Essays on Technology and Culture

When You’re Too Poor for Uber or Lyft

Today, dollar vans and other unofficial shuttles make up a thriving shadow transportation system that operates where subways and buses don’t—mostly in peripheral, low-income neighborhoods that contain large immigrant communities and lack robust public transit. The informal transportation networks fill that void with frequent departures and dependable schedules, but they lack service maps, posted timetables, and official stations or stops. There is no Web site or kiosk to help you navigate them. Instead, riders come to know these networks through conversations with friends and neighbors, or from happening upon the vans in the street.
— The New Yorker – “New York’s Shadow Transit”

Reading about the underground transportation in this city—happing right under my nose, walking distance from my apartment—had me thinking. People may harp on about how revolutionary the “sharing economy” is, or how Uber and Lyft are going to disrupt the taxi industry. As long as they’re priced for Silicon Valley incomes, contemporary ridesharing services aren’t going to help working class, ordinary people get to work any time soon. Part of what makes the shadow shuttles of New York so effective and essential is that they’re often tied to a community: immigrant, non-English speaking, or just plain poor. They go not only where the subway doesn’t, but also where no well-paid Uber or Lyft driver will go. It’s also proof that you don’t need smartphones, cloud hosting, VC funding, or other high tech crap to create something that actually improves people’s lives.