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Why Uber and Lyft Are Bad For the World

Mike Overby
Mike Overby is a software developer looking for work, host of a law review podcast called Amicus Lectio, and a moderator of Programming Discussions ( Follow me on Twitter!
・14 min read

A few days ago, my Twitter mutual, gypsy_panther (who is a delight), asked me to black pill her on why I dislike Uber and Lyft. It turned into a lengthy back-and-forth that Twitter's thread system renders impossible to read, so I'd like to immortalize it here. The chronology isn't perfect, but it couldn't be because our conversation split so much toward the end. The beginning covers the high-level practical problems they cause, then she and I debate whether or not ride-sharing's benefits to rural riders are worth those problems.

@lethargilistic, black pill me on why Uber and Lyft are bad. In the sense that their entire purpose is bad rather than "Uber is like the scummiest company to happen in the past ten years," I mean.

[Someone else says "people deserve real jobs."] Yes, but from a consumer standpoint it's filling a void—public transit not existing in areas governments have no desire to put public transit in.

Big question. Uber and Lyft are not just "filling a void." First of all, they did not invent dial-a-ride; they just used an app and didn't pay the drivers well. More importantly, they are making the "void" worse by driving down public transit ridership. They are actively, intentionally doing this, which you can see in their advertising. They know this is horrible for cities, but they sell themselves to cities as supplementary. What they are really trying to do is replace efficient transit with cars.

Driving up car traffic is bad for a huge number of reasons, but a big one that people deal with every day is the increase traffic congestion. Each car waiting for a hail is taking up space for no reason, and it's worse than taxis because taxis can stop anywhere. But probably more important is that the increase in traffic is killing people. Uber and Lyft kill people. (This is aside from that time its employees murdered a woman with a self-driving car.)

I'm focusing on a transit perspective because the way they treat their workers is another can of worms, but I will note this: Uber and Lyft incentivize the poorest to buy brand new cars and become wage slaves to pay it off. This increases overall car sales, which is also bad. Dipping into general "shitty company" territory: Uber, in fact, used to offer subprime loan programs to do this directly while gouging the driver on the other end. They canceled the program because it lost money. Uber is such a poorly run company, it couldn't profit on usury.

They're decreasing transit ridership in San Francisco. They are primarily filling a void for the world outside of San Francisco. Not everywhere Stateside does have public transit, which is an issue.

Consider the significance of what you said, though. They are decreasing transit ridership in San Francisco and areas like it, the most densely populated and transit-accessible areas. Uber and Lyft service in areas without that are directly impeding demand for those services. Public transit is very much a "build it and they will come" sort of thing. Its existence and increased service increases its own demand. If cities just approve Lyft and Uber instead of establishing and connecting transit, they kill momentum for transit because it's "solved."

But areas that aren't cities will never build public transit—especially not transit to cities and other areas. I, personally, think it's probably more important to give people in those areas the opportunity to get to a city without significant risk/expense than to make sure cities are at 100% usage of public transit, personally.

I sympathize as well, but it's more complex than that. For example, consider WHY it is that they live so far away from such unequal opportunity in the city. In a lot of cases (especially suburbs), it is a result of urban sprawl caused and facilitated by cars.

We live in a world that is the result of many, many specific choices that privileged cars over other forms of transport. It is important to remember that it did not have to be so. I go further and regard it as a long series of mistakes. So when you say that you think it's more important that less urban people have access, I say look at the real reasons they do not have that access. The solution to distance caused by cars cannot be a car service like Uber and Lyft. They profiteer on inefficiency of that system.

It didn't have to be, but it is. And I think the solution absolutely can be; it already is. Yeah, they profiteer, but if you've ever tried to get a taxi in a rural area I feel like you'd realize even Uber is drastically less profiteering than your average taxi company.

I agree taxis are too expensive, but that has to come with two huge caveats. 1) They (usually) operate with strict regulatory authority and 2) they pay their labor much better (comparatively). The real cost of an individual Uber and Lyft ride is comparable to taxis, but that cost is hidden because their investors subsidize every single ride. They do not naturally out-compete taxis on cost/convenience. Plus, with at least Uber, a lot of that money is from Saudi Arabia. All of this investment is predicated on the idea that one of the companies will come to dominate the market and be able to dictate monopolistic terms, which makes no sense and (even if it did) demands a fundamental transformation of the entire system.

Exactly! So why not allow consumers to benefit while they can while burning investor cash?

To put it sensationally, it's like saying "Juul will go out of business. Who cares if kids start vaping now?" The kids who will be addicted to nicotine, possibly forever. The social workers whose last 15 years of work on teen smoking was undone.

