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"