Uber: Let Technology and Bus Rapid Transit Help Solve the L Train Dilemma

A rider emerges from the Union Square subway station in New York, December 15, 2005. REUTERS/Jeff Zelevansky

Last month, the MTA announced the L train tunnel running between Brooklyn and Manhattan would be shut down for a year and a half, starting in 2019, leaving 225,000 L train Manhattan commuters stranded. To fix this transportation challenge, we cannot shy away from thinking big. By combining Uber's ridesharing technology with a Bus Rapid Transit system, we can make it easier for the hundreds of thousands of impacted New Yorkers to get around.

Bus Rapid Transit (or BRT for short) is used in cities across the world to make select buses run like a subway—offering a faster, more reliable service. The NYU Rudin Center for Transportation, Riders Alliance and the Regional Plan Association have all called for using BRT to get L train riders across the Williamsburg Bridge; however, BRT on its own only solves half the problem, and that's where Uber's technology comes into play.

The main concern with BRT dedicated lanes is that it takes away a much-needed lane for cars. Over 11,000 vehicles cross the Williamsburg Bridge into Manhattan during the morning rush hour, mainly coming from Long Island and the outskirts of Queens and Brooklyn. What if Uber's technology could eliminate the need for many of those cars?

Right now, nearly all of the cars cross the bridge with empty seats. If we can get a majority of these commuters to share a ride—instead of taking their own car—we can reduce traffic across the Williamsburg Bridge and give the BRT the dedicated lane it needs to run.

Enter Commuting Together—a new option Uber has been testing that matches drivers with riders who are traveling in the same direction. Imagine if a driver commuting into Manhattan could open up the Uber app, enter where they are going, and then be shown nearby riders who are going in the same direction—and get paid for bringing them along. If allowed to run a pilot program in New York, Uber's technology can make it easy to carpool. With enough participation, we could significantly reduce the 11,000 vehicles traveling over Williamsburg Bridge and carve out space for BRT.

Some have asked whether stranded L train riders could just use Uber and services like it to get to and from Manhattan. It may be surprising to hear this from us, but the truth is that the version of Uber that operates in New York City could never fix this problem, despite enabling more than 1.4 million rides per month in Brooklyn.

It is harder to share your ride in New York than in any other place in the nation. In New York, companies like Uber are required to follow the City's laborious regulatory structure for professionalized ground transportation. Most of the time the system works fine, but in this case if commuters crossing the Williamsburg Bridge wanted to give their neighbor a ride, they would be required to first spend three months getting a license from the Taxi & Limousine Commission, get special license plates for their vehicle, spend thousands of dollars on special commercial insurance, and take over 40 hours of training classes. The benefit of a more flexible ridesharing system is that when people can push a button and get a ride in minutes, they are less likely to drive themselves; so instead of thirty people using their own cars, you have one car serving them all. In this case, getting a significant number of commuters to carpool into Manhattan simply will not work if its constricted by an extensive bureaucracy.

We have a little more than two years to prepare for a major transportation challenge in New York City. We think letting one of the fastest growing tech companies in the world invest its resources and time in making BRT work can and should be part of the broader solution for stranded L train riders. But we can only get this alternative in place if our government's leaders let us get started now. We hope the City and State will work with New York's tech and transportation communities to enact innovative solutions for L train riders. If we work together, we can help New York City move better.

Josh Mohrer is the general manager for Uber in New York.