Will Uber and Lyft Make Transportation More Sustainable?

New York City Subway
A couple of weeks ago, I was leaving a friend’s house in Park Slope, Brooklyn, late at night. The minute I walked outside, I started debating myself: How should I get back home — train or Uber? The train is cheaper, but then I need to walk to the train station, wait for the train and then walk again from the train station in my neighborhood. Uber is far more expensive, but then I just need to wait a couple of minutes for the car and it will take me straight home.

I chose Uber.

Such experiences shape my belief that Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing services may evolve into a substitute for public transit for those who prioritize convenience and can afford it. In other words, I see these services as a potential threat to pubic transit, as a growing number of people may start using them instead of taking the bus or the train.

However, I might be wrong, at least according to a new report from the American Public Transportation Association — which found that shared modes (car-sharing, bike-sharing and ride-hailing services) “complement public transit, enhancing urban mobility.” More specifically, the report suggested that services like Uber and Lyft “are most frequently used for social trips between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m., times when public transit runs infrequently or is not available. Shared modes substitute more for automobile trips than public transit trips.”

The study, which was conducted in seven cities, portrays shared modes in the urban transportation eco-system as an opportunity rather than a threat to public transit, suggesting that the future of urban transportation could benefit from collaboration with private platforms. Therefore, “public transit agencies should seize opportunities to improve urban mobility for all users through collaboration and public-private partnerships, including greater integration of service, information and payment methods.”

It is important to note that this report was not published by Lyft, Uber or an organization connected to these companies but by APTA, an organization that describes itself as a “leading force in advancing public transportation.” So, we could assume this is an objective report (although Lyft is a new member at APTA, according to its website).

Another interesting study that is not finalized yet was conducted by Susan Shaheen, co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. According to the New York Times, Dr. Shaheen is working with NRDC to determine the environmental impact of Uber and Lyft’s car-pooling systems.

While her study is in progress, the early data suggests that “by getting “more butts in seats… car-pooled services may already be reducing traffic, gas use and automobile emissions,” Dr. Shaheen told the New York Times. In other words, her study may also reach a conclusion similar to the APAT report: Ride-hailing services have a positive, sustainable impact on urban transportation systems.

Unlike the APAT report, Shaheen’s upcoming report seems to differentiate between Uber’s and Lyft’s main services (UberX and Lyft) and their car pool services (UberPool and Lyft Line). The latter is definitely more sustainable than the former as you have “more butts in seats.” But I wonder if these shared rides — which seem, according to Lyft and Uber, to have a growing popularity — substitute more for automobile trips or public transit trips. Shaheen’s study will provide an answer to this question, the New York Times reports, so we will have to wait and see.

Let’s assume though that the results will support the notion that sharing-economy services like Uber and Lyft take cars off the road and supplement urban public transit rather than substitute for it. If this is the case, should we indeed encourage cities and their public transportation systems to partner with these sharing-economy platforms?

Well, not so fast. There are two main issues cities should address before giving these services a friendly hug. The first is the social impact of ride-hailing services. Both the APAT report and another study conducted in New York show that most of the users of these services are affluent: According to the APAT report, the average household income of respondents was $90,926, and a New York data analysis conducted by FiveThirtyEight suggests that passengers of both taxi and Uber services are “highly concentrated in wealthier areas.”

Public transit is the great equalizer, regularly used by both rich and poor. Even if UberPool and Lyft Line will continue reducing their prices, it will still be unlikely that they will become a feasible alternative for poor people who can barely afford to pay the cost of their bus ride. Therefore, while a continuing expansion of private ride-hailing services could take more cars off the road, it is also important to ask if they will also leave only poor people to use public transit. FiveThirtyEight suggests one scenario, where middle-to-upper income city dwellers will actually use public transit more, not less, as they will shift from car ownership to a more economic combination of ride-hailing services and public transit. But I’m a bit skeptical how realistic this option is.

The second issue is governance. By adopting sharing-economy platforms and helping them play a more significant role in the urban mobility system, cities essentially give them more power and make them part of their fabric. This could become an issue, especially when it comes to companies like Uber — which has been criticized for a long list of wrongdoings, aggressive tactics and the way it treats drivers, and whose success“comes from being parasitic on the cities in which it operates,” as Tom Slee described in his book “What’s Yours is Mine.” To make a long story short: Do you really want to give companies that seem to lack self-governance and put their shareholders first the responsibility for a growing share of your city’s transportation system?

At the end of the day, it could be that evaluating Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing services through the lens of carbon emissions is just too narrow. It might be the time to consider a broader framework like resilience, using tools such as the Rockefeller Foundation’s City Resilience Framework to figure out if these sharing-economy services actually create a positive net impact in cities.

Image credit: Flickr/James Loesch

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Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor and the Co-Director of the MS in Strategic Design & Management program at Parsons School of Design in New York. Currently, his research projects focus on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, the sharing economy and cities’ resilience, the future of design thinking, and the integration of sustainability into Millennials’ lifestyles. Raz is the co-founder of two green startups – Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris and holds an MBA from Tel Aviv University.

2 responses

  1. The fallacy of any discussion, or any white paper applauding cos like Uber, Lyft, et al is that they are NOT ride sharing entities. They can claim it all they want – it’s not true.

    A driver picks up a number of people going to a location and drops them off. The driver then moves on to another request. That driver did not share that ride – that driver had no intention of going to that location (other than being paid to do so) – that driver transported those passengers from point A to point B. That’s a taxi. Period.

    As to the environment – before the appearance of these services, there were “X” number of public transit vehicles on the road, running fixed routes – empty or full – they ran their schedules. There were “X” numbers of licensed, regulated, cabs and livery vehicles – serving the needs of the traveling public on request, nee, on demand. And people who didn’t use those services at all, drove themselves.

    Now, according to press releases, we have thousands of extra vehicles on the road, all over the country, polluting the environment, where most of those vehicles before were sitting at home. The cabs and livery vehicles aren’t going away – they are driving more miles for less revenue. The app-hailing companies are dropping their rates to attract more passengers – those drivers are traveling more miles to try and make a profit.

    The result is MORE vehicles on the road, more wear and tear on underutilized vehicles, creating more pollution.

    If, as is suggested by the article, more of the affluent and middle class use the app hailing companies, leaving the lower stratus to travel using the cheaper public trans systems, the less revenue they will have to repair and re-invest in those systems – shifting the expense to the taxpayers or allowing those systems to degrade.

  2. As an addendum on this portion of the article –

    “Do you really want to give companies that seem to lack self-governance and put their shareholders first the responsibility for a growing share of your city’s transportation system?”

    Better to ask: Why trust yourself, family members, friends, et al, to companies that provide no training, no direct supervision, no real concern for their safety?

    As an example – FedEx, UPS, and the like care more for the safety of their drivers AND the products they transport than ride-hailing app companies do for their drivers and passengers.

    Ask one of the ride-hailing companies to provide you with a copy of the vehicle safety inspection and checklist they perform on a vehicle before they allow it in service. Or the drivers training manual.

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