Taken for a Ride

The UC’s new taxi-sharing website is a waste of money

Spring break is right around the corner, which means figuring out the best way to make an escape to our vacation destination of choice. For the fortunate, this will mean a tropical destination far enough away from Cambridge’s winter wasteland that it requires air travel, and thus, a trip to Boston’s Logan Airport.

Admittedly, navigating the greater Boston area’s transportation system during rush hour of travel season is no mean feat, especially if you want to do so without emptying your wallet. But we humbly submit that the average Harvard student is more than up to the task.

Which is why we find the recent decision of the Undergraduate Council (UC) to spend $1,000 on a 21st century Rube Goldberg machine to accomplish the same feat perplexing, especially in light of its record of questionable spending decisions.

At its most recent meeting, the UC voted to pay for the development of a new Web site, called UC Rides, that will match up Logan-bound students with others who would like to share cabs with them at any given time. According to the proposal discussed at Sunday’s meeting, UC Rides, developed by Goose Networks, “will create an innovative commuting solution that combines a web-based interface, mobile phones, and advanced mapping algorithms to pair users in ridesharing arrangements.” Cutting through the marketing doublespeak, the new site will match students based on the proximity of the Houses they live in as well as what terminal they will be traveling from or to, in order to make it easier to share a cab.

Essentially, the UC is spending $1,000 of students’ termbill money (more if it decides to renew the service beyond the current two-and-a-half month contract) on a website that House lists, or a cheaply developed message board, could do just as well. Furthermore, the new Web site will face a considerable activation energy barrier to its success—the number of users will have to reach a dauntingly large critical mass before the site becomes a worthwhile investment. And the UC’s track record with events whose success depends on active student participation has not been the best.

For a number of years, the vast majority of students have managed to get to the airport without a problem. Those who are unable to take the T (at a fraction of the cost of sharing a cab) due to the timing of their flight, or who are simply uninterested, have simply turned to friends or e-mail lists and sought fellow taxi-takers there. While fancy new Web sites and advanced mapping algorithms are lovely, they are, in the case of UC Rides, completely unnecessary and foolish expenditures of UC money.

Rather than wasting $1,000 of its operations fund on something that clearly isn’t broken, the UC might instead have considered fixing something that is—updating the existing parts of its own uninspiring Web site. Or funding a worthy initiative that would benefit the entire undergraduate population, such as the recently-failed bill that would have provided newspapers to every dining hall. Or failing that, simply not spending the money at all, and instead transferring it to the student group grants fund, which historically runs out of money towards the end of the year. Dropping a grand on such bread-and-butter issues might not be as technologically fancy, but it would do far more for the student body.