Monday, June 22, 2015

Why Uber and Lyft are so big in Los Angeles

According to several articles, Los Angeles is one of the most profitable cities for the rideshare companies uber (and lyft).

That's right, not just New York Chicago and San Fran, but also. Los Angeles.

It is a fact that counters stereotypes that Angelenos are wedded to the automobiles that they own, and that Los Angeles is too sprawling to support transportation alternatives to the single-occupant vehicle.

Of course, that Los Angeles (quite notoriously) boasts the most congested freeway system in the nation may make this rideshare shift less surprising. Why make risky lane manuvers to avoid gridlock on the 10 westbound when you can ride with a guy who knows a short cut?

In addition, Los Angeles (despite Metro Rail's expansion in recent years) still lacks a transit system that is comprehensible or reliable enough to provide a viable alternative to commuters in all areas of the city (and at all hours of the day). Moreover, taxis have traditionally been harder to find in Los Angeles (and have cost more) than in other metropolises.

Surprisingly (though gridlock affects Los Angeles' freeways as much if not more than Los Angeles' streets), most  Lyft trips in Los Angeles (according to both the company website and personal experience as a driver) are under ten miles

This means that for Lyft (and Uber), the origin and destinations of the vast majority of rides have to be geographically concentrated in certain areas of the vast Southland metropolis: but where you may ask?

The answer can be discerned in the following "heat maps" produced by Lyft, whose pink shading shows where the "highest" demand for rides is.

Weekday morning "heat map"

Weekday evening (i.e. "rush hour") heat map

Weekend evening (i.e. "rush hour") heat map
Heat maps for all three main "peak" periods show that the area of high demand for Lyft rides primarily takes the form of an arc, starting in Downtown, extending up through Koreatown towards Hollywood and then curving back down through Westwood to reach Santa Monica.

Outside of this area, demand only clusters in much smaller "dots" or "patches", around some of the movie studios and business districts in the southeast Valley and Burbank and in entertainment districts in Pasadena or Manhattan Beach. Large swaths of areas like the South Bay, Harbor and San Gabriel Valley have no high-demand shading whatsoever.

Indeed, as a Lyft driver, I have mostly kept within confines of the Santa Monica to Downtown "corridor", leaving only a handful of times.

A few years ago, USC graduate student Samuel Krueger used a GIS modeling system to deduce whether the Los Angeles region has a "central" core.

Krueger, who conducted his analysis with a scale measuring the number of urban amenities (the so-called "centrality index"), found that Los Angeles indeed does have a large regional "core" that roughly follows the course of Wilshire and Santa Monica Blvds in a linear fashion from the LA River to the Santa Monica Bay.

This crescent-shaped "Wilshire-Santa Monica corridor" almost perfectly maps onto the main arc of high-demand Lyft activity in Los Angeles.

 For day travelers, this area boasts most of the Los Angeles region's main business centers (Downtown, Koreatown, Miracle Mile, etc.). For the late night, this area boasts the Southland's largest and busiest  entertainment centers of the region. (Hollywood, WeHo, Downtown)

Because this region (particularly east of La Cienaga Blvd.) has a compact grid street system, mostly developed before World War II, and lacks a central freeway, its major arterials suffer heavy traffic at all hours of the day (and many at night).

Finally public transport is sparse outside of Downtown and Koreatown, with the Purple Line to Westwood not slated for completion until 2040. The Expo Line, which will start service to Santa Monica in the middle of next year, only skirts the fringes of the "core".

In other words, the profitability of Lyft (and, most likely, other rideshare companies) in Los Angeles stems in large part from its ability to exploit a previously underserved demand for alternative forms of transport to the single-occupancy automobile in this "linear downtown."

That in and of itself, breaks another stereotype of the city of Los Angeles: that it lacks a dense, transit-friendly urban "center".

The private sector has responded. Will LA County Metro ever catch on?

