From Uber to Mars to the New York City bus system: this week Paul Ford and Rich Ziade talk about the highs and lows of tech industry’s relationship with transportation, where some apps dismantle industries and others knit cities together. The conversation includes Rich’s theories about tech billionaires and space travel, Paul’s paean to express busses and the MTA Bus Time API, and a segment in which Rich roleplays as Travis Kalanick — and Paul gets to tell the Uber CEO exactly how he feels.
Paul Ford: Hello and welcome to Track Changes, the podcast of Postlight, a digital product studio at 101 Fifth Avenue in New York City. My name is Paul Ford and I’m the co-founder of Postlight. And I’m joined by my co-host and co-founder —
Rich Ziade: Rich Ziade.
Rich: Good to see you, Paul.
Paul: We’re here in the office recording in our in-house podcast studio.
Rich: We are.
Paul: You know, I think people know what we do. We build the apps, we build the web platforms and the websites for the big companies and the innovative little companies and the innovative big companies.
Paul: That’s what we do.
Rich: Yup. We’re builders. We’re designers and builders.
Paul: Yeah. All right, that’s not why people are here.
Paul: They know what we do at this point. Let’s tell them, let’s talk about something else.
Rich: All right. Let’s, let’s talk about…Uber.
Paul: That’s a big subject for you. You come back to Uber a lot.
Rich: Well, you know, Uber affected my life in a couple of different ways. It affected a friend, and I actually have, you know, because of my prior history, I have insight into sort of the machinery that works around taxi medallions and the TLC in New York through my brief legal life. And it’s a horrible, horrible place. So Uber comes along and I know many people perceive it as horrible, and it, look, there are certain facets of what they do that are horrible.
Rich: Yes, and so is it an evil company? I’m gonna say it is. You know, if you look at the infrastructure of taxi medallions in New York City, it’s essentially a small handful of people owned all the medallions in New York. One medallion gets you a taxi. And there’s a limited number of them, so you can’t endlessly go and buy a medallion. And they would hire drivers, essentially, and the drivers are usually foreigners, usually not great English-speaking, and whatever, and the pay was terrible, essentially. They just would try to grind down as much hour, I mean, as many hours out of them for as little money as possible.
Paul: Get the margins as tights as possible.
Rich: Get the margins as tight as possible. So it was a racket, effectively.
Paul: And the medallions are going, you know, for half a million dollars or more, right?
Rich: The val — well, the value…
Paul: Because there’s a market.
Rich: They used to be north of a million.
Paul: OK, so —
Rich: Uber has hammered the value of the medallion.
Paul: So a relatively small number of medallion owners —
Paul: Emerged who controlled the marketplace on medallions.
Rich: Not only controlled the marketplace, but controlled TLC.
Rich: They controlled how it all worked, because they needed to maintain their hold, and to control the territory that they had.
Paul: There is a point, I remember reading an article, where a guy had Nicki Minaj play his son’s bar mitzvah.
Rich: A medallion owner?
Paul: And he was a medallion owner.
Rich: There you go. I mean, that is the backdrop for Uber. So now…I am convinced of this: that you needed an absolutely filthy player to dismantle what has been dismantled. You could not have done without being willing to play as dirty as you had to play. Because these people were ready to cut your throat, at any opportunity. If you played by the rules, and look, the rules are a funny thing, right? If you’re willing to hid a political operative to start to jump into city government, which is one of the most, I mean, just imagine just filth and moss in a maze, right? I mean, that’s city government.
Paul: Everything is very sticky.
Rich: Everything is very sticky. So for someone to barrel through and ma — and dislodge that, I have respect for that, right? If you start to look at this through a moral lens, it’s all very relative, isn’t it. It’s all very murky, right? There isn’t a good guy/bad guy here, right? You’ve got a terrible guy, right, and probably a less terrible guy being willing to kick the other really terrible in the face.
Paul: There’s a certain point of view that you bring to the world, to my world in particular, where I think because you were a Lebanese immigrant and raised on narratives of the Lebanese war, where there were very few people who you could refer to as good actors —
Paul: You have this worldview that’s, there are no good guys or bad guys for the most part.
Rich: It’s very grey.
