What's the trade-off? Seth Wenig/AP

A comprehensive survey in major U.S. cities finds Uber and Lyft aren’t living up to climate-friendly promises.

Ride-hailing: enemy or friend of public transportation? Climate change combatant or urban traffic snarler?

Years of emerging research has yielded a murky mix of answers to those questions since Uber hit the road in 2009. At various points, the main ride-hailing companies have alternated between actively promoting their services as weapons that destroy public transit and positioning them as something more like partners that help people access other modes. But a new working paper by U.C. Davis transportation researchers—which reflects perhaps the most comprehensive survey of ride-hailing use in U.S. cities—makes some clear indications: The likes of Uber and Lyft are adding car trips to city and suburban streets, and in many cases, cannibalizing transit.

Who’s on board?

The study looked at 4,000 users in seven major metro areas—Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.—between 2014 and 2016. It involved residents from both urban and suburban areas, and provides a snapshot of how deeply ride-hailing has inserted itself into bigger cities, at least among younger urbanites. “In major metropolitan areas, we find that 21 percent of adults have personally used ride-hailing services (i.e. they have installed and used ride-hailing apps), and an additional 9 percent of adults have used ride-hailing with friends,” the authors, Regina Clewlow and Gouri Shankar Mishra, write. Among those age 18 to 29, the number jumps to 36 percent. (A mere 4 percent of the 65-and-up set are hailing rides.) About a quarter of users are riding a daily or weekly basis. Out in the suburbs, only 7 percent of survey respondents were Ubering, compared to 29 percent in urban areas—the researchers note that there’s a lot of growth opportunity out in suburbia.

Avoiding the hassles of parking (37 percent) scores as the top reason to hail a ride, followed closely by drinking (33 percent). The demographics of ride-hailing are pretty much what you’d expect: “College-educated, affluent Americans have adopted ride-hailing services at double the rate of less-educated, lower income populations,” the authors write.

Does ride-hailing get cars off the streets?

This one’s more complicated, but: no. Ride-hailing companies promised that they would help people shed their income-sucking, space-wasting private autos and generally lower each person’s VMT, or vehicle miles traveled. But instead of helping people get rid of cars, Uber and Lyft instead helped them get rid of their memberships to car-sharing services, whether station-based models like Zipcar or more recent variations like Car2Go, where vehicles can be dropped off in different locations. Among users who don’t use transit, the study reports “no differences in vehicle ownership rates between ride-hailing users and traditionally car-centric households.”

What about those transit users?

Ride-hailing had something of a mixed effect on other forms of transportation. The survey concluded that “shared mobility likely attracts Americans in major cities away from bus services and light rail (6 percent and 3 percent net reduction in use, respectively).” But commuter rail is a complementary mode—there was a 3 percent increase in use among ride-hailers. An even stronger complement: plain old walking, which jumped 9 percent.

(UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies)

But arguably the most important finding in the study is that, absent a ride-hailing option, between 49 and 61 percent of trips either wouldn’t have been made at all, or would have been accomplished via transit, bike, or foot. Add that to the “dead heading” miles that passenger-less Uber and Lyfts are racking up, and the researchers conclude that ride-hailing is boosting VMT in cities: “Directionally, this new evidence of mode substitution suggests that ride-hailing is likely adding vehicle miles traveled to transportation systems in major cities.”

(UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies)

What does it all mean?

If ride-hailing services continue to operate as they have in most U.S. cities, the robust evidence of this study points to an unabated rise in congestion and emissions. Although the Uber and Lyfts of the world may complement a small portion of non-driving trips, overall, “these services currently facilitate a shift away from more sustainable modes towards low-occupancy vehicles in major cities,” Regina Clewlow, the lead author of the report, said in a statement. If cities seek a different future—where traffic is tamed and carbon footprints are shrunk—public leaders will need to take aggressive policy action.

But they can’t manage what they don’t measure. “Absent of data, cities and transit agencies are essentially in the dark” when making decisions that influence the use of different transportation modes, the authors write. To better understand impacts on car ownership, vehicle miles traveled, and mode shares, cities should first mandate ride-hailing companies to share their data, as New York City has, and invest in their own capacity to make sense of it.

Secondly, if all those mayoral promises to uphold the Paris climate accord mean anything, local governments will pass laws that prioritize and encourage high-capacity vehicles, like buses and shuttles, over single-occupancy cars; think road pricing and special priority lanes. Counterintuitively, Uber and Lyft have said they’d be all in for policies like those. Data sharing? Not so much.

Historically, it has not been easy for public leaders to stand up to these disruptive types. But ride-hailing giants are crafting friendlier personae these days. If there were ever a politically auspicious moment for cities to seize the initiative and take a climate-minded stand on transportation, it’s now. By shedding light on how shared mobility is really reshaping public streets, studies like this should help that cause.

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