Uber and other transportation network companies (TNC) have faced criticism about causing congestion. One popular suggestion has been to stick these TNCs with fees and caps, an idea that I think is misguided. This idea effectively copies the antiquated system once applied to taxis - such as medallion limits - which harmed drivers and consumers alike. The better proposal is to apply broad-based congestion pricing, thereby pricing auto traffic, and encouraging a faster move towards shared-ride trips. And there is an even more specific way this can be done: letting TNCs pay to use bus lanes.
Bus lanes are increasingly popular among mobility advocates. They’re cheap to implement, and can be brought on line quickly. They take buses out of mixed traffic, giving transit a speed advantage that it needs to attract riders. They make it possible to consolidate stops in dense areas, allowing for investments in shelter, countdown information, and other amenities. However, at off-peak times, when headways drop, they risk going underutilized and carry fewer riders. Political demands increase to open these lanes to general traffic, out of the perception that they hog travel corridors for minimal throughput.
One option, then, is to open the lanes to high-occupancy vehicles, including taxis, app-hail rides, and other TNC models. The provider would be charged a fee based on bus throughput, allowing riders to bypass traffic in exchange for sharing a ride with other passengers. A minimum number of passengers would have to be established, which would vary based on time of day. The purpose of the minimum passenger number is to counteract the obvious drawbacks of this proposal: the risks of inducing demand that would eat up the speed advantages, and of cannibalizing bus passengers with various Uber trips. To further counter the second dilemma, only buses would be allowed to idle in the lanes waiting for passengers; all other vehicles would need to board and alight passengers outside of the lane (perhaps the policy could be combined with fee-based side-street dropoff zones, an idea Scott mentioned recently on the MUR Facebook group).
It’s possible that at rush hour, the lanes would need to be limited to buses, and perhaps not every bus lane would be eligible. In many ways, though, my idea would not be new: it converts bus lanes to high-occupancy vehicle lanes across the board.
Some would argue that sufficient bus throughput would minimize demand for smaller vehicles. In reality, though, my idea allows for passengers who are not conveniently served by bus routes to have access to bus lanes. This makes bus lanes a more viable prospect in smaller cities where origins and destinations are more dispersed, by increasing the rider base. Further, access shouldn’t be limited to taxis or TNC rides. Vanpool services and private buses should be allowed to use these lanes as well.
The revenue from the fee could be used to cover maintenance of the lane, but also general transit improvements. Mitigating congestion is a priority for cities. The flexibility enabled by rideshare apps has improved mobility, but comes with this negative externality of congestion. Solutions such as mine do not throw the baby out with the bathwater, but leverage the best aspects of both rideshare and transit to keep cities moving.