Rich: It’s very grey, right? And you have people, you know, and then you see this meteoric rise, right? And you see them go city to city and dismantle city to city. And I, I tell you, I have been lectured by school teachers that have been fired, and they said, “You know what? I had enough savings. I bought a car. Got the license. I bought another car. And hired someone. And I have two cars now. And I’m making a pretty good living, and I can work whenever I want. If I’m bored on a Friday night, I can get in my car, turn on my app, and put three hours in.” And that kind of empowerment is real. Now look, it got competitive fast, and Uber, I don’t think sat down and said, “How do we empower school teachers?” I think —
Rich: They said we wanna take over the world. And…
Paul: I think they’d love to get to the point where they could get human beings out of this equation.
Paul: Look, this is a tricky company.
Rich: I want to talk about one other story, and I don’t want to get into too much detail about it. I knew someone who ended up homeless. Literally ended up homeless. He had a really tough family situation, and you know, he’s pretty socially inept. And he ended up in a bad way, where he was living in his brother’s garage for a while. And he had a good friend, and he said, “You know what? I park my car at work all day. Why don’t you change the plates on my car and while I’m at work, go drive around and do Uber. Like, you don’t even need to know the streets. The app will tell you where to go.” And it put him on his feet. Now again, is Uber thinking, “How do we help the downtrodden?” No, of course not, right. But that’s an incredibly empowering story, because if you think about him saying, “Hey, why don’t you go to the TLC and see what you can pull off?” It’s a brick wall, right? So that kind of leveling, that kind of just, a jackhammer was put to the status quo, I really appreciate.
Paul: All right. Let’s hit pause for a sec. Uber: a great company that’s done only great things for the world.
Rich: Let’s talk about how Travis goes to Vegas and strip joints.
Paul: Well here’s the thing, here’s what’s tricky here, which is that on the ground, a lot of of people have been empowered and have made money they wouldn’t otherwise have made.
Paul: OK? So that’s real. That happened. That’s a side effect of the overall Uber program, and it did extract people from the TLC, which is hard to love as an organization.
Rich: And it would have never happened.
Paul: Yeah, I mean, the medallion owners are really, like, they’re very low on the list of good New York City people.
Rich: They’re not evil people, but look, that’s what you do. I knew, my dad knew a guy who had a hot dog stand at sort of the square by City Hall, downtown, in Manhattan. And someone else got the money together and got another stand. And this is before they had set up sort of a licensing of, like, particular street corners, and you actually paid the city to have a right. You could pretty much put up a stand anywhere. This other guy shows up and puts up a stand, like, 250 feet away, right? Do you know what my dad’s friend did? He hired two thugs to beat the shit out of him. Because he literally threatened his livelihood. He just said, “This is where I’ve been for 15 years. You are not going to come here and show up and essentially destroy me. So I’m gonna make sure you go a few blocks away.” And that’s what he did to the guy. And now, is that bad?
Rich: It’s bad!
Paul: It’s bad.
Rich: Is it bad that that other guy just came and showed up and set up shop?
Paul: Ye…I mean…yes?
Rich: …here we go, right?
Paul: Sort of, but it’s public territory. It’s the commons.
Rich: Exactly. Exactly. Now he shouldn’t have done that to this guy.
Paul: Look this is — there was a point where I was walking home one day, and this guy was just standing somewhere, making a cellphone call, and talking. And a woman came up with a little ice cream cart and she just smashed right into him. Because he was standing in her spot, talking on the cellphone. [laughter] And she just almost didn’t see him, and he’s just like, “What the hell are you doing? I’m talking on my cellphone!”
Paul: And she was like, “That’s my spot.”
Paul: Right? She —
Rich: This guy thought about his children.
Rich: He’s like, if you’re gonna do this to my children, I have to beat you up.
Paul: Yeah exactly. And so the guy’s like, “Well maybe I’ll go sell hot dogs down the street.”
Rich: That’s what happened.
Paul: Look, I mean, this is the real world, right? This is what we’re in. And this is the tricky thing with Uber, because it’s a nasty, rapacious company a lot of the time. There’s all this stuff with them stealing secrets with…
Paul: Self-driving cars and stuff. So as —
Rich: They play dirty. No doubt about it.
Paul: As an overall corporate actor, they’re very dangerous for the world, because what you look at with them, I see what you’re saying, about them empowering people. I think that that’s very real, and I think there’s kids who are gonna get better health care because their dad or mom could drive for Uber.
Paul: That’s a real thing. That kid, you know, kids are gonna go to college because of Uber.
Rich: Yeah, yeah.
