Taxi hailing apps have become controversial. Like hand-wringing, subpoena-serving, rock-slinging, 10,000-car-protest controversial. “Ride-sharing” companies have been widely attacked and praised, accused of bypassing laws as they turn non-professionals into taxi drivers who can be dispatched with a few clicks. The controversy has raised critical questions for “the sharing economy” about labor, liability, and trust.
But strangely, somewhere along the way, the meaning of ridesharing itself got lost.
Words are misused all the time, and language evolves of course. Misunderstanding ridesharing (and sharing in general) is unfortunate considering how valuable we think sharing can be to the economy—and what stands to be lost if journalists, Silicon Valley, politicians and others get it wrong.
“Ridesharing” isn’t only being misused by the media, from the New York Times to TechCrunch, from the Associated Press to the New Yorker. It’s also being misused by lawmakers as they craft new laws that are shaping the future of urban transportation.
All this disruption isn’t really about sharing. The controversy revolves around new ways of dispatching all kinds of taxis. On one hand, it’s about the old guard of the taxi industry girding itself from disruption; on the other, it’s about how the disruptors are in some cases doing their disrupting by side-stepping laws.
At Bandwagon, we think ridesharing means something different, and it’s a definition that’s actually quite common within the transportation arena: ridesharing is sharing your ride with another passenger who is going your way.
Ridesharing, according to last year’s federal transportation bill, means offering the use of seats in your own car to other passengers along your route on a cost-reimbursement basis only. Like most things we share, ridesharing brings benefits to riders (saved time and money) and to our communities (reduced pollution and congestion).
Ridesharing is not the same as dispatching and paying a driver to pick you up and take you somewhere, be it by raising your hand, calling a dispatcher, or using one of dozens of apps. This is hailing a taxi.
In general, taxis are a shared resource and part of a smart urban transport network. This includes luxury cars dispatched by app and peer-to-peer taxis driven by amateur drivers in their own cars. Taxis fill in gaps in public transportation and bolster it too, as David King, a Columbia University professor has observed in his research on what he calls “asymmetrical mode-share.” All in all, taxis enable us city-dwellers to give up car ownership for a transportation network that’s more affordable, efficient and better for our cities.
Still, taxis dispatched by apps are more likely to be called “rideshares” rather than “taxis,” even though they operate a lot like taxis, and they aren’t doing any more or less sharing than any other taxi does. We don’t call renting an apartment “building-sharing,” so why do we call hailing a taxi ridesharing?
How did the term “ridesharing” come to describe an app-dispatched taxi cab? It might have been because of California law: unlike taxis, drivers who are “ridesharing” by giving people lifts to places they were already going were historically not subject to taxi rules.
By branding the new services as “ridesharing”—or at least accepting the term and using it to lobby regulators—these companies found a new way into a market from which they would otherwise be prohibited if they weren’t using that umbrella term. Now, California has a new phrase, “transportation network companies,” or TNCs, a term that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Meanwhile, the “ridesharing” moniker has stuck.
Real ridesharing is different than that. It’s a way to better use the vehicles that we have now rather than adding new cars to already crowded roads. It’s a way of getting people where they need to go cheaply and quickly, when public transit isn’t an option or when cabs are in short supply. Ridesharing is a way of improving access to the market by making taxi cabs cheaper to take, especially at high demand times, not more expensive.
At Bandwagon we’re working on real, real-time ridesharing every day. We enable passengers to book rides and get matched with other passengers in licensed taxis, car services and private vehicles. Passengers sharing taxis benefit from increased capacity and accessibility, while drivers increase earning capacity and cities reduce congestion. And instead of raising prices when demand is high, real ridesharing enables Bandwagon to lower prices.
Real-time route matchmaking—that’s the stuff of ridesharing. Illustration by Brendan Dalton.
New York is an especially good city for ridesharing: as a study last year found, nearly 80 percent of the city’s taxi trips could have been shared, assuming that passengers were willing to travel no more than three minutes out of their way, and were willing to share—and, relatedly, that there was a good way to connect them.
In the U.S., it’s estimated that about 76 percent of drivers go to work alone, which means that most days, most of us who drive travel with at least three perfectly good empty seats next to us. “If more of us would simply pile into cars together — on our way to work, or school, or wherever — we could reduce congestion, emissions, even the need for parking,” Emily Badger wrote in April in the Washington Post. “And what’s not to like about that?”
Taxi rides between 15th Street and Midtown in New York City demonstrate the potential for shared rides. (Via Hubcab / MIT SENSEable City Lab)
One thing we can all agree on: in general, taxis are an important part of a city’s transportation system. They improve the way we use private vehicles. If there are going to be cars in cities, taxis are a good compromise. Their utilization rates are drastically higher than private cars, in some cases 1900 percent higher. Think about the amount of time your typical urban car is used versus the amount of time it’s parked curbside, taking up valuable space (in between street cleanings, let’s be honest), and then think about how taxis are used. All the new taxi apps—us included—are hopefully helping make it easier to “use” taxis and hopefully making taxis better too.
Taxi regulations might serve an incumbent industry, but they also exist to keep the taxi “system” working: they prevent a glut of taxis on the road, ensure that the people driving those taxis are licensed and insured, and help cities maintain a thriving fleet of trained drivers who can make a reasonable wage. Laws helped turn the taxi business from a shady industry—what the Times in 1923 called a “yellow peril”—into a powerful, reputable part of the city’s public transit infrastructure.
Given how many taxis on the road are currently underutilized—what taxi drivers call “dead head"—and given how centralized some of the control over the industry can be, taxi innovation is going to be a crucial part of our future cities.
Part of that innovation includes finding ways to make better use of some of the empty seats in those taxis. Real ridesharing is awesome for cities. It can reduce congestion, expand public space, increase our ability to live dense and rich lives without totally screwing the one planet we have, and without unleveling the playing field.
We’re being sticklers about terminology because we see the benefits that technology and sharing in particular can bring to our cities. We know that connecting riders to share rides has the power to undo much of the damage that excess vehicle trips have done to our public space and social fabric. As cities and companies continue to fight or choose to work together in upgrading our existing transportation systems—and we are rooting for the latter—we don’t want a buzzword to ruin what we think is a positive kind of disruption to our cities’ transportation.
—Alex Pasternack and David Mahfouda are co-founders of Bandwagon.
This post was edited for clarity on June 26.