Nicotine isn't the same as tobacco, mind, but primarily in this case: a generation growing up in a way that they can get to an airport relatively easily no matter where they're born at is more important than people in incredibly dense areas already having access to already-meh public transit. So why not?

Because a consequentialist take like that has to believe that this one narrow consumer benefit outweighs literally all of the cons I've mentioned and the cost of rebuilding public transit after they go out of business.

I'd say it does, personally.

Frankly, I'm not sure how. Accepting Uber and Lyft is like accepting the idea that adding lanes a highway relieves traffic. We know it does not help; we know it worsens traffic; we refuse to spend the $1.6 billion wasted on adding highway lanes on expanding transit to the areas you care about.

Exactly! You can't spread public transit. It just doesn't happen. The public doesn't like it. So you've got people in cities with transit—great! But people not in cities are still completely and entirely screwed. So you can give everyone the ability to go anywhere, or you can just have people in cities with the ability to go in cities.

The cities with growing transit ridership are the ones spending money on it. As you increase service, riders follows. It's not true that people categorically dislike buses. Usually, frankly, people who dislike it usually dislike being near poor people. You can see this mentality played out with Uber's UberHop and Lyft Shuttle, which are bus services that too expensive for poor people. Because that's the other side of this: ride-sharing is NOT accessible to all. It's accessible to the wealthy and sells excluding the poor as luxury. All of the transit-chilling effects hit them hardest because they may not have other options while living in cities, let alone when they have to deal with urban sprawl.


Areas, then. The effect is not exclusive to cities. Build buses and they will come.

Public transit, again, doesn't exist or barely exists outside of cities, and ride-share is the only option in most areas. You can't build buses when the voter base doesn't want them, and it's not like they voted in favour of them before Uber came along.

You can. Pierce Transit, as much as I hate them, is an example of a private company (with significant public funding) that runs buses. Years ago, the people (very rightfully, in this specific case) voted down a tax increase that would have benefited PT. They expanded over time.

[I am wrong here. Pierce Transit is a municipally owned corporation with an elected board of commissioners serving as the trustees. From the CEO down, it acts like any other corporation.]

Pierce Transit seems to only operate in a county that's primarily filled by urban areas, though?

Maybe if you focus only on Tacoma, Olympia, and SeaTac. And, even then, it's one of those areas where going five minutes off the main path can end you up on a farm nobody realizes is there. And then there's places on the edge like Bonney Lake.

Five minutes? They wouldn't need public transit in the first place if they were that close by.

In the figure of speech sense. Also, bear in mind, I didn't say they were close to the city. I said they were close to the main roads. Very different. I grew up near Pacific Lutheran University. That is a suburb-ish place with close access to Pacific Ave (which is a highway). Without a car or buses, there is nothing of interest to do there. It's a poor-man's-gentrified wasteland.

[I didn't explain this situation to gypsy_panther because it's too complicated for Twitter, but basically Pierce Transit continued giving everybody raises and spending untold fortunes on new facilities rather than service through the Great Recession. They came to taxpayers with a $51 million shortfall, asking for their own bail-out with a threat to cut all weekend bus service if they didn't get it. This was 2011's Proposition 1. When it failed, they made deep cuts to weekend service, which has recovered, and rural service, which left the system. Pierce Transit partner Sound Transit took over Bonney Lake service in 2012, which came with a lavish park-and-ride furnished with 356 parking spaces and statues paid for by Pierce Transit. Sound Transit sends one bus there. Pierce Transit's expensive facilities habit also lead to the renovation of the Parkland Transit Center (which serves PLU) several years ago. Immediately after its completion, Pierce Transit created Route 4 and altered their service such that only one or two buses stop at the transit center. Riders are instead encouraged to use a large four-way-intersection eight blocks away that crosses a highway as the transit center, basically. Local politics leaves you the most bitter, I swear.]

And that's a suburb. A suburb will be /remarkably/ better for humans than a rural area without Uber.

Marginally, but what I'm trying to say is that the access-restricted opportunity problem is similar. The difference is that PLU does have buses nearby, and we can see the same benefits from bringing public transit to rural areas and encouraging their use. The fact that transit ridership is declining where Uber and Lyft go also demonstrates that they do draw people away who could and would choose transit to suit their needs.

You do not seem to be familiar with the voting histories of Midwestern states. Voters in rural areas don't like public transit. And it's really notsomuch a marginal difference—the suburbs are drastically more traversable than rural areas if you don't have access to a car.

I don't pretend to be, but buses are good policy. People vote against good policy all the time. While living in the Midwest, the bus offering was pitiful and I didn't ride. I traveled on a bike and Lyfted to work if late. Without Lyft, I would have just been late or corrected my sleeping.

And that's in an area where there was a bus. That's incredibly uncommon, and still has the problem of getting you somewhere outside of the area you're in.

