News & Politics

Amazon Prime and Uber Are Changing the Map of Your City

Apps don't just affect how we transport things and people. They shape where we choose to live, work, and play.
Illustration by Alli Arnold.
Illustration by Alli Arnold.

Consider a few seemingly unrelated news events in and around Washington this past year:

  • Last July, Metro’s Silver Line opened, offering four new stops at Tysons Corner, including one that delivers riders to the region’s premier mall.
  • That same month, several dozen protesters showed up in front of the Washington Post building to express outrage over a Metro-section column that slammed bicyclists.
  • The month before, the District government approved a 45-unit apartment building—despite the fact that it had just 16 parking spaces.
  • Throughout the second half of 2014, hundreds of residents of Northern Virginia and DC pestered their local governments about the once-obscure topic of taxicab regulations—in this case, ones that might crack down on the car-hailing services Uber and Lyft.
  • In September, Yellow Cab, Washington’s largest taxi company, said its revenues had dropped by 30 percent from 2013.
  • In October, the US Postal Service began delivering packages on Sundays in DC to customers who shop on Amazon.

At first blush, these happenings don’t look like more than the small-potatoes stories they were—retail innovations, changing commercial fortunes, local political battles. But look again. Each has to do, in one way or another, with matters of transportation. And each is part of a related trend. When some savvy historian from the future reads up on the region as it is today, these may well add up to something much more interesting, something the area hasn’t fully digested: Washington is in the midst of a transportation revolution that’s substantially changing the ways residents get around—and, just as important, the way goods and services get to residents.

Take a look at the big picture: Car-hailing apps such as Uber, car-sharing outfits like Zipcar, new transit routes, and the proliferation of bike lanes have made it easier to avoid driving. Delivery services including Amazon Prime and Peapod (which plans to roll out a pilot project with Metrorail in which people can pick up preordered groceries at the station on their way home) leave even car owners with less need to make a trip. Zoning rules are being reconsidered, with fewer demands for parking spaces—a change that would affect the economics of what can be built and where. And increased construction can alter the bottom line for retail, potentially tempting more businesses to move in.

When it has been noticed at all, the new transportation landscape has been portrayed as a twentysomething phenomenon, a tale of carefree millennials who hype whatever supposedly disruptive new liquor-delivery app just hit the market and who make a lifestyle fetish out of using Capital Bikeshare to go home to their hip new neighborhoods. That interpretation has some truth. Young professionals—12,583 millennials arrived in Washington between 2010 and 2012—are the ones whose lives have been most shaped by the change.

But it’s a mistake to assume it will stay that way. Behind the scenes, changes in the logistics infrastructure are reconfiguring our mental maps of the region and are likely to affect the way all sorts of locals live, work, and play. Here’s the story of this new world.

Ditto Residential, a DC development firm, is putting up a 45-unit apartment building at 1326 Florida Avenue, Northeast. The Trinidad neighborhood, just north of the buzzy H Street corridor, is experiencing rapid redevelopment and an influx of many of the nearly 1,000 new residents DC has been taking on every month. There’s okay bus coverage, and the city government insists neighbors will get utility out of the new streetcar—it’s still delayed—but the nearest Metro station is more than a mile away.

Not long ago, that fact alone would have killed the idea. Lack of Metro access would have either scared off new residents or meant that they demanded parking, which in turn would have boosted prices above what people would pay in a marginal neighborhood, even one where homicides fell by 50 percent between 2011 and 2014. Even if would-be tenants weren’t insisting on parking spaces, city regulators would be operating off a zoning code written in 1958 that says developments in Trinidad have to include at least one parking space for every two housing units. This formula would have required Ditto to dig two levels of underground parking, exploding the project’s cost—a $636,000 difference that the firm says would have forced it to increase annual rents by more than $2,000.

Ditto won an exception after proving that people moving into buildings such as 1326 Florida are less likely than ever to be car owners. The city, however, attached some conditions: Ditto has to give free car-share or bike-share memberships to its tenants for five years, and it has to put up an electronic billboard in its lobby that shows arrival and availability information for nearby forms of transportation, in real time. This wasn’t the wholesale zoning change that walkable-city advocates wanted, but it was a neat illustration of the way 21st-century ideas about transportation are beginning to reshape the city.

Apps like Drizly are making it so we don’t even need to leave our homes to buy booze. Illustration by Alli Arnold.

That process works like this: First, it gets easier not to have a car. In recent years, things such as improved public transit and 69 miles of new bike lanes in the District alone have made Washington an easier place to navigate without driving.

Next, new digital businesses—Uber, Instacart, Car2Go—capitalize on this market. (Google has even made noise with a far-fetched idea to roll out a ride service featuring driverless cars.) One of the things these services collectively do is make up for some of the things you lose—say, access to a wonderfully big, suburban-style grocery store—by not driving.

Then the rate of car ownership tumbles: For the 18-to-34 demographic across the region, the share of people who drove to work fell by 7 percentage points between 2000 and 2013, according to the US Census. The District alone gained 12,612 car-free households between 2010 and 2012.