Paul: OK so that, that happens. But at the same time, you’ve got this force —
Rich: It doesn’t stop.
Paul: Top to bottom, and it gets to the point where it’s just malevolent upon the culture. And I think that you see a lot of people responding without having a lot of empathy for the people on the ground, which I think is tricky. It think it’s a bad, it’s a bad liberal posture that happens a lot, where people go after the company but don’t think about the way that things are connected.
Paul: That part is — and I can understand where you might be, you might roll your eyes a little bit, but this thing is a beast, and it is not acting in anybody’s best interest, and there’s a certain scale you hit, as a capitalist enterprise —
Paul: Where you gotta start thinking about other people, like, you don’t get to just take a poop everywhere.
Rich: ….no. You don’t. Here’s, I think, where it gets funny, right? I think what happens, for someone that is incredibly ambitious and wants to take over the world, they truly believe that the net outcome at the other end of what they’re doing is positive. Right?
Rich: But what happens is this —
Paul: Oh, narcissists believe —
Paul: It’s important that everything goes their way.
Rich: Such that the collateral damage of what they do when they do that calculation? They’re still ahead, right? This is not that different, when you think about the calculations around war. Like —
Paul: But you can’t —
Rich: If we hadn’t dropped that big bomb, did we — did we save lives with the big bomb? So there’s the moral justification. So I think —
Paul: Well we’re in a position, too, in this country, right, where we’re not, it’s not like Russia, where you eventually jail the oligarchs that you don’t like.
Paul: You can’t put Travis in jail.
Rich: No. Let me be Travis for a second, OK? You go ahead and tell me, “Hey. You have this sinister way of going into a city and putting Uber in place and then gaining momentum — ”
Paul: Well this is very —
Rich: Without the city even noticing.
Paul: Why don’t you let me talk to Travis for a minute?
Paul: Many of the things you do —
Paul: Destroy entrenched structures, some of which are bad, but many of which protect people on the ground. Why don’t you care?
Rich: I do care. What I do, if when I go into the city, right? And I put it in place, guess what happens? Two things happen. Drivers show up because there’s a need, and the second thing that happens is passengers show up, because they’re tired of getting into shitty, disgusting taxis —
Paul: Well let me tell you —
Rich: And paying more. So what I should fail — the market will tell me when I fail.
Paul: Oh good, the market.
Rich: But the truth is I am not the one that is carrying it. Guess who’s carrying it? The population that embraces what I do. And when they embrace what I do, they embrace it not because they are universally evil —
Paul: Yeah, well this is great, but why do you have to do, like, 50 or 60 separate lying, deceitful things in order to get your app right, in order to keep the cops from knowing where your drivers are, in order to keep Apple from knowing how things are going? This is a trail of deceit and lies that you enable in order to get your company going, and I hate your face, and you suck at Wii Tennis!
Rich: Pregnant pause. [laughter] Should I continue to be Travis?
Paul: This feels real good.
Rich: Right. The world is a better place with Uber in it. Millions of passengers are happy. They have voted. They vote because my company’s worth $80 billion. And it is not worth that because people are feeling charitable, right? This is a game. This is a sport. And I’m winning. The only reason I’m winning is because everybody’s getting behind me. The people that complain are getting in my cars.
Paul: Yeah, well why don’t you stop trying to screw with the system to compete with compe — like, to destroy competitors?
Rich: I am the advocate of a greater good, and sometimes you have to do some things that are just not that pretty to get to that greater good.
Paul: Like illegally do things that damage your competition?
Rich: My competition — OK, Apple. Tim Cook sits me down and he says, “You’re breaking my rules, and I will kick you out of the App Store.” It is disgusting that one corporation has that sort of stranglehold on this many companies and this much value around the world. I should kick that guy in the nuts, because they have no right to take what used to be a free, open internet and put a lock-hold on it, and tell me, “If you don’t behave and do what I say, I’m gonna kick you out.” What the hell happened to the open internet?
Paul: You’re a narcissistic goon who won’t be happy until you can hump a drone!
Rich: …. Now you’re just being mean.
Paul: I know. [laughter] But it feels so good. All right, look: I don’t think we’re gonna resolve the issue of Uber’s moral role in the culture —
Rich: No. I just want to say something about my position here.
