An Uber pick-up location in downtown Houston in 2017.
An Uber pick-up location in downtown Houston in 2017. David J. Phillip/AP

Depends on the city, and the transit agency.

If you’re taking an Uber, you’re not taking the bus. You’re not taking a subway, either, or a streetcar, or a funicular, or a public ferry. You can only be in one place at a time, and that place, if you’re taking an Uber, is a car.

But a new study in the Journal of Urban Economics suggests that for the average U.S. transit agency, Uber may be connecting riders to transit more often than distancing them. Using data from the National Transit Database for 2004 to 2015, University of Toronto economist Jonathan D. Hall (no, not Uber’s chief of economics, though he’s also named Jonathan Hall), Utah State’s Huntsman School business professor Craig Palsson, and Brigham Young economist Joseph Price found that the ride-hailing platform encourages overall transit ridership in certain types of cities, and within certain types of transit agencies.  

Since the widespread decline in public transit ridership is often blamed on the rise of ride-hailing services, this might seem surprising. But the study claims to be able to show how Uber’s entry into a market stalls that decline, by comparing cities where it entered with similar cities where it didn’t (or didn’t until later). “It’s like Uber is a sort of medicine,”said Palsson—at least for some cities. “You see death rates increases everywhere, the population is shrinking, but in places where they get the treatment, people are dying slower.”

That is, overall transit ridership may still be declining, but because they’re taking their Uber-as-medicine, some transit users are staying alive.

In the aggregate, the effects of Uber on ridership are remarkably positive: With one standard deviation in Uber penetration (read: how active Uber is in a given market), transit ridership within the average transit agency rises by 1.38 percent. By the end of the second year after Uber enters an MSA, ridership increased in that average transit agency by an average of five percent.

That “average transit agency,” crucially, would be one that’s not as huge as New York City’s MTA, or as tiny as Westchester’s Bee Line bus service—it’s a hypothetical one, born from the mean of the effects on all the train and bus companies in the 196 Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) the study analyzed. That net effect masks a lot of variables. Uber’s effect changes depending on the population size of the cities and the population served by their transit agencies. And not all transit agencies—even within one city—are created equal.

The boost was bigger in areas with larger populations (where people who are taking transit can also afford to take Ubers) and in struggling transit agencies that had below-median ridership before Uber’s entrance. In those metros, ride-hailing seems to help alleviate some of transit’s constraints. Uber’s positive effects are strongest in under-utilized transit agencies within large cities: Big ridership winners include McAllen Express Transit in Texas; Manchester, New Hampshire’s MTA; and East Chicago Transit in Indiana.

But for smaller metro areas and larger transit agencies that already had above-median ridership, Uber reduced overall transit ridership. Palsson, who lives near Utah State University, where he works, says that college towns like his might see that effect more often: These are often cities with a small population but well-used transit.

Furthermore, Uber does not play equally well with all types of transit. The study found that when Uber penetration (the amount of Ubers on the road) increases in a given MSA, bus ridership increases while rail-based transit ridership decreases, though by a smaller factor. “Thus, while the overall effect of Uber on total public transit use is positive in these cities, there is potentially some shifting of train ridership towards bus ridership,” the study warns.

The net findings feel at odds with conventional wisdom, which suggest that faster, more convenient ride-hailing simply eats into public transit’s business among those who can afford to use it. (Which is exactly what’s happening in the smaller MSAs the study captured.)

But, says Hall, these same characteristics make it a good complement: By filling holes in public transit coverage, Uber can encourage people to shift their habits away from personal cars. “The combination of public transit and Uber can make it possible to complete all desired trips without owning a car, or for families to own just one car,” the study concludes.

That’s exactly what Uber and its rival service Lyft have been saying to those who blame ride-hailing for snarling traffic and helping befoul the planet. (There has been no proven correlation between ride-hailing penetration and decreased car sales, though Lyft latest marketing campaign encourages people to “ditch their cars” for a month.)

Hall points to his own life experience as an illustration of how Uber can ramp up the use of public transit. When he plans to go downtown with his four young children, for example, he might have once taken his car, in case a child-meltdown hits and he needs to make a quick getaway. But since he has Uber as a back-up exit strategy, now the whole family can take public transit together—and, if things go really awry, hail a speedier Uber home.

Uber can also help with last-mile trips, as one of multiple modes combined to travel a long distance; or late-night return travel after mass transit service shuts down—a pattern borne out by research on ride-hailing’s impact in Chicago by DePaul University urban economists. A 2016 Pew Study found that more than half of those who use Uber weekly also reported taking public transit in the same week, compared to 9 percent of those who didn’t take Uber at all; and the study cites research that shows that in several cities, “25-40 percent of all Uber pick-ups and drop-offs are near a transit station,” for whatever the reason.

The study also reaffirms other research that demonstrates how ride-hailing drives city-level congestion. A study out of the San Francisco County Transportation Authority this week suggested that Uber and Lyft were responsible for more than half of the ballooning daily vehicle delay hours from 2010 to 2016, 47 percent of the growth in miles traveled, and 55 percent of the average speed slowdown on the streets. (Lyft and Uber called the analysis “flawed” and “incomplete” for ignoring the “spike in tourism” and “growth of freight deliveries.”) And in August, New York City moved to cap Uber and Lyft, responding to evidence that they’ve added “nearly 1 billion vehicle miles to the road between 2013 and 2017.”

For transit agencies that have tended to view the ride-hailing industry as the enemy, Hall said that there is one important lesson: “We don’t know that to be true, and that might even be false,” he said. “This evidence suggests that, for many transit agencies, Uber is—maybe—helping.” Some cities have tried to work with ride-hailing services, not against them: D.C. has created designated pick-up and drop-off zones for Ubers and Lyfts on weekend nights; Florida cities are subsidizing Uber trips as a supplement to public transit; and Boston has partnered with the companies to provide cheap, accessible paratransit. ”That is a direction worth pursuing,” says Hall.

And Uber is no longer the only new shared-mobility mode on the block for cities to reckon with. In a range of cities, littler vehicles are beginning to help commuters make those last-mile connections. Studies have already indicated that, while Uber may not be devouring all public transit ridership, e-scooters and e-bikes have begun to gnaw on Uber’s.

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