Adam Fagen / Flickr

In San Francisco, unlike with taxis, people rarely wait more than 10 minutes for a ride service.

It's become a given that ride services like Uber et al are disrupting city mobility, but for all the digital ink spilled over that trend, we don't have much data on what exactly the disruption looks like. (That is, other than the occasionally questionable data the services supply themselves.) So it's important for outside observers to pull the veil back a bit, and a research team at UC-Berkeley led by Lisa Rayle has done just that with a new working paper on "ridesourcing" services, as they're calling Uber, Lyft, Sidecar, and friends.

The study focused on ride-service users in San Francisco. Some were intercepted immediately after a ride, some discussed a ride they'd taken in the past couple weeks. The researchers compared their findings with two 2013 data sets on taxi ridership—one a survey conducted by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, and the other a trip log from a local taxi company.

The report is wide-ranging and worth a full read, but here are some of the highlights. Ridesource users tended to be 25 to 34 years old (with very few over 45) and a bit wealthier than the general population. The services replaced transit trips at times (24 percent of users said their alternative would have been to take the bus) and added traffic to the network (8 percent said they wouldn't have made the trip at all). At the same time, 40 percent of users said they drove less than before, and many trips began near a rail (28 percent) or bus (85 percent) stop, suggesting a possible transit complement.

That's largely in line with what taxis provide for a city. But there was a glaring distinction between the ridesourcing and taxi experiences with regard to wait time. Here, Uber etc. hold an enormous advantage, according to the new study. We've charted some of the data on wait times below. 

(It's worth noting that the comparison isn't precisely apples to apples; the ridesource data represents all trips, and the taxi data represents dispatches to a rider's home as well as street hails near home.)

The first chart looks at wait times during a weekday. A whopping 93 percent of ride service users waited less than 10 minutes during this period. Compare that to 35 percent of taxi users who called a cab to their homes, and 39 percent who hailed one on the street. Not a single ride service user waited more than 20 minutes on a weekday; a considerable share of taxi riders did.

CityLab

The next chart, showing evening ridership, reveals more of the same. Once again, more than 90 percent of ride service users waited less than 10 minutes. At this time of day the cabs performed even worse. About half of all taxi riders waited 10 to 20 minutes for a cab called to their homes, and street hails were split pretty evenly among the three wait times.

CityLab

The weekend data confirms the weekday figures. Ridesource users wait a little longer on Saturdays and Sundays, with only 88 percent waiting less than 10 minutes, but they still get their ride long before those calling or hailing a taxi.

CityLab

The wait trend held true even when comparing specific zones of the city. In Zone 1, for instance, which includes downtown San Francisco, the share of ridesource users waiting less than 10 minutes ranged from 85 percent (on weekends) to 89 percent (on weekday evenings). The lowest Zone 1 wait times for taxis, meanwhile, occurred for street hails on weekdays, when only 53 percent waited less than 10 minutes. In Zone 1 on weekday evenings, only 17 percent of people calling a cab to their home waited less than 10 minutes. And the data show that Zone 1 was by no means unique.

So the lesson—as true with car services as it is for public transit—is that people hate waiting for transportation. (About 30 percent of respondents in the present study chose "short wait time" as their main reason for using the ride service, second to "ease of payment," at 35 percent.) And the source of ridesourcing's advantage in this area is quite clear: the mobile system that connects drivers with the nearest passenger.

In other words, one might conclude based on this data that it's the smartphone, more than any particular transportation service, that's greatly disrupting city mobility. (That goes for transit riders using real-time apps, too.) The question then becomes: Why haven't official taxi companies (if not cities themselves) invested more time and energy into developing smartphone-based services? We'll have more on this next week in the Future of Transportation series. For now, it's worth wondering whether all the effort being poured into the regulatory fight against Uber would be better spent creating technology that mimics its key advantage.

 

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