Rich: I think this guy does a handful of disgusting things. And I think he’s gonna get punished for it, and thank God for the press. And thank God for how this all works, right? Because the balance of power is gonna eventually, whether it be government or other really big companies, is gonna put him in his place. And I think he’ll be gone at some point. I don’t think it’s fair that people are like, well he goes to strip joints. Like, that’s none of your business. I think he’s gross, but there are many CEOs who go to strip joints. It’s gotten to a point where it’s become, how do we, let’s paint this disgusting story —
Paul: Well he’s — he’s a villain now.
Rich: He’s an idiot, is what he is. If you’re at that position of power and wealth, you should not be going to a strip joint and opening your laptop at the strip joint. I think he did that.
Paul: Well —
Rich: So that’s ridiculous.
Paul: I think that was back in the day.
Rich: No. What you’re supposed to do is take the penthouse suite, and you make a couple of phone calls —
Paul: OK, let’s move on.
Rich: All right. [laughter]
Paul: In our podcast.
Rich: He’s very wealthy.
Paul: Here’s the thing: very rich people in our era are exceedingly weird. And the thing —
Paul: One of the things I think about, this whole scene of, like, the PayPal Mafia and the Travis Kalanick — is it “KAL-ah-nick?”
Paul: “Kah-LAN-ick?” “Co-LON-ic?”
Rich: I don’t know. It doesn’t matter.
Paul: And Jeff Bezos. The things they buy are weird, and all these guys want rockets. That’s a big thing.
Rich: Rock — I think it’s phallic.
Paul: You think it is?
Rich: I think there’s something there. I think there’s something there. I think they want to represent themselves in a certain way.
Paul: I mean, it is true, they are literally shooting things off of the earth, that’s not a good look —
Paul: When you think about it that way.
Rich: That’s right.
Paul: God, you just turned all the space stuff incredibly gross.
Rich: Well, let’s, I mean, let’s, it’s weird. Let’s go back to your point, which is, it’s just silly. What else are you gonna do?
Paul: I guess that’s true. Once you get that, like —
Rich: You’ve done it. You’ve got the yacht…
Rich: Does Ellison want to go into space? I have a feeling he doesn’t.
Paul: Ellison, I think, just wants better samurai swords. We’re talking about Larry Ellison, who created Oracle.
Rich: He’s a weird dude.
Paul: So this is the thing, like —
Rich: They don’t know what — I think they don’t know what to do.
Paul: I mean, Bezos bought the Washington Post.
Rich: That’s right.
Paul: That was a normal rich person thing to do.
Rich: That’s a move that’s made, right?
Rich: It’s a van — I call them vanity purchases, they buy big-league sports teams, they buy newspapers, because they feel like, you know what, we must protect this important —
Paul: It’s also — these are businesses where you can have a couple down years and maybe one up year and you’re still, you can work that out.
Paul: Like, sports teams and newspapers are things where you actually need a little bit of a long view in order to, to get there.
Rich: It’s a fun new problem, right?
Rich: It’s a fun new challenge.
Paul: And they create for you tremendous interesting social opportunity.
Paul: You’re never bored. Someone always wants to come see the Clippers play.
Rich: Mmmm hmmm.
Paul: And that’s Paul Allen, right, who owns them?
Rich: No. Steve Ballmer owns the Clippers.
Paul: Steve Ballmer! Steve Ballmer, that’s right.
Rich: Paul Allen owns, I think owns the Seattle teams.
Paul: That’s right.
Rich: He owns the Seahawks and someone else.
Paul: So um…
Rich: And these are really dumpy, just, these are white people that aren’t in shape. They’re in terrible shape. They’re all —
Paul: No, they all get skinny in their fifties, though? You notice that? They get the personal trainer —
Paul: Yeah, he’s lost a lot.
Rich: Has he really?
Paul: Yeah, yeah.
Paul: Compared to the old days, when he would, like, break his ankle just running around onstage?
Rich: Right. Right.
Paul: No, no. They get, because what happens is someone prepares, you know, discs of protein for them every day.
Rich: Right. Right.
Paul: So yeah, those guys: boats, sports teams, newspapers. But then there’s this new breed who’s like, “We gotta get to Mars. We gotta go.” Elon Musk is one. Bezos wants to get us into space. Richard Branson wanted to do that for a while, from Virgin. He was really into the rockets.
Rich: Look, I think —
Paul: Bill Gates just wants to get everyone immunized.
Rich: Yeah, he wants to hand everybody mosquito nets.
Paul: He wants to put a needle in ya.