I'm not sure why you think it's "incredibly" uncommon from your perspective. "Only" 45% of Americans don't have any access to public transportation. From my perspective, that's unacceptable, and should be addressed.

You have to be deliberately misinterpreting what I'm saying at this point, right? Half of Americans don't have access to public transit. Take out cities, and the number looks drastically different. Maybe 10% of Americans outside of cities have access to public transit. And people in these areas do not and have not historically voted in favour of public transit. So if you're in one of those areas and you want it, you're SOL. Uber, Lyft, and co. will get you to a city or an airport, though, which would be significantly more difficult without.

I'm not deliberately misinterpreting you. I think we're just coming at this from radically different backgrounds and we're not talking about the same use cases. For instance, as I acknowledged, using Uber for one-off access to city services like airports is fine. But one-off access to city services by those outside the transit network does not justify a service primarily used by people within transit networks that has numerous negative externalities like the ones I outlined at the beginning. Besides, I realize Uber sells itself as a there-and-back-again service, but I'm not sure how someone rural who is not already wealthy is supposed to afford trips to and from the city on a regular basis. If it's just a one-off trip to the airport once in a while, whatever. You do you.

Getting rid of it prevents that from being possible whatsoever, though, which is what you seem to advocate for.

It's also what you admitted was inevitable because of their business model's inherent insolvency. I mean, if you want to get at the really radical side of my thinking, the ideal end is a society where personally-owned cars are banned.

It's really not, though—another company will come along, just like them but younger, and do the same thing. This happens with search engines like every seven years. Radical thinking is fine but it's never going to change reality. And the reality is that any "Oh we need to destroy X to Save Urban Areas from Mild Inconvenience!" leaves a tonne of people without options. Get rid of Uber and Lyft and it's incredibly difficult to get anywhere—even if you're only planning on doing it once or so. Also, they do price discrimination, so it's significantly cheaper for those in rural areas than people not in them.

I'd also tackle this from the perspective that Uber's only existed for 9 years. Did they really not get around at all before then? Keep in mind that my solution is to bring them into the transit network over time and with outreach, not to abandon them to their "fate."

They had cars. For people who didn't have access to cars, they had two options: extremely overpriced taxi services that had a 30/70 chance of being within a day's walking distance to reach covered areas or staying where they were. Uber and Lyft have managed to solve this problem almost entirely.

And that situation was wrong. Uber and Lyft are profiting off of how inherently, egregiously wrong that is, not correcting its root causes. Supporting ride-share at the consequential expense of transit is to further condemn those people to that inequality.

It's not at the expense of anything because it never would have happened in the first place. They're profiting while making it viable for people to leave. They aren't condemning. They're just allowing them another option.

Uber and Lyft consequently and cumulatively decrease transit ridership while worsening traffic. It is at the expense of everyone who uses roads. It's not just about these rural people, with whom I sympathize.

It's not at the expense of everyone who uses roads—it's at the expense of some people who use roads. Not nearly all. Most roads are empty most of the time!

I think this is the same misconception as my 45% statistic. Most roads people use are getting used. Most roads to critical services rural people want are roads getting used. The closer you get to those services, the more the roads are being used, the worse an extra car becomes.

I'll be callous and turn this around, though: if your reason for preserving ride-share is to support rural people—if they are the primary users to you—shouldn't price discrimination work against their favor? They have the most inelastic demand and bear the fewest traffic costs. This is essentially a demand that people in the city just deal with the increased traffic, deaths, car sales, decreased transit ridership, and wage slavery so some other people who have been failed by their local governments have access to city services.

People in cities make more money! So you can charge them more, because they still want to buy it. They're subsidizing people in rural areas, which is the smartest thing to do!

The money they make is not the only factor. What about the extra deaths? What about the extra time spent in traffic? What about the confirmation of the ride-share "gig economy" that keeps people poor? These are all costs overwhelmingly concentrated in and paid by urban people.

1000 deaths a year is nothing for your average city, though. And price discrimination isn't solely "Where do you live?" Uber and Lyft, for example, both experiment to see what income level you're at.

[The chronology of the discussion becomes too difficult to enforce good order on towards the end, so the deaths comparison is not the last thing we wrote to each other. She did not say that and then cut off the chat.]

This isn't going to be a nearly productive conversation.

I thought it was fun. You asked for an explanation of why I think Uber is bad, not for me to magically change your mind about this related urban/rural dichotomy that you clearly care about. Mind if I spin this into a blog post later?

I wanted a black pill on them—I thought there was a reason you were hating them that I hadn't heard about, but I've heard about all of those things. Absolutely don't mind—why would I? It's your blog, and Thoughts Aren't Property, etc, so no need to ask.

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