A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jul 29, 2018

Uber and Lyft Riders Are Giving Up Public Transit, Not Cars, Increasing Urban Traffic 180%

Which is why New York and other big cities are now considering caps on the number of ride share vehicles. JL

Adam Brinklow reports in Curbed San Francisco and Henry Grabar reports in Slate:

Private-ride TNC services (UberX, Lyft) put 2.8 new vehicle miles on the road for each mile of personal driving removed, for an overall 180% increase in driving on city streetsIn nine of the country’s major cities (including its three biggest), about 60% of Uber or Lyft rides are replacing journeys that would have been made on transit, on bike, or on foot—or not at all. In other words, ride hailing is mostly a substitute for transit and other transportation alternatives, not a complement.
Curbed San Francisco
Bruce Schaller, a transit consultant who served as deputy commissioner for traffic and planning in New York City, released a new report (“Automobility”) Wednesday examining the effect of transit network companies (TNCs) like Lyft and Uber on city traffic.
While Schaller’s findings highlight some benefits of ride-hailing apps, including increased mobility for riders with disabilities and as a valuable supplement to public transit in areas where bus service is inadequate, “Automobility” draws unflattering conclusions for SF-based TNCs.
A few of Schaller’s findings:
  • Ride-hailing trips are concentrated mainly in a few large cities, including SF: “Seventy percent of Uber and Lyft trips are in nine large, densely populated metropolitan areas: Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington DC.” These nine cities accounted for 1.2 billion rides in 2017.
  • Ride-hailing trips are by far more popular in SF than anywhere else: In 2017, Schaller estimates that San Franciscans took 75 million trips via hide-hailing apps. That’s not only more than almost any other city, it’s also the most in terms of rides per population density, some 86 rides per person. The only city with a higher TNC ride volume is New York, which clocked 159 million; however, New York is also the sole city that still prefers taxis, taking 167 million cab trips the same year.
  • Critically, Schaller alleges that TNCs compete with public transit, not private cars: “[Rider surveys indicate] about 60 percent of TNC users in large, dense cities would have taken public transportation, walked, biked, or not made the trip if TNCs had not been available for the trip.”
  • The report alleges that Lyft and Uber generate more traffic congestion: “Private-ride TNC services (UberX, Lyft) put 2.8 new TNC vehicle miles on the road for each mile of personal driving removed, for an overall 180 percent increase in driving on city streets.”
  • And TNC expansion won’t fix it: The companies often argue that in the long run, if ride-hailing apps become the norm instead of personal driving, it will lead to a net decline in miles. But Schaller estimates that “Lyft’s recently announced goal of 50 percent of rides being shared by 2022 would produce 2.2 TNC miles being added to city streets for each personal auto mile taken off the road.”
  • Self-driving cars would be most useful in the form of shuttle-like group commutes: “A widely-cited travel model for Lisbon, Portugal, for example, found that traffic could increase by approximately 50 percent if travelers favored autonomous ‘regular taxis’ that are not shared. On the other hand, the model showed a 37 percent decline in vehicle kilometers, and total elimination of congestion, under a shared-taxi scenario.” Presently, TNC rides remain primarily single-passenger trips.
For Schaller’s full report, including his list of cited sources, check it out here.
In goop Health SummitPhoto by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for goop
In response, Zipcar CEO Robin Chase penned a CityLab op-ed pointing the finger over traffic woes at car culture, not ride-hailing apps:
Cities have been congested and transit has been poorly used for years before these companies set up shop. [...] Taxis plus ride-hailing plus carsharing account for just 1.7 percent of miles traveled by urban dwellers, while travel by personal cars account for 86 percent. [...] Streets are congested and too few people choose mass transit now, like last year and the year before that and the year before that.
Uber spokesperson Matthew Wing told Curbed SF, “We wholeheartedly agree with several of Mr. Schaller’s proposed public policies.” But he called the study “fundamentally flawed in several areas,” arguing that ride-hailing trips increase mobility to areas underserved by public transit like small towns.
Wing also said, “2018 has already dramatically changed the nature of our service,” emphasizing the company’s expansion into bikes and scooters.