Rich: Which is great. I mean look, Bill Gates, I mean, we will look back and say, “Well what’s my mission for the rest of my life?” And say, this guy turned it around.
Paul: I swear, I spent 10 years hating the guy, and now —
Rich: Yeah, it’s tough.
Paul: I’m just like, “Yeah…all right, all right, OK.”
Rich: Exactly. So here’s my, you wanna hear another theory?
Rich: I think when you get to that level of wealth and freedom, death is amplified. I think dying…
Paul: Because it’s kind of the only thing you have left to worry about.
Rich: It’s kind — that’s it, right? So if you put Mars in front of that? You gotta put something big in front of that.
Paul: It’s true, these are people who are very motivated by enormous projects.
Paul: They like to move markets.
Paul: I remember talking to people who worked at Microsoft, and Microsoft doesn’t necessarily think in terms of let’s ship a new product. It thinks in terms of, what will this market look like in 10 years?
Paul: And where are we going to be in this market, and can we essentially control or have direct influence in the overall marketplace for online advertising, office automation software, just, whatever it is, right?
Rich: Yeah. This is a scale that very few companies get to think at.
Paul: Well it’s not like you and me, where we’re like, “Can we ship that in three months and see if anybody likes it?”
Rich: Yeah, sure.
Paul: They’re gonna — they know that 100 million people are going to be implicated —
Rich: Are gonna go. Yeah, yeah.
Paul: And so I think you’re right, you get to that scale, it’s very nation-state level, and I think it’s also, like, Gates is an exceptionally wonky human being from birth, right? You give that guy a spreadsheet and you say, “I think if we do these 144,000 things, we could get a 0.01% increase in overall health outcomes.”
Paul: And he’ll go, “OK, well, you know, what else can we do to get that number up?”
Paul: And then run through all 144,000.
Rich: I think that’s sport for him right now, and that’s a meaningful thing, because there are some terrible problems in the world.
Paul: Right. But the guy is wired to that level.
Rich: Yes. Problem solving.
Paul: Let’s get in the private jet and somebody, you know, I bet there’s, like, a really nice projector —
Rich: On the jet.
Paul: On the private jet where, like, MS Office comes up.
Paul: And it’s the desktop version, not the web version, and projects there in the jet and tells him really interesting statistics.
Rich: Does the private jet, like, land in, like, Nigeria?
Paul: Yeah, that’s his big thing. He’s actually a little apologetic about it. He’s like, “Well, it’s a real indulgence to have a private jet, but it makes my, my philanthropy so much easier.”
Rich: Got it, got it, got it.
Paul: Right? Which, I mean, literally —
Rich: If you have a private chef in the tent, even though you’re going to visit the struggling —
Paul: I think the thing with Gates is he actually was always a fly-coach, didn’t really care too much kind of guy?
Rich: Yeah. I can see that.
Paul: Same with Warren Buffett. I don’t think it was necessarily —
Rich: Buffett gets on my nerves a little bit.
Paul: Yeah, but I don’t think it’s a huge affect. I think they’re just like, “Oh, God. What am I gonna do?” And then they go, “Well, I don’t really want to change anything. I like this.”
Rich: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.
Paul: What’s fascinating to me, though, is the other class of billionaire just really is into, like, a certain kind of mega-transportation. Also Elon Musk is into the hyperloop? He wants to get us, like — they want to mess with everything.
Rich: Point A to Point B, real fast.
Paul: They like to point to, like, we don’t have enough bullet trains.
Paul: We don’t have enough whatever.
Paul: And self-driving cars. So it’s like everyone’s gotten very into transportation.
Paul: I don’t know what to do with that.
Rich: I think, you know, again, I think it’s, I think it’s problems that they probably won’t solve.
Rich: Which is great, right?
Paul: That’s the attractive part.
Rich: It’s humbling and I think you’re better able to embrace your mortality a little bit here. It’s like, OK, well I’ve set the stage and this will be realized 100 years after my death, and they’ll call it The Musk Hyperloop. Did you take the Musk this morning?
Paul: Yeah, did you take — that’s right.
Paul: To Musk Plaza.
Rich: Yeah. Have you been to Musk Plaza?
Rich: There’s a great Cinnabon there.
Paul: That’s where they put the chip in your neck so you behave.
Rich: Right. Exactly. So that is immortality, in many cases.
