Lyft Shuttle Doesn't Reinvent the City Bus, But It May Break the Mass Transit Monopoly

A new trial from the ridesharing app could change the way mass transit works.


Thomas Hawk

Lyft is rolling out a new service, called Lyft Shuttle, that picks up and drops off passengers along a pre-designated route. As the company launches its trial runs in Chicago and San Francisco, it's attracting a lot of snarky comments that Silicon Valley bros are merely "reinventing the city bus." An article at SFGate collected a litany of Twitter quips to that effect.

At the very end, the article admits that for locals, as opposed to Twitter users scattered around the country, "there are some benefits to service." The bus whose route overlaps with the Lyft Shuttle's is "one of the busiest bus lines west of the Mississippi, [and] is frequently packed with commuters traveling between the Richmond and Western Addition to downtown." The Lyft Shuttle "may help to alleviate some stress on the Geary Street line during rush hour. At the very least, it provides riders frustrated by consistently full buses with options."

Let me repeat that very last line: "At the very least, it provides riders frustrated by consistently full buses with options."

These shuttles aren't a redundant replacement for the bus. They're new competition in a marketplace long hobbled by monopoly. Where city buses are present, Lyft offers another choice. Where city buses are absent, Lyft offers a service that had been missing entirely. In both cases, it will exert competitive pressure, possibly prompting the city to improve its own bus services.

Salon took the putdowns further, calling Lyft Shuttle not just "a glorified city bus" but "a glorified city bus—with fewer poor people." It tries to back that up by arguing that Lyft requires use of a smartphone, which poor people may not have.

There are three problems with that argument. The first is that smartphone ownership is growing tremendously across all demographics. This year, 77 percent of Americans own a smartphone, up from just 35 percent in 2011; that includes 64 percent of Americans earning under $30,000 a year. The second is that it actually is possible to hail a Lyft without a smartphone: You can do it with a web browser, including a mobile one. And 95 percent of Americans own a cell phone, smart or not; these days most of those have web browsing functions.

The third problem: You know what rely increasingly on smartphone apps and text messaging for their services? Public transit services. In Philadelphia, where I live, buses rarely offer physical schedules you can pick up. Instead you're directed to mobile services.

Some of Lyft's critics say Silicon Valley CEOs should take a bus at least once. Reading these critiques, I can't help thinking some of the critics should take a bus or two before pontificating on Lyft Shuttle.

I grew up riding the buses in Newark, and took the Number 1 to and from school every day for about three years. I still use the bus there regularly when visiting my dad. I've easily spent hundreds of hours of my life waiting for buses, and that's not unusual for lifelong city residents. It's good—it's exciting—to be able turn to an alternative option instead of waiting indefinitely. Yes, there are taxis, but they're often significantly more expensive than ridesharing companies. Services like Lyft and Uber already serve the poor by going where taxis often won't, and for less. Now they can also offer alternatives to city buses, whose services are often the worst where consumers are more poor and less politically influential.

New services like Lyft Shuttle may have another important consequence: They can help reform the regulatory environments that prevent competition to public transit from emerging. Local governments have been cracking down on jitneys, dollar vans, and other black-market alternatives to public transit for decades. The locals who run those services generally don't have the resources to fight back in city hall. Companies like Lyft do. There's always the ugly possibility that a company like Lyft will win a special carve-out for itself and leave the jitney drivers high and dry. But there's also a chance that it can roll back some of these regulations across the board, creating the space for other alternatives to thrive.

Related: Reason TV's "The Feds vs. the Chinatown Bus: The Glorious Rebirth of Bus Travel & Why the Gov't May Ruin it Again"

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  1. It’s been a long time since I’ve been on public transport, do they allow you to pay your fare directly via app like Uber/Lyft do?

    1. LOL you’re kidding right?

      1. I assumed that was the dumbest possible question. Do they even let you swipe a credit/debit card instead of buying a pass card or dropping cash in the bucket?

          1. They always hate it when I stuff a dollar bill in the slot, even when the fare is exactly $1.00

        1. Where I live it’s a swipe-card that auto-refills when it’s running low.

        2. Yes in Los Angeles there are tap cards.

          But its not enough to mitigate the ghastly experience of public transportation in LA, which has been taken over by the mentally ill.

    2. No. You can pay cash or get a rechargeable transit authority-issued swipe card.

    3. do they allow you to pay your fare directly via app like Uber/Lyft do?

      In Chicago the answer is “yes”, with too many caveats to mention here. Basically, if you take the bus once in a while and don’t need to transfer you can do it otherwise you can but you wind up paying way more. Cronies have to get paid, ya know.

    4. No, but you usually have a RFID card that you can load up with $.

    5. I imagine it varies from city to city. In Dallas, DART has their own app that you can purchase fares on and all you have to do is show the validated screen to the driver. Same thing with VIA in San Antonio.

  2. The Salon crowd might consider the possibility that the city bus NEEDS to be reinvented.

    Of course, I don’t imagine many of them actually ride city buses. That’s for the little people.

    1. Lots of Salon types live in cities like SF or NYC where riding the bus is common – but they’re also flaming leftists who believe that the bus should only charge a pauper’s fare and that everyone should suffer equally for it.

      1. It should charge the bare minimum to make those whiny market types shut up, but the taxpayers should still foot most of the bill. The idea of a self-financing government service is… distasteful.

