Drivers v. Robots, Part 5: The Consolidation of Demand-Responsive Services

Demand-responsive service began a century ago with curb-to-curb taxi service. Shortly after, only a single significant exclusive-ride mode was added to the mix: Limousine service. Most of the remaining changes occurred in service delivery concepts (pre-scheduling, dispatching, cruising, posting) and technology (radios, mobile data terminals, automatic vehicle locators, cell phones, navigators, GPS, and more-advanced, safer vehicles).

The recent emergence of transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft tweaked the exclusive ride landscape. These offsprings triggered changes in the efficiency and survival of competing modes. They shifted the full-time employment of professional drivers to part-time non-professional drivers. And they grew and prospered by eliminating management. The breakdown of our regulatory structure made these things possible (see “Bad Regulations and Worse Reponses,” Parts 1-7, June, 2015 through August, 2015, and October, 2015 through January, 2016). This breakdown was an important stepping stone to the eventual elimination of drivers.

Shared Rides and Unshared Wealth

In contrast to the changes in exclusive-ride service, the last few decades have experienced an explosion of curb-to-curb and door-to-door shared ride services. These include special needs schoolbus transportation, complementary paratransit service, non-emergency medical service and social service agency paratransit service. A telephone survey I conducted in 1978 for USDOT) revealed more than 60 Federal programs providing funds for transportation, mostly for paratransit service.  The winners of this competition were non-emergency medical transportation (NEMT) service and Medicaid-funded service (largely to adult day care centers). Medicaid services grew to support schoolbus service, otherwise State- and local-funded.

Roots, Vines and Weeds

Shared-ride paratransit service actually had its roots in an obscure UMTA project (the forerunner of the Federal Transit Administration). The “Haddonfield Experiment” began in 1969 as a “feeder service,” transporting commuters in “South Jersey” to the Lindenwold Light Rail Line which took commuters in South Jersey to and from jobs in nearby Philadelphia. As public transportation evolved, shared-ride feeder service largely vanished, brought back to life in limited form by van-pooling and car-pooling. What we know today as paratransit service began with the transportation of elderly and disabled passengers in the 1970s, becoming more formalized in 1991 with the promulgation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

One can argue that the most fruitful form of shared-ride service involved park-and-ride lots. The carpools and vanpools these lots facilitated helped support fixed route transit and commuter rail services –  reducing traffic along the way. But park-and-ride lots faded from view, while downtown parking lots and gridlock exploded.



With the emergence of Uber, in particular, the tree-like hierarchy of modes which used to distribute passengers has become a vine. Many transportation professionals consider Uber a weed. The major impact has been to disrupt the hierarchy of modes, many of them quickly or slowly dying on that vine. The decimation of the taxi industry and the decline in transit ridership are the most visible recent examples. The distinction between modes is becoming a blur.

Robots and Responsibility

The central themes facilitating these changes has been the shift of tasks to robots: The elimination of jobs, particularly at the management level. Most notable in transportation have been scheduling and dispatching software. The promotion of driverless vehicles is the natural extension of these trends. Replacing labor with capital has been a theme for decades. Modern public transportation is merely another chapter.

As competition has lessened and anti-monopoly regulations increasingly ignored, individuals have also used robots to avoid accountability. Scheduling software has been particularly convenient: “Why Mr. Councilman, I do not know what else to do. We even have computers making the schedules.” Since transportation professionals do not realize or care about the results, it is not realistic that elected officials could do so.

Mirroring this trend was the shift in the management of NEMT, Medicaid and similar services to brokers. The original notion of brokers emerged in paratransit service in the early 1980s, but quickly died out. It re-emerged in the early 2000s in NEMT service, as overwhelmed healthcare agencies were increasingly snookered by service providers. A significant percentage of “trips” were phantoms – trips merely billed to hapless agencies incapable of even verifying their  provision. A large portion of the remaining trips involved “spaghetti routing” — small loads of passengers driven around in circles for hours to exploit the naïve per-trip and per-mile shared ride rate structure.

Avoiding the rigors of design and escaping accountability became a craze. In 2015, spokespersons in USDOT openly advocated for the elimination of complementary paratransit service. The alternative was to give every disabled individual his or her own robot vehicle. Little or no thought was given to the consequences of traffic or parking, much less jobs.

Flotsam and Jetsam

Many were fooled by the blur. It happened gradually over decades. When Uber began to dominate the small-vehicle transportation landscape, concerns were raised about the absence of training. Former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick sloughed off this concern by noting that, “Drivers are only a temporary nuisance” (Vanity Fair, November, 2015). Two years later, a small fleet of driverless Volvos was introduced into the general traffic stream in Pittsburgh – a venture facilitated by the offer of jobs to Carnegie-Mellon students.

The blur became more and more focused as robots evolved. The replacement of vehicles of multiple sizes has already been institutionalized by an entire organization advocating for “podcars.” This concept already has a national conference.

Lessons and Headstones

While never replicated, the Morgantown Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) system still survives. Between it and so many ski lifts lie offspring like the ski-lift type monorail from Manhattan to Roosevelt Island. These replicas have remained dinosaurs for a reason: Little capacity and enormous costs.

Van- and minibus conversions will turn into headstones in the graveyards of Ford, GM and Chrysler. With the birth and development of the Dodge Sprinter and Ford Transit, perhaps these companies saw this coming. The costs for vehicles this size have come down.

Special needs schoolbus service, provided in mid-size vehicles, cannot survive at its costs and inefficiency, even while large-vehicle schoolbus service will likely survive fixed route consolidation. Some consolidation of special needs service is inevitable. Uber cannot be far behind.

NEMT service and paratransit services are likely to consolidate into brokerage fiefdoms. This consolidation was openly acknowledged and admired in a recent 2019 National Academy of Science Publication: TCRP Report #203: Dialysis Transportation: The Intersection of Transportation and Healthcare.

Only one demand-responsive mode will likely survive. I am not sure which one. But its drivers will be soon be ceramic.

Words to the Unwise

Before any of us could say, “Mommy,” we said “google.” So more and more, when things become too complex, we rely on Google. Google has become Mommy.

When things become too complex, the modern response is to not plan or manage them. Instead, we consolidate them and let robots do the work. Robots do not need food, water, clothing or homes. And they do not experience fatigue. They only need maintenance and replacement. There are no homeless shelters for robots. Just junk yards.

Delusion, Apathy and Sloth

Public transportation conferences and trade shows burst with attendees. The promise of technology is the groundswell. There are already entire conferences about podcars.

Those older NBT readers may remember the promise of the automatic washer and dryer, freeing up vast amounts of time when only one family member had to work. Now both spouses usually work, and one wonders where that free time went. Disappearing. Like families.

The abdication of responsibility is often accompanied by lazy language.  Feed the Homeless is misdirection at its finest. If the Homeless needed food, we would call them The Foodless. We do not do so for a reason. Sometimes truth is hard to face. Public transportation is clearly facing it.

No one said that robots will inherit the Earth. But they are clearly doing so. One way or another, we are encouraging it. It is becoming our destiny.