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?

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