Tuesday, February 23, 2010

NYC launches shared cabs, joins world

I’ve been taking shared cabs my entire life: in Beirut, in Guatemala, and most recently in Calcutta. Here’s how it usually works: the cabs -- often just regular cars but singled out because in any given city they have a particular brand and color -- ply common high volume routes. You stand along the route. Flag down the cab. Hop in and announce where you want to be dropped off. Pay a flat fee when you hop out. They are very much like very small buses.

I’ve never understood why we didn’t have them in the US. Fast, frequent, cheap(er than cabbing, more expensive and comfortable than the transit alternatives). I’ve chalked that lack up to protectionism and anti-competitive behavior among American taxi medallion holders.

Finally, FINALLY, an American city has changed the game.
New York city announced that starting today it will have shared cabs, plying specific routes, for $3 and $4 a ride. Subway fares in New York are $2; regular cabs across town generally are in the $6-$10 range). The cabs will have a sign on them that indicates the route/destination.

The city gets fewer cars and fewer emissions. Taxi drivers get more money. People get cheaper, faster, more convenient mobility. Hurrah!

As small aside: last year I had been shopping doing this same idea using regular people on their usual commutes. Put a device on top of your car. Electronically put in the destination and price “Lexington $3” and then drive to where you are already going. Every person along the route understands what it meant. Challenges are insurance (this industry needs to enable innovation!), regulation (rules about turning yourself into a "livery service" and competing unfairly with taxis). Security and fast payment could be done using smart cards to log in/log out of the trip.


Carlos Gershenson said...

Here in Mexico City, we used to have such "collective" taxis a few decades ago. The big cars evolved into vans (VW Combi), which evolved into microbuses, which are evolving into buses. The problem was that lots of small vehicles obstruct the traffic more and are less rentable than few big ones... Still, there are some routes that keep the small vans. Many people still use taxis, because they are everywhere and relatively cheap, compared to other countries.

A similar tendency occurred in St. Petersburg (Russia): vans with capacity for 14 passengers, but recently the city restricted their routes, and now most of them are minibuses.
In post-soviet times (although now not so often, since more and more people have cars), when transport was scarce, it was common to stop a private vehicle and agree on a fare, i.e. non-official taxi service. Extra source of income in harsh times...

Robin Chase said...

Your comments makes me wonder, why do the smaller shared taxis disappear? If a particular route proves very successful and turns into an increasingly large vehicle, ultimately a bus, that seems fine.

But why don't the shared taxis go find another route that has the right volume for their services? Or why aren't people willing to pay a little bit more for the more comfortable and faster shared taxi than the bigger minivan or bus?

Why do they disappear altogether?

Transportation policy people are always yearning for the real-time on-demand point-to-point and filled-to-capacity transit of their dreams. Shared taxis gets close to that. Why did they disappear?