Oh No, Here Comes the Transportation Hellscape

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Is it possible the pandemic will turn the usual urban gridlock into a hellscape?

If people continue to be wary about their safety on buses, trains and subways, and commuters who can afford it resort to driving themselves, navigating cities might become impossible.

Technology can’t fix a problem that demands smart policy and a rethinking of how cities work. But here are some ideas I’ve gleaned from transportation experts about how tech companies and cities can work together to make transit more appealing and effective, during the pandemic and beyond.

Let people reserve seats on mass transit: Via, an on-demand ride company that also offers software for transportation systems, says it’s working with an American city on the West Coast — the C.E.O. said he could not yet say which one — to let people reserve a spot on mass transit with a smartphone app, text or phone call. Reservation systems that set a cap on the number of travelers per bus or train might make commuters safer (and less anxious).

Create more flexible bus routes on the fly: Dozens of transit authorities, often working with private companies like Uber or Via, supplement traditional transit networks with on-demand minibuses that pool together people who are going to roughly the same place at the same time.

Pop-up routes are (sometimes fairly) derided as exclusionary and dumb — a ride service “accidentally invents the bus,” one headline joked — and they can be tricky and expensive. But anyone who has to choose between taking three buses or a $25 Uber ride knows that transit could use more experiments.

Provide all-in-one transit and ticketing: In some cities, Uber and Lyft apps can help plot a route to your friend’s house with a combination of car, bus and rented bicycle. I don’t think this irregular use of the app is helpful for most people, but it might be in places poorly served by other transit apps, particularly with the addition of no-contact tickets.

Uber said that since the pandemic began, more U.S. cities than ever before have inquired about getting help with adding an option to buy public transit tickets through its app. Users can already do this in Denver and Las Vegas.

Mesh on-demand services with public transit: Companies that provide on-demand cars, rental bicycles, scooters and mo-peds tend to be completely separate from mass transit. This might not work anymore — not least because young transportation companies are mostly unprofitable and might not make it.

What if these companies were part of the fabric of public urban transportation, and subsidized as such? The dirty secret of transportation, including road and private cars, is that it’s almost all subsidized by the government in some way.

This subsidizing means cities could chip in for Uber rides for people who have disabilities or require free scooter rentals for health care workers and essential employees. Cities and companies could also share data on where people are going and make sure that the data inform their transportation decisions.

Yes, closer collaboration between public transit systems and private companies brings a host of problems and questions. It’s all made harder because Uber and Lyft in particular have not followed through on promises to the cities that allow them to operate. The ride-share companies said they would reduce traffic and complement rather than replace public transit. They’ve done neither.

As it stands now, the status quo stinks for everyone. That means there’s an opening for tech companies and cities to take risks on how to move people around safely, efficiently and affordably.

No decision is neutral

On Tuesday, the big politics news was Twitter’s decision to add context to two of President Trump’s tweets for the first time, after Mr. Trump falsely claimed that mail-in voting ballots would mean that the November presidential election was “rigged.”

When people in power say things that might be misleading or even harmful, it can be difficult and polarizing for social media companies to decide how to react.

By adding context to the tweets on Tuesday, Twitter made it clear the president was making unsubstantiated claims of possible voting fraud that could erode people’s trust in a central element of democracy.

It was a bold move for the company. Predictably, Mr. Trump responded by attacking Twitter.

Nothing Twitter or Facebook might do in these circumstances is neutral.

When Twitter or Facebook let stand without comment Mr. Trump’s posts that dredged up a discredited murder conspiracy and a racist “joke” by the president of Brazil, the company made an active choice. And on Tuesday, when Twitter added context to the president’s remarks, it made a choice.

Before we go …

  • Let’s revisit this in 10 years: The boss of the new HBO Max streaming video service called Netflix “the enemy” a couple of years ago, my colleague Ed Lee reported this week. (The executive has disputed he ever said this.) Almost 10 years ago, the chief executive of Time Warner said Netflix would be as likely as the Albanian army to one day take over the world. The Albanians won.

  • Using internet mastery for fun: Imagine if your favorite celebrity — let’s say Betty White? — collaborated with her fan club to create a cult, which then became hugely popular and its members challenged other famous people to tug-of-war contests. My colleague Taylor Lorenz explains Step Chickens, the 2020 internet equivalent of my tortured Betty White metaphor. It’s good, harmless (I think?) fun.

  • Sowing division on social media: Facebook conducted research a few years ago that found that the social network made people more polarized, The Wall Street Journal reported. One study from 2016 found that two-thirds of people who joined extremist Facebook groups in Germany did so because of the company’s computerized suggestions. The company chose not to take steps its employees suggested to help mitigate the very divisions to which Facebook contributed.

Hugs to this

This might be the cutest octopus in the world. (The link is from 2018, but it’s a pandemic — what is time?)

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