Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Dear Austin: Smart Cities Are Only As Smart as Cities Act

I read an article today explaining that Austin, Texas, capital of my favorite state in the U.S. of A., shouldn't blame it's having driven out Uber and Lyft for it's failure to win the considerable federal funding represented by the "Smart Cities" Challenge grant. Once again, my friends on the left, bow down to a conventional wisdom about transportation that is dictated by the ideology of progressivism rather than to pragmatic problem-solving of a serious issue. Decisions made in deference to this hallowed political viewpoint must not ever be blamed for the failures of the system it has created. Therefore, Austin's failure to win all that progressive government money is not due to any fault of their ideology, at least according to the anti-Uber crowd.

Primarily the article was about deflecting the charge that Austin's onerous regulation of the two ride-share companies, Uber and Lyft, and their subsequent departure, had something to do with Austin's failure to win the DOT's Smart Cities Challenge - $50 million in federal and private funding pledges for smart city infrastructure investments. Apparently some progressive wags considered Austin something of a shoe-in for that cash, given the sheer "progressiveness" of the city. Such criticism is dismissed as coming from a technologically and economically advantaged elite who use Uber as a kind of upper class taxi service, ostensibly unavailable to the peon class if I read the sneering tone correctly.

Austin (and Houston and parts of the Rio Grande Valley) are where we keep our liberal Democrats, progressive socialists and communists in Texas. We like to keep them bunched up together where we can keep an eye on them. As they are drawn to cities anyway, Austin and Houston were natural corrals. Unfortunately, they've taken to invading Dallas lately and we may have to fence that off for them too. It's a little early to tell.

At any rate, what chapped me about the article was the attempt by the writer to characterize Uber and Lyft as elitist modes of transportation. What a load of balderdash!  The reporter describes Uber and Lyft as the other side of a supposed digital divide where those who can afford on-demand transportation options like Uber and Lyft.are supposedly some sort of privileged technology elite. Dude, I'm officially a member of the below-the-poverty line class and I couldn't get along without Uber. Thanks to Uber, we can manage on our limited budget without undue stress like walking 4 miles to the pharmacy and back on bad knees twice a month.

I'd like to challenge my liberal colleagues in the public transportation advocacy racket on that perception and ask them to reconsider the role of Uber and Lyft in an integrated strategy for public transit.  I can do this from a unique position being myself a transportation challenged person.

My wife is fully disabled and cannot be left unattended while I run off to a traditional out-of-the home job.
So I am forced to work from home (as a writer as it turns out). It's early in my career and not particularly lucrative yet. I live in Western Washington State thanks to a brilliant series of stupid decisions I was more or less forced to make in the interests of survival.  We live in South Hill, a suburb south of Seattle and east of Tacoma. When I came here I was told the Seattle-Tacoma area had perhaps the finest public transportation system in the world. I tried to use it. I really did. I spent hours walking between my home and wherever the bus decided to drop me instead of working at my home office. Shopping for the simplest thing or picking up medications became a daylong affair. We found a low cost garage apartment in a safe neighborhood and with rent and utilities and regular visits to the food bank, we are muddling along. Unfortunately, it is 3 miles from the nearest bus stop. This was the only decent place we could find or afford on our limited income. We are ineligible for paratransit pickup here because of our distance from the bus line, though we were approved based on income (or lack thereof). The lady at the bus company suggested we walk 4 miles to the public library to meet the paratransit bus. Did I mention we are 3 miles from a bus stop? So that "option" was nearly worthless given my wife's condition and my damaged knee.

We had been doing our monthly shopping trip all on one day for a while. I'd ride my bike to the bus stop or walk and take the bus to Walmart, buy our groceries and take a cab ride home at a cost of $20 to $30 one way. The wait for a taxi was anywhere from 1 to 3 hours. The drivers tended to be from central and east African countries and difficult to understand, English not being their primary language. The last two time we took a taxi, the driver shouted at some woman on his cell phone in Farsi all the way home. My wife nearly had a panic attack. She said it felt like being abducted by terrorists.

So, for the cost of just one cab ride, I invested in a smart phone with a prepaid cell phone company and downloaded Uber.
We are not among the technologically advanced elites of the city. We are an older couple, facing disability and on a thoroughly fixed income. We cannot afford a car, insurance and fuel on our very limited budget. I'm saving up for an electric bicycle as a way to handle small errands without having a heart attack on the very steep hills I have to ride on, but even that is a long way off at the rate I'm going.