Monday, June 8, 2015

Why Angelenos should ride the bus or train to the bar

As I rode the 704 Rapid bus to get to the Virgil Saturday night, I couldn't help but notice, with regret, that I was the only passenger dressed up for a night out.

That's not to say that the bus wasn't crowded (it was packed), but most of the people on board carried backpacks or briefcases, or were dressed in tennis shoes, suggesting that they were coming back from the night shift rather than heading to the bar.

Sadly to say, I was not surprised in the least (and have had other such contemplative moments on past bus trips eastward).

Just saying that you ride the bus in LA, is enough to get questions and glances (especially in middle-class, Westside social circles). Saying that you ride the bus at night, on the other hand, can elicit odd stares and concerns about "safety."

The friend who I met the Virgil put it succinctly when he remarked, with stupefication: "you took the bus?"

And yet, if you are looking to drink or party outside of your neighborhood in a city as large as Los Angeles (the alternative is only available if your neighborhood has bars or nightclubs within walking distance), there is perhaps no more logical way for you to reach an abode of hedonism than by Bus or Metro Rail.

Driving while intoxicated is just downright dangerous (and risks a hefty fine). Moreover, the primetime surge pricing for apps like Lyft and Uber makes these quite pricey on weekend and holiday evenings (with fares as much as eight to nine times above average), especially if you are traveling more than a mile or two from your home. And ditto for Taxi service.

Whereas, I would have paid 19 dollars to get from my house to the Virgil traveling with Lyft, I paid only one dollar and seventy-five cents to ride there on the 704. Since the bus was a "rapid" service, traveling at a time with little traffic, it took only thirty-five minutes to get to the Virgil, slightly longer than it would have taken by a rideshare car.

Contrary to popular stereotype, I have not once felt my personal safety threatened when riding the bus late at night. You do see homeless people sleeping on some of the bus seats (in the same way you see homeless in any public space in this city) but the buses (in my experience) are generally clean and comfortable (they even have seat padding) and are very well air-conditioned. The fact that the buses tend to get more crowded at night (ironically due to the reduced service) means that more eyes and ears are watching whatever happens.

And, contrary to another popular stereotype, most of LA's popular nightlife areas (with some exceptions) are in places that are walkable and easily accessible by transit: Hollywood (buses and the Red Line), Downtown Los Angeles, West Hollywood (the 704/4).

That's not to say that I expect denizens of Whittier or Chatsworth, peripheral, suburban areas with limited to no bus service at night, to try undertaking a two-hour commute by public transit to a Hollywood club.

But in regards to the Santa Monica corridor (Bus #s 704/4), where buses run for twenty-four hours and pass through the heart of such nightlife hubs as West Hollywood, Silver Lake, Echo Park and Downtown Santa Monica, its frustrating that not even a sizable minority of nearby residents use the bus to get to the bar.

Of course, even on the Santa Monica corridor, frequency is significantly curtailed after the evening rush hours, with headways between buses as much as 30 to 40 minutes.On more secondary corridors (like Sunset Blvd.) service often reduces to once an hour in the later evenings before stopping completely after midnight.

In general, in order for public transportation to become a popular means of accessing nightlife in Los Angeles, LA County Metro and other transit agencies are going to have to adjust their bus (and train) schedules to better accomodate late night traffic.

Personal experience additionally suggests, furthermore, that advertising will be necessary in order to convince Angelenos that the bus (and train) is a cheap, safe and (not un-)cool way to get around our city, nonetheless to go out on the town.

The task at hand for Metro and other LA area transit agencies (in nightlife) is not daunting.

The likely benefits, including decreases in DUIs (Los Angeles, not surprisingly, has one of the highest numbers of DUI citations among American cities), lower rates of nighttime crime (increased late night activity at bus stops has been claimed to reduce the amount of street crime) and improved air quality  would be extraordinary.

For the sake of our wallets and for LA's social and physical environment, it is time for all of us, and our transit agencies, to stop neglecting public transit as a means for going out at night.