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Lyft Reinvents the Bus

Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Ride-share companies like Uber and Lyft have, to put it mildly, changed urban transportation. Now, in cities where hailing or calling for a taxi was once an arduous affair, you can simply press a button for a simple, (usually) cheap ride.

At the same time, the quality of public transportation in most U.S. cities — New York and Washington, D.C., in particular — has steadily degraded. This is essentially an unreserved good for ride-share companies, which offer a semi-affordable, hugely convenient alternative to the eternally delayed C train. Sure, the business model might be unsustainable without continuous infusions of investor billions, and sure, they might treat their drivers like crap, but the clear consensus is that it doesn’t really bother users in the short term.

But as these companies move toward an exciting and, they hope, profitable future (driverless cars! Maybe!), they’ve also started to manufacture new innovations out of thin air. Take, for instance, the new Lyft Shuttle service. I’m just gonna describe it to you, lemme know what you think.

Lyft Shuttle lets you pay a fixed rate along predetermined routes during commute hours. The routes have set pickup and drop-off locations. They will only stop at predetermined locations, not just anywhere. You select the shuttle option; walk to meet your driver; they drive you for a bit; then when they let you out, you walk the rest of the way to your final location. Walk to stop. Hop in. Hop out. Walk to destination, the company’s site reads.

Here’s the thing: That’s a bus. I mean, yeah, you’re riding in someone’s car instead of a large bus, but it’s a bus. It’s a bus! And yet, Lyft cannot bring itself to use the word “bus” anywhere in its promotion (because it doesn’t want you to think you’re taking a bus). So let’s be clear: You’re taking an expensive bus — one that people without smartphones or credit cards are excluded from — and gradually hollowing out your city’s public transit system. So far, Lyft’s “shuttle” is only available in San Francisco.

And while Lyft’s is the more egregious buslike option, Uber is not without fault. The company also introduced a new routing mechanism for Uber Pool, which requires users to meet their drivers at an intersection or main drag, rather than having them make more circuitous door-to-door trips. On the one hand, it saves drivers time, riders money, and less idling is better for the environment. On the other hand, you could also walk to the bus stop. Just my opinion.

Venture capitalist Benedict Evans implies on Twitter that this position — that Lyft’s bus is, in fact, a bus — is a hopeless, Luddite failure of imagination:

Evans is not wrong that autonomous driving could revolutionize transportation in ways that we can’t predict. But “autonomous driving” is the technological breakthrough there, not “a fixed-rate multi-passenger shuttle service operating along a specific route.” (Autonomous driving is also a decade out from mass adoption by even the most optimistic judgment.) To spell it out for the tech crowd, what is annoying about Lyft’s new project, to those of us who ride buses, is that it describes and re-creates an underfunded and underappreciated public service as a revolutionary new endeavor. No one doubts that autonomous driving, if and when it actually arrives, will change how buses are operated. But that would happen regardless of Lyft’s invention, or reinvention, of the bus.

Let’s go through the telltale signs that you might be riding a bus or buslike vehicle:

- You meet the vehicle at a fixed location
- It drops you off at a fixed location
- It picks up other people at fixed locations along a predetermined route

That’s a bus, funneling money away from public infrastructure and toward private enterprise, so young, tech-savvy urbanites don’t have to briefly share space with the lower class. Enjoy your dumb bus.

Lyft Reinvents the Bus