I was wonderfully surprised by my experience with Uber.
The cars were clean and the drivers friendly to a fault. I've never waited longer than 17 minutes for an Uber car. They give you a choice of sizes of vehicles even. You can get a small car, a mid-sized or a van or limo. With the cab company you got whatever they sent and sometimes they sent the drivers to the wrong cities. I once walked 4 miles to the pharmacy in order to get there before it closed because my taxi took two hours to respond and finally cancelled my trip. I couldn't wait anymore, so I walked.

And my Uber ride costs, in most cases, significantly less than a taxi ride and I give them a substantial tip every time because they are such lovely people. And no, they aren't all white or born in the United States, so before you draw the race card, don't! Uber drivers are, however, very nice people. I've never met an unpleasant Uber driver. Of course, passengers rate their drivers on a star system whenever they finish their rides, so that probably makes a difference. I've never given less than 5 stars. The drivers tend to be seniors making a little extra money, students using the job to pay for their cars and housewives picking up some money while their kids are at school. I have never had a bad ride with Uber. The cab company was 50/50 so far as the quality of the experience goes.

As a source of both transportation and employment for people in the lower middle class/upper lower class income brackets, Uber is a godsend.
I haven't ever ridden Lyft, but I hear good things about them too. A lot of young people, a group that will spend it's food money for a smart phone, don't buy cars anymore because Uber is affordable and reliable and safe. Young people are high-income folk by and large and for them Uber and Lyft aren't a luxury. They are a part of their strategy for getting around town.

When I was doing transportation advocacy full tilt, I always thought the idea was to get people affordable rides to where they needed to go as economically as possible. I didn't know it also had to fit a certain transit ideology. It didn't take long for me to discover that, for many of my colleagues, expanding public transportation was part of a larger political strategy. In that strategy, free market solutions like Uber and Lyft are not welcome apparently.

The thing is though, that Uber and Lyft meet a critical public transportation need that buses, trains and taxis do not. Yeah, I know it's hard on the cab companies to compete with an innovative alternative to a slow, inefficient, but well-armored transportation dinosaur like the taxicab. In protecting their turf, it turns out, the cab companies kind of sewed the seeds of their own demise. Uber's system, with which I have direct experience, is ingenious. It's fast. It uses technology brilliantly. It maximizes driver profits, customer convenience and isn't limited as to service area or range unless short-sighted cities like Austin drive them away. Feedback is two-way between customer and driver. The Uber/Lyft system answers problems in the areas of both transportation and employment for people living on the ragged edge between middle class and poverty, a much-ignored group when leftist ideology considers how to redistribute wealth.

Having an affordable way to get to town is the difference for many of us on fixed incomes between being able to muddle along on our own and being dependent on government welfare. If you work, thanks to Uber you can still get along without a car even if you aren't on a bus line. You can set up a regular ride to work arrangement that gets you to work on time and with remarkable consistency. Every driver is an entrepreneur and works whatever hours he or she wishes and wherever they choose to work.

And yes, drivers may avoid certain neighborhoods that are high risk. They do so of their own choosing. Even those brave souls that choose to work more dangerous neighborhoods have the added safety factor that the company has all the contact information and the debit/credit card number of whoever they pick up. My driver sees my picture when I post for a ride and I see his picture, his car's picture and license plate number show up on my phone before she gets there. It's a wonderful system. If my driver gets lost, she calls me. I always give them a nice tip, and even with the extra tip, the trip cost with my Uber driver is a little more than half what I'd pay a taxi cab for slower, less pleasant service.  I know several local drivers personally now and they grab my pickup request quickly. They get a reliable tip and I get a nice pleasant ride with someone I know and trust.

To eliminate Uber and Lyft from Austin may not have cost them the Smart Cities grant, but it certainly revealed them for a not-so-smart city. Austin has a large tech-savvy population that, had Uber and Lyft been available to them, might just have either not bought cars or left them parked and as I remember, traffic was fast becoming a problem in Austin. The flexibility of Uber could easily have allowed Uber drivers to create regular group ride-share commutes, reduce dead-heading drives by single drivers and vastly reduce the number of drunk drivers on the roads by making ride homes and the next day's ride back to get your car more affordable and encouraged a few more folk to not take the chance.

Austin, which prides itself on being an open, free-wheeling sort of culture, has successfully eliminated the open, free-wheeling sort of transportation option from Austin's famous city limits.
Too bad too, but what do you expect when you bunch up that many ideological liberals in one place.

Just sayin'

Tom King © 2016

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