[By Paul Goddin for Mobility Lab, published on June 11, 2014]
The first day of the two-day Innovation in Mobility Public Policy Summit in Washington D.C. was “bike heavy,” according to one participant.
With the conversation clearly revolving around bikesharing systems, participants and speakers had to dance around the subject on many people’s minds: Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar – the transportation network companies (TNCs) everyone either loves or loves to hate.
Day two corrected that disparity, with a lively conversation moderated by Mobility Lab Managing Director Howard Jennings called “A Match Made in Heaven? How Can Local Governments and Shared-Use Operators Work Together to Promote Innovative Transportation Modes?”
Jennings began the discussion by stating, “The marriage of transportation demand management and shared-use mobility has us on the cusp of a breakthrough in transportation” – one that will be “transformational.”
Public-private partnerships will be key in this breakthrough, according to Sam Zimbabwe of the D.C. Department of Transportation. Regarding such partnerships, however, it appears that Uber may not find them necessary. The company, with a market valuation of $17 billion, declined to participate in the summit.
Uber and Sidecar, according to conference organizer Jason Pavluchuk, “don’t want to play.” Lyft did have a representative present at the conference. Uber, a 300-pound gorilla, possibly thinks its size means it doesn’t need to participate with local governments. It has said that it will defy a Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles order that the company cease operations in the state, and some insiders feel its size and market valuation mean it will succeed.
Zimbabwe said regarding TNCs, “We don’t exactly know how to regulate them.” Timothy Papandreou of San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency said that inefficiencies in the current taxicab system equate to about $60 billion in potential revenues for these companies in the largest U.S. urban markets. The term “disruptive technology” may be an understatement.
Sean O’Sullivan, the CEO of Carma, pulled no punches in attacking Uber and its ilk. He referred to the companies as “neo-taxis,” and called the companies’ use of the term “rideshare” as “deceitful, duplicitous, and damaging” to actual ridesharing companies such as his. Carma operates in four cities: Austin, Texas; Bergen, Norway; Sonoma, California; and Cork, Ireland. Regarding his relatively small market penetration, O’Sullivan said, “Our focus is to nail it before we scale it.”
Jennings finished the TNC discussion with a question, “Is it important to be confusing? Is there a public good in that?”
To her credit, Lyft spokeswoman Emily Castor addressed the audience, defending her company’s use of the “rideshare” term as historical (Lyft was initially an actual rideshare company called Zimride), and as exacerbated by the media. Furthermore, Castor said that a portion of Lyft’s trips are legitimate rideshares.
Finally, Jennings said that TNCs may be positively affecting congestion and vehicle miles traveled (VMTs), but we need more research and data to determine the overall effects the companies are having on “moving people instead of cars.”
Photo by Steve Rhodes