Cars with glowing pink mustaches and oddly skewed “U”s have flooded San Francisco streets in recent years, but those streams of Lyft and Uber vehicles aren’t everywhere in The City.
Some neighborhoods have seemingly turned up their noses to the service, and a recent data dive by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority shows exactly where.
In interviews with the San Francisco Examiner, experts and locals reflected on what could be driving that divide, including poverty, neighborhood tradition and even generational preferences in transportation. Additionally, these experts and locals largely agreed that the data does not present just a map of who uses Lyft and Uber the most, but where San Francisco’s wealthy, single and white transportation users primarily reside.
The use of Uber and Lyft in lieu of Muni buses or bikes may be a warning sign of a deepening divide in transportation use, and subsequent investment, in the far-flung future.
So, which San Francisco neighborhoods use Uber and Lyft the least?
THE TRANSIT ‘DONUT’
The SFCTA’s heat map, “TNC’s Today” — a reference to ride-hail’s legal designation in California, Transportation Network Companies — reveals “scraped” data of Uber and Lyft pickups and drop-offs in neighborhoods that start and end in San Francisco. The study was conducted with Northeastern University from Nov. 12 to Dec. 20, 2016, which the SFCTA published in June.
On the map, dense ride-hail usage is deep purple, whereas neighborhoods with lighter ride-hail usage are beige and white.
A wash of beige circles around outer San Francisco, whereas the dense urban core — downtown and South of Market — is a deep purple. This “donut” pattern surprises no one familiar with transportation, as higher use of transit naturally occurs in more densely packed neighborhoods.
Yet a closer look at the data shows a divide even between the less dense neighborhoods.
Some neighborhoods replete with smaller apartment buildings and single-family homes — the Inner Richmond, Outer Richmond, Inner Sunset and parts of the Outer Sunset — still feature higher ride-hail usage than the southside and southwest — the Ingleside, Crocker Amazon and Excelsior neighborhoods.
Representative blocks on Lake Street by the Presidio, hardly a densely packed neighborhood, saw anywhere between 150 and 240 daily pick-ups and drop-offs during the study period, whereas some blocks in the Ingleside neighborhood near Ocean Avenue see as few as 30 to 80 daily pick-ups and drop-offs.
San Francisco State University geography and environment professor Jason Henderson told the Examiner that while the data doesn’t reveal who is taking Uber or Lyft, or why, past transportation research allows for “educated guesses.”
“If you look at where the patterns are, it’s Marina to Mission, SoMa to Lower Haight,” Henderson said. “It’s very obvious that this is upper-income, but also [people with] disposable income” using ride-hail services, based on where it’s used.
Henderson noted the largest spikes in usage were during nighttime entertainment hours. The southern neighborhoods of San Francisco are known to be home to families, he said, with higher rates of car ownership and less disposable income, and less inclination “to blow on a $50 meal in the Mission and a night at the club.”
There’s also far less usage in the wealthy St. Francis Wood neighborhood, he noted. “That’s also probably high car ownership,” he said.
Residents of those neighborhoods believe there may be generational differences at play.
Dan Weaver serves as chair of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s Citizen Advisory Council and is also a longtime Ingleside resident and active in the community. When told Uber and Lyft use was sparse in the Ingleside, but spiked near Phelan Avenue, he said, “I think part of it could be City College of San Francisco” students using it and also shoppers at the nearby Whole Foods.
The data also shows a spike in usage near San Francisco State, whereas the surrounding community of Park Merced uses ride-hails far less often. Usage also spikes near Balboa Park and Glen Park BART stations, which Weaver pointed out is much touted by ride-hail companies as a benefit — what Lyft and transit wonks call the “last-mile solution” to get transit riders home.
As for the lack of ride-hail use in the Ingleside, Weaver noted the neighborhood is “mostly families and single-family buildings, whether you buy it or rent.”
But Weaver, 73, added, “Uber and Lyft are millennial things in my perspective,” and even though he uses a smartphone, “Uber has left a bad taste in my mouth, because of the way the company treats its employees.”
Uber suffered a recent string of high-profile missteps, including a former female engineer who cited frequent discrimination and harassment, which eventually lead to former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick stepping down.
Oscar Grande, a lead organizer at the advocacy group PODER, agreed there’s a generational difference in ride-hail use. Especially with “cholo culture” that exists in the Mission and Excelsior, he said, which has long-favored driving their own vehicles — including hot rods and lowriders.
Grande, who lives in the Excelsior, one of the neighborhoods with lowest ride-hail usage, said his 17-year-old teenage daughter uses Uber, while he drives and bikes.
“My daughter ain’t trippin’ about driving,” he said. “When I was her age, I wanted to drive. I was ready to drive. I wanted that independence.”
Instead, his daughter mostly takes Muni and Uber.
“When she’s coming back from her boyfriend’s house in Visitacion Valley, trying to jump on public transportation at 11 [p.m.] just isn’t an option,” he said. “I’m gonna get your ass on an Uber and come home, safely.”
Though Henderson focused his concerns on nighttime usage, Rachel Hyden, executive director of the Transit Riders advocacy group, worried the ride-hail data showed reliance on Uber and Lyft for commutes.
“What I fear — and we can certainly avoid this — is [ride-hails] will continue sucking ridership off our public transit system,” she said, “and that leads to cutting service and infrastructure upgrades.”
There is some precedence for this in the United States. Just this month, for instance, Florida’s Miami-Dade County cut 8 percent of its Metrobus system’s $248 million budget, according to the Miami New Times, in part, officials said, because citizens have increasingly chosen Uber and Lyft over public transit.
San Francisco has a “transit-first” policy imbued into law, however, Hyden pointed out. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is implementing its Transit Equity strategy to ensure buses are available even in The City’s most far-flung, impoverished neighborhoods.
Hyden sees room for collaboration between Muni and ride-hails, too
“Rather than just smacking [ride-hails] in the face and saying get off our streets,” she said, “I think there’s space for [ride-hails].”
However, Hyden said she still worries that, in the future, enough people in San Francisco’s wealthier classes will take Uber and Lyft to the point where voters will begin to favor shifting funding away from Muni.
The first bus lines on the chopping block when funding falls, she said, would likely be the lower-ridership buses that less-affluent outer neighborhoods in the transit “donut” depend on.
These “connector” buses — the 18-Parkmerced, 36-Teresita, 52-Excelsior, 66-Quintara, 23-Monterey and others — help ferry those communities to major transit routes that head downtown.
Those neighborhoods most vulnerable to losing bus service, Hyden said, are the exact same ones that use Uber and Lyft the least.