in Minneapolis began last June and now has 700 bikes and more than 70 stations with more than 100,000 trips recorded in its first year. The city credits its success to the nature of the trips; 40 percent are city trips, which are less than three miles.

Add to that San Antonio, with Austin and Houston to follow. According to this story, after three months San Antonio’s B-Cycle program had 733 members who had totaled over 32,000 miles riding; it doesn’t say how many total trips were taken. It’s gotten both positive and not-so-positive reviews so far. Houston should be able to draw from a lot of other experiences when it rolls out its pilot program this August.

Mattress Mack is watching you

Be sure to smile for the cameras if you visit the Westchase District.

A West Houston nonprofit group on Tuesday applied for city permission to install the first of a dozen security cameras it plans to purchase to reduce crime in the affluent neighborhood.

Images from the cameras will be fed to the Houston Police Department as part of an ongoing city initiative to assemble a network of hundreds of security cameras to monitor public streets, stadiums, freeways and the Port of Houston.

Calling it a prime example of a private-public partnership for public safety, HPD Assistant Chief Vickie King said the westside initiative is allowed by city ordinance.

“Communities who want to install cameras that capture movements on the public right of way may do so, so long as private property is shielded from view,” she said.

The proposed camera system was introduced Tuesday by Houston businessman Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale and his wife, Linda, who live in an apartment at the Westside Tennis and Fitness Center, which they own. McIngvale said he became a fan of camera-surveillance technology because it quickly ended auto thefts and burglaries after he installed them at his furniture business.

“Police are stretched on their budgets, so it’s something we wanted to do as merchants,” said McIngvale, a member of the nonprofit Operation Westside Success, which is raising money for the system. “We’ve got a big economic stake in this, and it’s up to us to make our neighborhoods better.”

Dennis Storemski, director of the Mayor’s Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security, said the city has 25 surveillance cameras in the central business district and is using federal grants to tie into state highway-department cameras on Houston freeways, as well as cameras monitoring the Houston Ship Channel and port facilities.

Yes, I remember when the existing downtown cameras became more ubiquitous. At the time, the goal was given as crime reduction as well as better response to emergency calls. While the former is clearly a goal of the Westchase cameras, it’s interesting to note that wasn’t mentioned here as a function of the downtown cameras. Not sure if that reflects an official shift or just the vagaries of editing, but I thought it was worth pointing out. I also rememher that some folks got all freaked out by the downtown cameras, which were an initiative of HPD Chief Harold Hurtt, who is not mentioned in this story. I wonder if there will be a similar reaction to this.

James Murphy, general manager of the Westchase District, said cameras the improvement district installed on private property outside restaurants and shopping malls led to a dramatic reduction in crime.

“We have 11 cameras we’re using, and it’s fantastic,” Murphy said. “We’ve reduced parking-lot crime in those locations 70 percent on average, and in some areas more. We’re talking about auto theft, auto break-ins and robberies.”

Somewhat serendipitously, this story appeared a day after this one, about a study on the CCTV cameras in London.

The use of closed-circuit television in city and town centres and public housing estates does not have a significant effect on crime, according to Home Office-funded research to be distributed to all police forces in England and Wales this summer.

The review of 44 research studies on CCTV schemes by the Campbell Collaboration found that they do have a modest impact on crime overall but are at their most effective in cutting vehicle crime in car parks, especially when used alongside improved lighting and the introduction of security guards.

That seems to jibe with the Westchase experience. As long as they don’t see the cameras as a panacea, they ought to get some benefit from them. Thanks to Grits for the link.