a woman with a phone in her hand and lots of dollar signs and !@$#?! to indicate swearing, looking frustrated with a red background
When your bus doesn’t show up, Uber is only a tap away (image: Getty, additional design: Tina Tiller)

SocietyApril 14, 2023

When public transport fails, Uber wins – and the rest of us lose

a woman with a phone in her hand and lots of dollar signs and !@$#?! to indicate swearing, looking frustrated with a red background
When your bus doesn’t show up, Uber is only a tap away (image: Getty, additional design: Tina Tiller)

Rideshare services benefit when public transport is unreliable. But they can’t serve everyone – and they often exacerbate the problems of a public service in crisis. 

“I get more rides when buses are cancelled,” says Nimo*, an Uber and Ola driver who works in Auckland. He’s used to driving to train stations and bus stops to pick up passengers who simply can’t wait any longer. 

As a ride-hailing service driver who also works in a supermarket, Nimo drives when there are no other options for passengers. During the Auckland floods, in January, he had requests for rides from people stranded, unable to get home while buses filled with water. “I was trying to drop people home, but I couldn’t go fast, because there was flooding everywhere,” he says. After he drove through a section of flooding he thought he could navigate, his water-damaged car ended up needing expensive repairs.

A recent RNZ investigation has revealed how common bus cancellations are in Aotearoa, with thousands of services cancelled across Auckland and Wellington each day. Cancellations make buses unreliable. The ones that do arrive, especially at peak times, are often too full. This makes using public transport, something that can be critical in reducing traffic and air pollution, incredibly inconvenient for travellers who just want to get where they’re going on time. 

Furthermore, the cause of cancellations is often a lack of drivers. Despite a funding boost for bus drivers to improve pay and work conditions across the country, New Zealand doesn’t have enough drivers to work on all the buses. 

People wanting to use public transport aren’t being well served. Neither are public transport drivers – or Uber drivers like Nimo whose rates and earnings are wildly variable depending on the Uber app. So who is benefitting from the current state of public transport? 

The private companies, often owned by private equity firms, that operate much of Aotearoa’s public transport is one answer. So are companies like Uber and Ola. When drivers get rides by filling in some of the gaping holes in the public transport system, “rideshare companies really benefit from public transport being inefficient and unreliable,” says Paris Marx, author of The Road to Nowhere: What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong About the Future of Transportation


a grumpy looking brown skinned man with a very impressive moustache and the sky tower and buses in the background
Photo: Getty Images; design by Tina Tiller

Marx’s work focuses on how technology companies profit from changing transport norms. They note that ridesharing companies have explicitly tried to compete with public transport overseas. While this hasn’t happened as blatantly in Aotearoa, it’s important to acknowledge that for some people, rideshare services work well. “[Uber] started because its founder, Travis Kalanick, wanted easier access to black car services, like a step up from taxis,” Marx says. “These services work well for people like that – who aren’t hard up for cash, are tech savvy and live in urban areas.” 

But it’s not for everyone. “These private alternatives don’t work well for kids, people without smartphones or seniors who don’t feel confident with smartphones or people with some disabilities,” says Marx. They’re also almost always more expensive than public transport. Public transport, which is heavily subsidised by public money (especially at the moment with half-price fares), is responsible for being available to everyone, even if it often falls short of that ideal

That said, public transport will never work for everyone either. “Even if public transport was much, much better than it currently is, we need to remember that there will be some people, especially disabled people, who it just won’t work for,” says Kate Day, a campaigner with Free Fares, a coalition of groups campaigning for under-25s, students, community service card holders and total mobility card holders and their caregivers to be able to use transport for free

hand holding a phone with uber open and the background of a road
When your bus is cancelled, ride hailing is a convenient alternative – for some (Photo: Nathan Stirk/Getty Images)

Day, who doesn’t have a car, relies on public transport for getting herself, her two toddlers and her partner around. “It can be pretty frustrating to see that the bus has been cancelled when you’re waiting at the stop with two kids in the rain,” she says. Living in a central Wellington suburb near high-frequency routes means that there are often alternatives – but she notes that people in smaller towns and cities often get left out of discussions about public transport. If you live in a city with thousands of services a day, cancellations are inconvenient, but they’re even more so for people who live in towns with only one or two bus services, not to mention the many places that simply have no public transport at all. Furthermore, most of these places don’t have ride-hailing apps either, making moving around even harder for people without their own vehicles. 

That said, when public transport is good it can be really good. “We love taking the bus – we have a pram, so we sit in the accessibility seats. With the half-price fares, we can go and visit family in Petone and have a return trip for only $8, which is really affordable.”

While ride-hailing services are great if your bus has been cancelled and you need to get to work in a hurry, they also mean there are more cars on the road. “As more vehicles are on the road, it creates more traffic, and buses you might rely on are stuck behind a bunch of cars,” says Marx. Lots of rideshare vehicles circle high-traffic areas – which are often also the places where people want to go – making traffic worse for everyone else.

image of oa book cover with lots of cars in coloured squares that reads "the road to nowhere - what silicon valley gets wrong about the future of transportation" in a neutral sans serif font
Paris Marx’s book tackles some of ways technological transport solutions fail (Image: Supplied)

Marx says that Uber largely doesn’t monitor or regulate the number of drivers and cars available on its service, as taxi companies tend to, which means there are often way too many, or, at times of high demand, not enough. “It’s sold as this promise of efficiency, but it’s not really that efficient… the street is flooded with for-hire vehicles”. As someone who once waited 40 minutes outside an airport for consecutively cancelled buses, only for a bus to finally sail past while I waited for a rideshare vehicle that was stuck in traffic, I can only wholeheartedly agree. 

“There are huge benefits from each car taken off the road,” Day points out. Public transport puts more people in fewer vehicles, while rideshare vehicles do the opposite, putting more vehicles that may be empty on the road. This also reduces air pollution, which kills thousands of New Zealanders prematurely each year. 

Rideshare services are notorious for making their drivers independent contractors, rather than employees; in a landmark case last year, New Zealand’s employment court said that four Uber drivers who lodged a case could be eligible for years of backpay, although this is still under way. “[Rideshare driving] creates a model that is more precarious, with less protection and fewer rights,” Marx says. This can undermine the work of transport industries that pay and treat drivers better, including public transport and trucks. That said, Nimo, the Uber driver, says that while the pay isn’t great – rates vary depending on demand and algorithm – he’d still rather work for Uber than a bus company. He likes that he can switch the app off and take a break whenever he wants. 

What’s more, substituting rideshare vehicles for public transport has a social cost. “Uber helps you not have to think about people who are not like you,” says Marx. Public transport can be more egalitarian.

“I just love the experience of being surrounded by people from my community who I wouldn’t otherwise interact with,” says Day. Even in the rain, waiting for buses that are delayed, she appreciates how public transport creates community and solidarity – and she wants that option to be more widely available, instead of consigning people to private or hired cars. “It’s a really precious thing to travel in a way that brings all walks of life together.”

*Not his real name

Keep going!