Paul: You’re right. Maybe we’re reading all of these great, you know, rocketry advances the wrong way. Maybe what they’re about is…
Rich: The future.
Paul: And just dealing with the fact that you’re going to die.
Paul: So what will my legacy be? It will be spraying rockets —
Paul: Into the earth.
Rich: Prime ministers and dictators name libraries and airports after themselves.
Paul: That’s right.
Paul: It’s true. These guys want spaceports.
Rich: Yeah, yeah.
Paul: Yeah, look at me, I made this happen.
Paul: And you’re right, it’s impossible, so it’s something they can stay awake at night and stare at the ceiling about, just like they used to do before they made that first billion dollars.
Paul: They can just sit there and scratch that itch and pick that scab until finally —
Paul: They’re sending their own satellites up — or they’re dead.
Rich: These are — yeah, exactly.
Paul: Makes sense to me. All right, Rich. This is interesting, because we’re talking about bazillionaires who want to go to space.
Rich: I think we’ve got a theme for this podcast, Paul.
Paul: I think it is travel.
Rich: It’s the travel —
Paul: I think we’re talking about travel.
Rich: It’s the Point A to Point B podcast.
Paul: So I have a different angle on this, which is that I take the bus every day.
Rich: I don’t — the bus, you and the bus fascinates me.
Paul: Well so first of all, it’s an express bus.
Rich: So now we’re talking about the bus system in New York City.
Paul: Yeah, we should clarify that.
Paul: I take it for granted.
Rich: And it’s an incredibly elaborate bus system, and the standard bus system is this massive map, far eclipsing the train map.
Paul: This is the thing: people think about —
Rich: It’s pretty impressive, actually.
Paul: People think about the subways in New York City, because they’ve seen that map and you see picture of the train. But an unbelievable amount of the transit in New York City is…well actually, an enormous amount is done by car. Nobody really pays much attention to that when they’re out of the city, but millions of people are driving around every day, which is very…
Rich: It’s infuriating.
Paul: It’s infuriating. It’s not what it’s designed for. And the other thing that’s going on is that there is a vast bus system that connects to all the subway lines and covers all the boroughs. And so it’s really important because it’s, on, along the subway lines, housing tends to be a little more expensive. You’re a little more tightly connected?
Paul: And so the busses are a path for people who don’t have as much money to connect to the rest of the city in a relatively time-sensible way, like —
Paul: Usually you can get to a subway in about, probably 20 minutes to a half hour for most busses. So it’s not an enormous penalty to pay.
Paul: And so —
Rich: You also, I mean, knowing you, you like to be above ground. You want that connectivity.
Paul: I do like to be above ground. I like to be on my phone. I love to look out the window at the infrastructure of the city. I do enjoy that a lot. I just like looking at New York City.
Rich: It’s, yeah, it’s endless.
Paul: It’s very meditative, because you look at it and you go, wow, they built that. Somebody got there and built that and now they’re all dead and I’ll be dead, too, and that’s fine. Like, it just chills me out.
Rich: That’s a good thought, as you’re on the bus.
Paul: It actually is. You see the Brooklyn Bridge, and you’re like, ah, that’s still here. That’s cool.
Paul: So I take the express bus, which is, yeah, a little bit of a, a little bit of a secret New York City thing. They’re more expensive, and it just so happens that our office and my home are well-connected.
Paul: By the express bus, and it’s very chill. You get on…
Rich: It’s nice.
Paul: You have your own seat.
Rich: It’s nice to have that pocket of time, because when you’re not on, not in that setting, and I go on the train —
Rich: Which actually I lose connectivity, which forces me to read and sort of pause and listen to music, you just don’t bother the rest of the day. We’re so connected all day long that we don’t say, OK, it’s time for a 20-minute rest period.
Paul: Well and it’s nice to look out the window and think thoughts.
Rich: Yeah, exactly.
Paul: Like it really is my time. I’ve got, you and I both have little kids at home.
Paul: And we’ve got a company that we are running.
Paul: And so that is the window —
Rich: It’s a lot.
Paul: Well I just get to be myself. I don’t have to be the co-founder of Postlight, and I don’t have to be Dad.
Paul: I’m just this schlubby guy looking at his phone, looking out the window at the Manhattan —
Rich: It’s heavy, right? I mean, the New York City bus system allows Paul Ford to be himself.
Paul: It does. It’s my freedom.
Paul: And so the busses didn’t used to be so good.
