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The media focused on the wrong thing during SXSW

Bloggers bemoaned the difficulty of getting around Austin during SXSW. But they were having the wrong conversation.

March 21, 2017

This month was South by Southwest (SXSW), a huge music/tech festival held in Austin. Austin happens to be one of the few big American cities where Uber and Lyft don’t operate.

Now don’t get us wrong: we use ridesharing services all the time. (Only 1 of our 20 employees owns a car.) And yet the reaction to the lack of ridesharing in Austin this month was surprisingly hysterical.


It’s the apocalypse, guys.

SXSW’s ridesharing woes were inflamed by an unfortunate incident during the festival: two of Austin’s ridesharing replacement apps (Fasten and Ride Austin) went down because of heightened demand.

No alternatives.

SXSWers were bereft of their beloved ridesharing services, forced to wait for cabs in the rain with “no alternatives”. We racked our brains for a possible solution.

We think we found it:

Fixed-route ridesharing.

Joke = Kevin Roose. MS Paint skills = all us.

The tweets are overwrought and ridiculous, but they’re not the end of the world.

What’s troubling is that the entire media conversation about mobility during SXSW was about the inadequacy of ridesharing.

Whether it was the New York Times, Mashable, or BuzzFeed, practically every article about transportation at SXSW chronicled the issues with Austin’s ridesharing apps — with nary a word spent discussing Austin’s public transit.

I mean, look at the headlines:

The media ought to know better, because Austin does have a mobility crisis — but it has nothing to do with ridesharing. I mean, take a look at Austin’s public transit system. It’s not a Transit Desert. Or even a Transit Sahara.

It’s a Transit Tatooine:

Red = bad transit access. Green = good transit access. The green block in the center is downtown Austin. The arrow is pointing to the main SXSW convention centre. (Data: Local Logic.)

Compare this to a city with half-decent public transit, like our hometown (Montreal):

So much green!

These transit maps were made by our hometown friends Local Logic. They have an office across the street from ours, and they crunch all sorts of numbers that give you insights about your neighbourhood: nightlife quality, grocery access, public parks, or (our favourite) public transit.

What does their data tell us about transit around SXSW?

If you calculate the transit friendliness right outside of SXSW’s convention centre (defined as the frequency of service, weighted by the distance you have to walk to the stop), transit friendliness scores a dismal 2 out of 5:

While most of downtown Austin has good transit access, SXSW’s convention centre does not. (Data: Local Logic)

It turns out transit friendliness is a strong indicator of transit usage.

Our app Transit is used by millions of public transit riders in 130+ cities including Austin, Texas. We have data on billions of trips: origins and destinations, heat maps, bikeshare/carshare/rideshare bookings, etc.

We looked at anonymized origin data for 10,000+ of these trips around Austin, and compared it to Local Logic’s scores. Local Logic’s scores are legit — the “friendlier” a location is for public transit, the more trips that are taken from those spots.

X axis:
transit friendliness (via Local Logic). Y axis: trip density (via our app).

What’s the significance? Our data suggests that there’s an exponential relationship between “transit friendliness” and the number of trips that actually get taken. Basically what that means is that by making a destination a bit more transit friendly you end up getting a lot more people taking transit.

Which means less people taking cars. Less traffic. Less stupid tweets.

Ridesharing is easy and convenient. It’s a fantastic complement to public transit. But it shouldn’t be the default mobility choice in the downtown core of a big American city.

If now is the time to have a conversation about mobility in Austin, might we suggest that next year, instead of having better ridesharing apps, we do something about the availability of public transit in downtown Austin?

Maybe it’s an overhaul of Austin’s transit network (à la Houston, which redesigned their system overnight, boosting ridership ~7% in one year). Or something way more ambitious…

Proposed Austin subway system

With 50+ people moving to Austin each day and traffic spiralling out of control, it’s obvious that urban mobility will be one of the biggest issues facing Austin in the years to come. There’s reason to be optimistic: the city is already taking some fantastic measures to reduce the city’s dependency on cars — but that’s just the first step. Better public transit needs to be a policy priority.

So let’s find solutions that will silence the tech bros — once and for all.

Transit is an app that makes it simpler to get from a-to-b without a car.
Local Logic is a website that gives you instant insights about your neighbourhood.
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