Finally, as a result, lawmakers and regulators have no choice but to catch up—which means even more bike lanes, liberalized transit rules, and denser neighborhoods whose residents make appealing customer bases for bike sharing, and cars by the hour, and novel delivery options for economy-size packs of toilet paper. It’s a cycle that reinforces itself.

A lot of this is a national phenomenon, championed by Silicon Valley disrupter types. But it’s taking particular hold in Washington. A decrepit, little-loved taxicab industry made ours an especially welcoming market for Uber, which was also poised to take advantage of the hassles that come with ferrying riders among jurisdictions. (As DC residents and Virginians did, Marylanders revolted when local pols threatened to get in the way of the business.) Uber’s business has lately been the subject of scathing criticism over less wonky things like labor relations, privacy, and safety, but even if the high-profile controversies curdle into a public backlash against the firm—or lead to changes in its practices—app-fueled rides are here to stay.

Likewise, bike sharing quickly became much more popular here than in similar-size cities. Members of Boston’s bike-sharing program, much of which is offered only seasonally, logged 1.7 million miles between 2011 and 2013. Capital Bikeshare recorded nearly 5.1 million miles over that span and another 4.3 million in 2014, with 80 percent of that mileage generated by locals with monthly or annual memberships.

The effects of this evolution shape possibilities for pedestrians as well as people who drive everywhere: After all, the vibrancy created by apartments like 1326 Florida has the potential to be manifested in commercial activities, not to mention tax dollars, that are available to anyone. People who don’t own cars may provide a particularly motivated market for Peapod or Lyft, but the transportation shakeup affects other people’s lives, too. The nightlife zones people avoid for fear of not finding a parking space become easier to visit. The marginal neighborhoods where people worry about being able to hail a cab to get to an early-morning flight become viable options. (Uber says a quarter of its DC trips begin or end in Northeast, which includes gentrifying neighborhoods like Brookland and Carver-Langston.) Our mental map of the region—of what’s convenient and what’s not, what’s close and what’s not—subtly changes.

The shift isn’t limited to the District. Suburban planners are remodeling communities around walking and transit. All you need to do to see this effect is ride the Silver Line out to Tysons, where the advent of Metro is expected to bring 45 million square feet of new residential and commercial construction over the next several decades. Late last year, Fairfax County adopted a master plan that calls for more than 1,000 miles of signed bike paths to be installed over the next three decades, up from 353 miles today. This isn’t a gift to weekend fitness buffs: The utopian plan envisions a population that walks or bikes every trip of less than three miles.

Yes, that sounds implausible now, but today’s teenagers are more likely to put off getting their driver’s licenses the minute they turn 16. A 2013 study by AAA found that nationally, only 44 percent of teens are getting their licenses within 12 months of that milestone birthday, and just 54 percent within a year of turning 18. Only 6,717 Maryland 16-year-olds got their licenses in 2013, and while that number is actually up from 2012, it’s less than one-third the number of 16-year-olds who got a license in 1995.

In Maryland, Montgomery County is aggressively converting the zone between Bethesda and Rockville known as White Flint into a hub of spiffy developments that blend apartments and condos with shopping, office space, and a nudge toward car-free living. The county’s long-term vision is a clump of “transit-oriented developments” around the White Flint Metro station and a conversion of Rockville Pike from a limited-access, high-speed byway to a multi-modal corridor with dedicated lanes for bikes, cars, and rapid-transit buses—and, if all goes as planned, a new market for digital businesses that facilitate the work of moving people and things.

“We like to think of transportation as its own little world, but it’s really about land use and mixed use,” says Gabe Klein, who was DC’s transportation chief under Mayor Adrian Fenty and is now an adviser to Bridj, a Boston start-up that engineers crowd-sourced commuter van lines and just launched in DC. “Suburbs are urbanizing, which is a good thing, particularly here. What used to be suburbs were empty car lots that are now high-density developments.”

I needed a new shirt. I could have gone to Nordstrom Rack near Washingtonian’s office, or to one of the upscale menswear brands that ring Farragut Square. More likely, I would have waited until the weekend to go to some Metro-accessible suburban mall. But, in the interest of this article, I outsourced the job to Postmates, an app that connects users with couriers who will pick up anything you want—a shirt, a meal from Chef Geoff’s, a home appliance from Target—and deliver it within an hour.

Thirty minutes after telling the app I wanted a new blue oxford button-down, I got a text message from an unfamiliar number saying, “Did you liked [sic] it?,” accompanied by a photo of the garment.

“Yeah, that’s good,” I replied. Exactly 14 minutes later, a man named Yoseph was standing by his car outside my office building waiting for me to sign for a light-blue Michael Kors shirt. It fit. The whole transaction took just 44 minutes, in downtown midday traffic. It cost me $69.30, including almost $21 in service charges and tip.