Rich: Mmmm hmmm.
Paul: Because you would sit and wait for a bus, and it wouldn’t come.
Rich: For…yeah. And you had no….way of knowing.
Paul: Well they had these little charts at every stop to tell you —
Rich: With clock.
Paul: And what they’ll tell you, like, you know, there’ll be a bus at 5:45, 5:50, 5:55. And you’d be sitting there looking at that thing and kind of checking your watch —
Rich: It’s utter nonsense.
Paul: And then 25 minutes would go by.
Paul: Because the busses are running in a loop and they all got bunched up at Cadman Plaza or whatever.
Paul: And so a couple years ago they introduced a thing called Bus Time.
Rich: Mmmm hmmm.
Paul: Which is kind of one of my favorite things in the world. It’s an API, so you can —
Paul: If you’re a programmer, you can mess with it. And if you use the MTA, the Mass Transit Authority’s website, you can access it, and it tells you when all the busses are coming.
Rich: It’s also in many apps.
Rich: There are many bus, New York City bus apps, because I guess the API’s free.
Paul: Everything, yeah, no, and it has changed the way that people live in New York City.
Paul: It really has. When I leave the office I check it, and I know kind of how fast to walk.
Paul: To get to my bus stop. And —
Rich: That’s a big deal.
Paul: I know when the express busses are coming. And now they’re starting to, it was on apps for a while, and now they’re starting to put it more and more into signage.
Paul: So you have this very interesting there where this API really has knit the city more closely together —
Rich: That’s awesome.
Paul: And now the city itself is starting to become more sensitive to the status of its own transit.
Rich: Time, and…
Paul: Now it’s very interesting to me because I feel that we’re slowly, as everyone else is talking about self-driving cars, or rockets to Mars, we’re knitting together the city through these various APIs and this little bit of information just kind of consistently a little bit more is leaking out every year.
Rich: Yeah. Mmmm hmmm.
Paul: And it means that you, in space, are very aware, kind of what your options are, with your MetroCard. Like you can go anywhere.
Rich: It’s very cool.
Paul: Now I’m very directed home at this point. Like I know I need to get home because I gotta help get the kids to bed, or…
Rich: Mmmm hmmm.
Paul: You know, or I’m headed in here in the mornings. But they’ll be a point in my life that I’m really looking forward to where the kids are a little bit older and I’ll be able to grab them, or just go myself, and hop on the bus, hop on another bus, and they are starting to understand that, you know, it’ll be five minutes, what that means.
Paul: And so I’m looking forward to that. I think that that —
Rich: My kids also love the bus.
Paul: Oh, they love it! No, children love the bus.
Paul: And I’ve brought my son, uh…into Manhattan on the express bus a couple times, and it is an adventure and a half.
Paul: We get off at Battery Park and we run around. It’s good. So these things are enabled by that API. That is a tool and a system that is bringing people together, and it took years, but now I see everyone kind of checking their phone —
Paul: And not freaking out about, like, when one leaves if there’s another one coming.
Rich: And it’s worth noting the backstory of how this API came to be. There was a plan, and you know, a mandate given that, let’s do this, have there be a network where people can know when the busses are coming and going, and it went through sort of the standard RFP proposal process that the city would do for, like, construction.
Paul: This has always been a problem with technology, which is the the bidding — I mean, this is how healthcare.gov got into trouble, too.
Paul: Is that it the companies that were good at bidding on government work —
Paul: Got the work.
Rich: Exactly. And what you have, what happened was it was this outlandish number and this ridiculous timeframe. There is an article, by the way, tells this entire backstory. We should link to it in the notes.
Paul: We will.
Rich: And it didn’t, it never came together. I think they tried a pilot phase or something, and no — it just was taking forever, and there were all these glitches. And then, if I’m not mistaken, somebody got wind of a project out of MIT that essentially just was dead simple. It was just not that complicated, and they —
Paul: Glued a Nokia cellphone to the ceiling or something.
Rich: Yeah! It was really basic, and they’re like, we think we can do this fast and cheap and I think they piloted that, and then they said, “Go.” And I think the reason they were able to say go is because there was advocacy within the city government that got the nonsense out of the way, that got the, you know, the entrenched players out of the way, to let it happen. Otherwise it would’ve never happened. It’s been years now for the, the train systems. And I think there you, I bet, it’s not technical. What’s the issue?
Paul: It’s doable.
Rich: It’s doable!
