The Uber Technologies Inc. application is used for navigation on a smartphone during an Uber ride in Washington (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Don’t Blame Uber For Your City’s Congestion

BloombergOpinion

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- A growing body of research shows that ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft increase rather than reduce congestion. These services, however, account for such a small share of urban travel that focusing on them as a source of trouble is probably wrong, if easing congestion is the goal. If they’re not the solution, they’re not really the problem, either.

Last week, transportation consultant Bruce Schaller released a report pointing out that 70 percent of Uber and Lyft trips occur in nine large U.S. metropolitan areas, where they account for 90 percent of taxi rides (New York,  where traditional taxis are still popular, is the one exception). In these areas, according to Schaller, the transportation network companies (the generic name industry professionals use for the ride-hailing firms) have added 5.7 billion miles of driving annually – and added to congestion because 60  percent of their customers would have used public transportation, had these services not been available. 

That fits the findings of other recent studies, such as the 2017 one by Regina Clewlow and Gouri Shankar Mishra of the University of California Davis, which found that 49 percent to 61 percent of ride-hailing trips wouldn’t have been made at all had the apps not been there: People would have walked, biked or used public transit and that the services increased the total number of miles driven in big cities. 

One might think that the problem here is that the only “ride-sharing” that occurs on most Uber or Lyft rides is between the driver and a single passenger – and the driver wouldn’t have gone anywhere if she hadn’t been hired. According to the Schaller report, only 20 percent of the transportation network companies’ rides are really shared, with several passengers taken on, and the rest are, in effect, single occupant vehicle trips, hated by all urban mobility experts for their environmental inefficiency and the congestion they create.

Schaller, however, argues that shared services such as UberPool and Lyft Line are still net negatives: They add miles driven because their users, too, switch from public transportation such as buses and subways, and because even with such sharing, drivers move alone between drop-off and pick-up points.

Robin Chase, a founder of Zipcar, the car-sharing service, made a strong argument against such conclusions: Ride-hailing accounts for a relatively small share of urban travel. According to New York’s 2017 Mobility Report, 258 million trips taken last year involved a for-hire vehicle. Subway ridership, meanwhile, reached 1.757 billion, and buses carried 638 million passengers. Besides, the report says, for 32 percent of New Yorkers the private car is the primary mode of transportation. 

The disruptive new transportation companies get a lot of attention, but regulating them, incentivising them to take on more passengers per ride, imposing congestion surcharges on them probably won’t reduce congestion in any decisive way. And the ride-hailing firms recent interest in bike and scooter rentals, while ostensibly a helpful counterbalance to the growth in miles driven, could lead to unwanted consequences while cars still rule the road. Bicycle fatalities represent 2 percent of the U.S. total, while bicycle trips account for 1 percent of the total. In the bike-crazy Netherlands last year, there were more cyclist fatalities than deaths in cars. 

For most experts, the holy grail of urban transportation is still to make sure no one is driving around alone in a vehicle built to seat four, five or more people. There aren’t too many ways to achieve that goal beyond creating special lanes for collective transportation, including cars carrying several people, or banning single-occupant vehicles outright in certain areas, as Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, did until 2016. True, the ban was unpopular and led to the emergence of “jockeys” – people who piled into a car for a small fee. But when the restriction was canceled without explanation, congestion increased significantly – not just in the directly affected areas but on alternate routes as well, likely because more people decided they now could drive alone.

Anti-congestion measures should affect all kinds of vehicles – private cars, cabs, Ubers, short-time and long-time rentals. They should only be allowed to use faster lanes when they carry no fewer than three people, and in cities with the nastiest traffic, they should probably be kept out of the most congested areas if they only have one or two occupants. At the same time, cities need to invest in public transportation to keep it competitive; if the subway is seedy and unsafe and buses don’t run on time, people will be forced to consider alternatives, even costly and slow ones.

These, of course, would only be temporary solutions until cities manage to weave all available modes of transportation into seamless networks on which the most rational option is always available to a traveler with a subscription plan or a universal day ticket. On that issue, opponents such as Schaller and Chase find much common ground. The important thing is not to lose sight of the most basic goals: Less time wasted in traffic and cleaner air. Focusing on the new modes of transportation alone, or on their self-driving varieties that may become available soon, is a distraction.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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