Two kinds of infrastructure are shaping the way we use the region. The type that dominated the 20th century was the heavy kind—freeways, railways, subways. As is clear to anyone who has watched the excitement over the Silver Line, or the handwringing over the fate of Maryland’s Purple Line, those things remain hugely important. Yoseph was an example of the second type of infrastructure, the lighter, private-sector, digital variety that popped up without anyone really regulating it or pondering its effects on the region at large.

Consider the retail world’s biggest player. Items ordered through Amazon are now delivered every day of the week, including Sunday, thanks to the deal the company struck with the Postal Service. That doesn’t just mean quick deliveries of obscure books. Think huge crates of diapers—a necessity for new parents, and one that until recently required a schlep by car. Now everyone, with or without a car, can skip that particular inconvenience.

Multiple apps are offering grocery delivery services. Illustration by Alli Arnold.

Same for grocery shopping and even sundries. While Uber and Lyft made inroads as taxi replacements, both have been described as aspiring logistics providers in a consumer economy. To compete with the likes of Postmates, Uber spent five months testing a service to deliver convenience-store sundries in DC. (The program ended in late January, and the company won’t say what’s next.) Google is getting in on the game, too, with an Amazon-like membership service offering same-day delivery of items from big-box retailers like Staples and Barnes & Noble.

“I would grocery-shop and I’d have all these bags in the car,” says Logan Circle resident Kate Zola. “At the time we lived on the circle, you couldn’t double-park. So it was calling my husband, saying, ‘Come down—I’ll get the groceries out of the car.’ And he’d get in and drive around to park. With grocery services, you can call it in and someone will bring it up the stairs for you.”

Still, while the new infrastructure may be celebrated most energetically by urbanist types, the effects are tough to predict. The possibility of easy transportation and quick access to stuff could just as easily enable living farther from the crowds of Zola’s Logan Circle neighborhood.

And as with any moment of capitalist innovation, a lot—perhaps most—of the new ideas won’t make it. Aba Kwawu, a publicist who lives in Rockville, used to tap a locally run company called My Kids Ride to ferry her children, then ages three and five, to school. The firm has since scaled back. But the comfort with the idea—and the possibility that someone will make a viable service that harried parents can rely on to organize their lives—remains. While Kwawu isn’t about to put her kids in the back seat of an Uber or Lyft car, she’s open to doing so someday. “If they had truly safe transportation and they were a little older, I could consider it,” she says. “For preteens or teenagers who are not driving age or not driving cars, why not?”

As for Postmates’ effect on the commercial landscape, restaurants say they’re seeing a bit more business thanks to the app, but thus far it’s no game changer. “I wouldn’t say it’s a big component today, but we like to look down the road and tailor our business plan to those things,” says Tony Velazquez, owner of Baked & Wired, a Georgetown bakery and coffee shop. “I don’t know if their business model is going to prevail. But we’ve just become an impatient society that wants things and doesn’t want to go anywhere. That’s how it’s going to be.”

If there’s a new transportation network that’s boosting sales at Baked & Wired—which is in a Metro desert—Velazquez says it’s Car2Go, a fleet of tiny Smart cars that allows members to park anywhere in the city. “Sometimes there’s 12 of them lined up on our street,” Velazquez says. “They come in the morning, they park on [Thomas Jefferson Street], come into our place, then go to work.” (Indeed, Car2Go says Georgetown is among the top three neighborhoods for usage.)

Specific business models are bound to fizzle—think of Kozmo, the spectacularly failed delivery service from the 1990s-era first internet bubble—and the politics of the new light infrastructure, like the heavy kind, are not guaranteed, either.

In Maryland, Larry Hogan campaigned against the $2.5-billion price tag on Maryland’s planned Purple Line en route to winning last year’s gubernatorial election. “My priority is building roads,” he told the Post in December, prompting transit advocates and local chambers of commerce to freak out. It’s too simplistic to paint Hogan’s reluctance as a “Republicans hate trains” thing. Even deep-blue DC has a large percentage of residents who resent the profusion of bike lanes and want government to ensure ample parking. Car ownership has been ingrained as an essential component of American life for generations, and not just in the suburbs.

For all the immediacy that these new apps and other services claim to offer, big infrastructural shifts need a long time to take effect. Even if all the region’s planned transit upgrades pan out by 2040, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments still expects 57 percent of commuters to be driving to work alone rather than carpooling.

What’s changed, though, is that the light, private-sector infrastructure is now a driver, too. Small things, we’ve learned, can alter neighborhood dynamics in a big way. And with every resident—car-owning or not—who comes to rely on a newfangled transportation service, or stops expecting there to be parking outside her home, or leads a life in which a bike lane or new streetcar is essential for getting to work, the politics change a bit. So does the business environment, where these residents are a market for still more unimagined ways of getting around and getting stuff.

“I know this,” says Kate Zola. “I will never own a car in my life again.”

Staff writer Benjamin Freed can be reached at bfreed@washingtonian.com or on Twitter @brfreed.

This article appears in our June 2015 issue of Washingtonian.

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