Rich: And what it is is this bottleneck that’s driven by humans and just the status quo of power that exists in New York City. Get it done, right?
Paul: I can tell you right now that BM3 bus is 15 minutes away from, you know, 23rd and Park Ave.
Rich: See that’s so cool, right?
Paul: Right, and then I know how long it’ll take me to get home, I can plan and coordinate with my wife.
Paul: It makes me a better person —
Paul: To have that information.
Paul: I am more useful to my community. So —
Rich: Sure. Exactly.
Paul: It —
Rich: It’s probably, if you wanna look at pure economics, it is probably a net benefit economically —
Paul: It’s hugely empowering. Well think about it, too, because think about the way the city really works. You have relatively low-income people who are coming in to work as nannies, let’s say, for upper middle class people.
Rich: Mmmm hmmm.
Paul: And nanny and parent communication is often a source of stress.
Paul: Stress for the nanny, stress for the parent. You’ve got people who need to make their living, and the bus is late.
Rich: The dependency is huge.
Paul: The bus is late. She can say, “The bus is late.”
Rich: Mmmm hmmm.
Paul: And the person can go, OK, I can now call work, tell them I’ll be a half hour late.
Paul: And so this sort of trickle-down effect that used to take a lot, it used to really back things up?
Rich: Well you didn’t know.
Paul: There’s more communication.
Rich: You have information, right? And that’s a very powerful thing.
Paul: And it’s the real life of the city. That is how money transfers around inside of New York City is bodies moving from one place to another —
Rich: That’s right.
Paul: And sort of all kind of drifting towards Manhattan, but not everybody goes in.
Paul: That to me —
Rich: It’s impressive, it’s a great technology success story.
Paul: I’d rather more of that than more rockets.
Rich: [laughter] Exactly. Just get me to Queens, man!
Paul: This is the thing: I don’t have to get to Mars. Get me to Queens.
Rich: Right, right.
Paul: Get me to, like, the Queens Museum. I never go there. Tell me how to get there.
Rich: And look, as a worst-case scenario, there is Uber.
Paul: [the longest of sighs]
Rich: Let’s bring it all together here, Paul.
Paul: Or Lyft. There’s Lyft.
Rich: Or Lyft.
Paul: The problem is —
Rich: Lyft is very nice.
Paul: Here’s my problem is that, yes. Uber is evil. But then I’m supposed to suddenly fall in love with Lyft. [laughter]
Rich: Yeah, or one of the other ones.
Paul: Right? Like, don’t tell me that some giant venture-backed company is somehow the soulful good one.
Rich: Right. Exactly. Exactly. So here we are.
Paul: We’re all polluting.
Paul: All right, well, look, it’s an imperfect world, and we’re imperfect people in it, but we do like APIs that help people get around.
Rich: Yes. And this was, you know, the Track Changes travel podcast. [laughter]
Paul: It’s pretty good. You know what I like, though, is the Uber —
Rich: Brought to you by United Airlines?
Paul: The Uber app and the Bus Time app, right?
Paul: You’ve got, the phone is the connective tissue.
Rich: Oh, absolutely. We had a friend yesterday changing flights like she was ordering a sandwich.
Paul: That’s right.
Rich: On her phone.
Paul: That’s right. Now that’s all changed, but one of those apps is to put one or two people in a car, and one actually knits the whole city together and changes the economic fabric that way.
Paul: So it’s, to me, the priority, culturally, feels like it should be more on the latter, but right now the big story in the world is: “Uber: Is it evil? What are we doing about it?”
Paul: But it’s, it’s a car country, even though we don’t live in a car city.
Paul: So I think that is going to guide the stories that people are telling.
Rich: I think that’s right.
Paul: All right, well I’m gonna go get my bus.
Rich: All right. I’m gonna…open the Uber app for no good reason.
Paul: No good reason.
Paul: You would never actually take an Uber, Rich.
Rich: No. No.
Paul: OK well listen. This is Track Changes, the podcast of Postlight, a digital product studio in New York City. I am your co-host and co-founder, Paul Ford.
Rich: And I’m Rich Ziade. The other co-host…and the other co-founder!
Paul: Look, if you need us, you can just send an email to [email protected]. You can give us a rating on the iTunes store if you’re so inclined. We enjoy hearing your questions and we’d love to talk to you any time.
Rich: Have a great week.
Paul: I’ll see you soon!