      2. That’s only because they are too young to remember a time when private transit companies offered competitive local service are different prices. Their brains are simply too tiny to consider anything other than their exact experience.

  3. There are three problems with that argument.

    No. There are only 2.

    1 – It was made by Salon
    2 – you took it seriously.

    A third, perhaps more serious problem = why is naomi brockwell not sitting in my lap and feeding me strawberries.

  4. Funny that anyone in SF – the city where I’ve lived with by far the worst public transit I have ever experienced – would get snarky about “reinventing the bus”. I took that Geary bus every day and it was almost supernaturally unpleasant, unpredictable, overcrowded, funked up by reeking bums, you name it.

    The buses in NYC are pleasant by comparison but you know what? They still suck. Overcrowded, too many stops, too slow. Reinvent, please!

    1. I hardly ever rode that bus, but I saw plenty of them. Funny how there’d be none for 20 minutes, then five would show up in a row. I reckon that must happen in all cities, but daymmn that was funny stuff. All belching diesel fumes, grinding, slow, loud. I could walk halfway across town before a bus came, most days.

  5. >>>smartphone, which poor people may not have.

    “everybody in Cleveland low minority got obamaphone. keep obama in president, y’know?”

  6. “a glorified city bus?with fewer poor people”

    You could say the same about taxis.

  7. also, you should feature Naomi Brockwell more

    1. In fact, just replace most of the staff with videos of her dancing slowly

      1. fine by me…she’s a bucket of yum even in that Holly Hobbie dress

      2. hey btw, it *IS* the music, Leroy Hutson…

        1. i totally forgot my handle linked to that. (listens) goddamn, that’s a great record. that dude was fire.

          he’s got like dozens of things like that.

          1. i suppose the culmination here is Naomi, slowly dancing to Leroy…

    2. Would

    3. Hmm… No ring 😛

  8. Ride sharing services is the only issue that Reason has been consistent about. Clearly the most pressing issue of our era

    1. Have you forgotten FOOD TRUCKS!

  9. I await tomorrow’s post reporting that SF and Chicago have concluded that Lyft Shuttle is illegal. The city mass transit agencies and their unions aren’t going to react to this competition by trying to get better- they’ll react by trying to ban the competition.

    1. Or they’ll mandate maximum fares and union-style wages and benefits – which amounts to the same thing.

      1. Which is what killed all the private transit companies in the first place.

        1. Yes. In NYC it was against the law to charge more than 5 cents for decades, long after a time when it was possible to run a business on that fare. Today’s fare battles are essentially the same thing. It’s like totally not fair and stuff to charge more than a person in poverty can afford.

    2. And they will almost certainly succeed in that goal, at least in the short term. There’s one thing leftist cities are consistent on, and it’s automatically siding with public unions right out of the gate until the outcry becomes too loud for them to ignore.

      I’m sure that after the outcry becomes too loud, they’ll find some detail that they can hammer Lyft on with regulation that makes their service impossible while placating their people with some sort of feels-based argument on why said regulation is necessary before Lyft can operate in their domain.

  10. A number of sources stating Uber want Sheryl Sandberg as CEO. Say goodbye to that company – should be good news for Lyft.

  11. This is how mass transit should be. In Columbus our bus system goes into or out of downtown. So if 100 people want to go from one suburb to another suburb 10 miles north. They have to take at minimum a bus downtown where they don’t need to go, and then a bus from downtown back out to their destination. If course they also usually have to find away to get to and from the suburb stop of which there is often only one. Most people now work in the suburbs so this system does not work for anyone not going to go to the court house.

  12. In my neck of Chicago the transit agency whacked bus service after 11pm completely. They could have simply doubled the late-night fare on lightly-used routes or use smaller buses but that would require creative thinking. I’m not thinking Lyft is going to step in with this service in my neighborhood, but at least they sound like they would consider it instead of just dismissing the idea out of hand.

    The biggest problem with buses beyond the city core is fixed routes. Technology is now solving that problem so that you don’t even need to waste money marking bus stops anymore – but again that means a crony would be out of a job and government insists on introducing and maintaining corruption.

  13. Good job pointing out that the free market has given almost all of us cell phones, but what exactly is wrong with this service excluding poor people anyway?

    Other than the fact that the low cost alternative is run by the government. That is definitely a tragedy

    1. what exactly is wrong with this service excluding poor people anyway?

      Take your pick: It’s not fair. It’s not their fault they’re poor. It’s mean to not want to hang around them.

  14. Isn’t this what Uber Pool is already doing?

  15. One thing they do right in Latin America is that they allow everyone who can afford it to buy a bus and become a bus driver. Private buses compete with public buses, and are more flexible when it comes to destinations, routes, etc.

  16. Fantastic. This is looooooong overdue.

    When these guys figure out how to compete with Amtrak I’ll be even more impressed!

  17. This could be a godsend to places with patchwork transit systems, like here in DFW where mass transit is only available to cities that pay in. It’s not a countywide or region-wide system. I’m sure people in Arlington – for years the largest city in the US without mass transit – would love for Lyft Shuttle to set up shop there.

  18. I spend a lot of time in former USSR countries, and there are private minibuses called marshrutkas that run regular routes, and are very cheap. I’ve always wondered why this could not scale up in the USA.

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