Via email, Lyft spokesperson Campbell Matthews dubbed Schaller a “taxi cab consultant” (citing a Curbed SF story as the company’s source) and touted other studies, noting, “According to Inrix, congestion declined five percent in the Bay Area last year, even as Lyft trips increased 49 percent.”
Slate In 2016, Lyft co-founder John Zimmer made the optimist’s case for services like Uber and Lyft in the American city. Zimmer forecast the end of private car ownership in cities within a decade as urbanites abandoned personal cars for the convenience of an increasingly automated and affordable shared fleet of taxis. Street space is repurposed, traffic declines, air quality improves.
That projected deadline is still years away, but the company thinks it’s making good progress. On its annual survey of drivers and passengers, Lyft reports that over 250,000 passengers gave up their personal vehicle thanks to easily available ride hailing. In an email, a company spokesperson cited a congestion study by the consulting firm Inrix, which showed peak-hour congestion falling by 5 percent in San Francisco from 2016 to 2017—a time when Lyft ridership grew 49 percent.
A new report from Bruce Schaller, a consultant and former traffic official in New York City, makes the opposite case. In nine of the country’s major cities (including its three biggest), Schaller argues, about 60 percent of Uber or Lyft rides are replacing journeys that would have been made on transit, on bike, or on foot—or not at all. In other words, ride hailing is mostly a substitute for transit and other transportation alternatives, not a complement. Because users are choosing the car ride instead of the subway and drivers spend a lot of time driving around without passengers (deadheading), Schaller projects services like Lyft and Uber put 2.8 new vehicle miles on the road for every mile of personal car travel they remove.
In short, the report argues that Uber and Lyft are creating a ton of traffic—5.7 billion miles a year in the nine cities he studies. Schaller, who is sympathetic to the cab companies that the startups displaced, has been making this point for some time. As have others. In 2015, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio tried, and quickly failed, to put a limit on the number of Ubers in Manhattan. But times have changed since then. General Motors is launching a car-sharing service, like an Airbnb for cars. Uber and Lyft, in the meantime, have each purchased a company that rents bicycles—a move that relieves each company’s dependence on the personal automobile.
Uber spokesman Matthew Wing argued that while Uber may well be replacing transit trips, that says more about the quality of the transit that U.S. cities provide: “Yes, when a better option comes along in areas with bad transit, it should not be a surprise that they decide to take that better option.” In Los Angeles, UCLA researcher Anne Brown found that users in low-income neighborhoods made the most Lyft trips per person, and that the presence of carless households is positively correlated with trips. (Schaller also finds that Uber and Lyft usage is higher in cities with a greater share of transit riders.) More, faster trips are a good thing. That means more people spending less time to commute, to socialize, to run errands, etc. But it poses an intractable problem for cities that only have so much street space. Unfortunately, politicians are already citing Uber, Lyft, and the supposedly imminent arrival of autonomous vehicles to reject transit improvements that could more efficiently move people around. Meanwhile, self-styled climate-warrior mayors refuse to challenge the dominance of personal cars, which still account for the lion’s share of traffic and emissions. All the while, worsening congestion slows ambulances, buses, and freight deliveries while punishing pedestrians, cyclists, and low-income residents with toxic air.
The long-term solution to this problem is a tax that accurately prices the externalities associated with driving alone, which can be funneled to fund better transit. (Not coincidentally, Uber has thrown $1 million behind such a proposal in New York City.)
The short-term solution might lie in the scooters and bicycles that have taken Silicon Valley by storm. If ride hailing is eating transit trips, dockless scooters and bikes (particularly electric ones) appear to be eating ride hail trips. Uber users in San Francisco who started to access the company’s new Jump e-bikes took 15 percent more trips through the app—but 10 percent fewer car rides.
What’s stopping Uber from shifting more trips from cars to bikes? Reactionary urban policy. There’s no limit on how many cars the company can drive into San Francisco—but the city only allows the company to operate 250 bikes, and has banned electric scooters altogether.

Curbed San Francisco


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