Karlin Lillington: Are app ride services taking us in the right direction?

The likes of Uber and Lyft have created major congestion headaches for airports

When I investigated my  choices for a journey to San Francisco airport, app services like Uber were significantly more expensive  than my past costs for a shared shuttle. Photograph: Getty Images

When I investigated my choices for a journey to San Francisco airport, app services like Uber were significantly more expensive than my past costs for a shared shuttle. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Last December, needing to travel the 30 miles from my mother’s place to the airport in San Francisco, I did what I have done for years: booked a rideshare journey with the van transport company SuperShuttle.

Little did I know that it would, alas, be my final SuperShuttle journey. Weeks later the company announced it would cease operations, in large part due to the challenges of competing with ride app companies such as Uber and Lyft.

Yet for many people looking for transport options, those services do not offer a like-for-like alternative.

When I investigated my own choices for a journey to San Francisco airport, app services like Uber were significantly more expensive – verging on at least double, and often more – than my past costs for a shared shuttle.

The app ride services also have created headaches for airports, primarily massive traffic congestion created when hundreds of solo vehicles jam the curbs to drop people off or – even more problematical – circulate around and around trying to find a passenger they do not know as waiting passengers try to spot a specific licence plate. This is considerably more chaotic than a taxi queue.

I saw the scale of the problem when I returned to San Francisco in January. I was waiting for a hotel transport bus at the outer curb of the airport’s international terminal, where app drivers are now also allowed to drop and collect their passengers.

I’ve gone in and out of that terminal for decades and have never seen anything like the snarled congestion caused by a solid, creeping (or just as often, stalled) stream of cars with their identifying Uber, Lyft or other ride app window stickers.

A solo traffic officer managing hundreds of metres of road space tried to force the sclerotic flow to keep moving, but every time he was looking another way, app drivers halted and searched for their passengers, or even stopped and allowed them to load luggage and climb in mid-road. The app drivers created a traffic jam that stretched back as far as I could see.

Pick-up area

In July, San Francisco’s airport director Ivar Satero told officials that during the first 20 minutes of peak Sunday evening travel periods, often between 1,000 and 1,200 Uber and Lyft drivers flood the airport and jam the designated ride app pick-up area for the domestic terminals.

Drivers back up onto the nearby highway 101. Another pick-up entrance/exit has since had to be opened.

The main Los Angeles airport, LAX, has also been trying to determine how to cope with ride app vehicles. According to airport officials, Uber and Lyft drivers comprise 27 per cent of LAX vehicle traffic (taxis now make up just 4 per cent of the 100,000 cars a day arriving at the airport). Taxis have been so decimated by ride apps that the city of San Francisco hasn’t sold a taxi operator medallion in four years, according to radio station KQED.

When LAX app drivers were allowed to approach curb areas, they created traffic jams that caused an average one hour wait for passengers summoning app rides – or anyone waiting to be collected at the curb. Now both app drivers and taxis have been moved to a more distant lot that passengers can reach by walking or taking a 15-minute shuttle.

These issues all point to an ugly side of app ride services. They are forcing out cheaper, more environmentally friendly options such as ride share vans, for yet more solo journeys (nearly every pick-up and drop off I saw in San Francisco airport was for one person despite the apps being rather ludicrously known generally as “rideshare apps”. Not a lot of sharing). And in the US,many app ride drivers use huge petrol or diesel-guzzling SUVs.

Transport options

The big fail at most US airports, as at Dublin Airport, is the lack of efficient public transport options. Coach services fill some gaps, but schedules remain semi-unreliable due to unpredictable traffic, and journeys can be long.

Airports really need simple-to-access rail or underground options. Instead, airports and authorities continue to cater for more car infrastructure, or apply stopgap car-management solutions.

Meanwhile, in January California enacted a new “gig economy” law, known as AB5, that makes it harder for companies like Uber to dodge providing benefits and work security to freelance workers.

Uber and Lyft have tried to change bits and bobs of how their drivers work in hopes that the law will then view the drivers as independent contractors, but many legal experts have scoffed at these attempts.

And this week a US district judge threw out Uber and Postmates’ request for an injunction to halt the law.

It’s a pivotal moment for the billion dollar companies that have shaped a gig economy which has reconfigured or destroyed many work sectors, staffed by workers lacking the most basic worker rights. The companies are now finally facing their own moment of reckoning with a law very likely to be duplicated elsewhere.

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