In Silicon Valley, Transportation Innovation Is a Flat Circle

A customer on one of Leap Transit's luxury buses in March 2015. The company would file for bankruptcy six months later. (Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

Ride-sharing app Lyft has a new service available in Chicago and San Francisco that they’re calling a “shuttle.” According to Lifehacker, it works like this:

Lyfts can add up fast and Lyft Line, while less expensive, can take you out of your way and make your travel time much longer.

Lyft Shuttle addresses both those issues by having you walk to a nearby pick up spot, get in a shared car that follows a pre-designated route, and drops you (and everyone else) off at the same stop. So, basically, you share a ride with other people (most of the time) so your ride price is lower, but you know exactly how long the ride will take because you’re on a pre-designated route.

Sounds… familiar. Wait a second.

Hmmmmm. Has the disruptor economy run out of ideas? Here’s a pitch: Plates, but with rounded edges so your food doesn’t spill off. Email, but written by hand and delivered to your door. The sun…but for night!

In fairness, given the current state of New York City’s subway system, reinventing the subway isn’t the worst idea, but the bus remains a tantalizing, cheaper alternative. (One that Governor Cuomo would rather add bells and whistles to than attempt a subway overhaul.)

Lyft’s decision to reinvent the bus in Silicon Valley is interesting, given the tech utopia’s mixed history with that particular mode of transportation. Leap, a startup that aimed to offer “a fancy alternative for well-off commuters,” went belly-up after six months  in 2015 and ended up auctioning off two of its luxury buses for the impressive starting bid of $5 apiece. The corporate commuter buses in San Francisco that ferry tech workers from the city to Google et al are loathed by the non-tech community, as Jordan Crucchiola noted on Wired last year:

“Google Bus” has become a synecdoche for “money flaunting Tech 2.0 oppressors.” So an issue that looks like it should start and end with the local transit authority, some cooperation from the private sector, and a few rubber stamps in City Hall in fact demands input from tenant advocacy organizations, rights groups for disabled citizens, people of color and other disenfranchised minorities, and angry environmental watchdogs.

“For a lot of people, the shuttles becomes a symbol of everything that’s going on,” says San Francisco Board Supervisor David Campos. “To the extent we are not able to address the larger issue of displacement and gentrification a lot of the frustration, passion and anger turns towards the shuttles. It’s important to know that, but at the same time not let that get in the way of a resolution of the issues.”

And the tendency of “disruptors” to end up mimicking the stalwarts of the very industry they came to shake up is becoming a common trope. See the New York Times’ recent dispatch on Airbnb pressuring hosts to be more like hotels:

For nine years, Jill Bishop enjoyed the camaraderie of renting out her spare bedroom on Airbnb.

Guests hung out on her comfy sofas. They dined together. They shared her bathroom, which was filled with half-empty shampoo bottles and an array of lotions.

Then, things changed.

Airbnb urged Ms. Bishop to make the bathroom look more like a hotel. New local regulations governing Airbnb meant she had to start collecting city lodging taxes, which made her feel awkward when she had to ask guests for money. And Airbnb began conditioning her to host people who are just looking for a place to sleep — not a home to share.

To paraphrase a wise, fictional man: Innovation is a flat circle. Everything we have done or will do, we will do over and over and over again.

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