Emily Badger @emilymbadger OCT. 16, 2017
"Survey data suggests that ride-hailing services like Uber encourage people to take trips they wouldn’t otherwise, and draw people away from public transit."
For all the tensions that Uber and Lyft have had with taxicabs, the bigger questions about ride-hailing companies have to do with their effects on all the other ways you might get around.
Have they siphoned riders from public transit, or have they made transit feasible for more riders?
Have they enabled people to ditch their cars, or only encouraged people to use cars (driven by other people) even more?
The answers will determine how chaotic our streets become. And they could tell us something about how people will behave in a more far-off future of self-driving cars, when ubiquitous ride-hailing will have no one at the wheel.
The answers are still up for debate because these services remain relatively new, because the companies that offer them guard their data, and because even they don’t track the counterfactuals. There’s no button in the Uber app that asks, “If Uber weren’t an option, how would you get where you’re going?”
In new survey data, though, there are some provocative patterns. Researchers at the U.C. Davis Institute of Transportation Studies surveyed 2,000 people about their travel behavior in seven major metro areas, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, and including people who live in their suburbs and those who don’t use these services.
The results suggest that ride-hailing draws people away from public transit. And the authors, Regina Clewlow and Gouri Shankar Mishra, estimate that 49 percent to 61 percent of ride-hailing trips either wouldn’t have been made at all if these apps didn’t exist, or would have been made by foot, biking or transit. All of those trips, in other words, added cars to the road that otherwise wouldn’t have been there.
That picture implies that Uber and the like could make traffic worse. And let’s further assume that many of those trips additionally require drivers to cruise around waiting for rides, and to “deadhead” occasionally after the rides are over (to return to, say, the airport with an empty back seat).
Among people who use these apps, 3 percent said they rode heavy rail like subway systems more since starting to ride-hail. That’s consistent with the idea that apps could help you travel the “last mile” home from the train if you don’t live near a stop, or that they could help you cobble together transportation options once you ditch your own car. But 6 percent said they rode the bus less, and 3 percent said the same of light rail.
Among the most common reasons people gave for turning away from transit: Service was too slow or unreliable. It potentially does not bode well for public transit, then, that just as these apps are growing more dominant, transit systems in cities like New York, Washington and San Franciscoare facing deep problems. In New York, where other data has also suggested that ride-hailing lures riders away from public transit, officials have speculated about Uber’s role in recent declining subway ridership.
Austin, Tex., offers another intriguing case study. In May 2016, Uber and Lyft temporarily pulled out of the city over a new law that required the companies to submit drivers to fingerprint background checks. Their departure created a natural experiment, and afterward researchers at the University of Michigan, Texas A&M and Columbia University surveyed Austin residents about how the change affected their travel behavior.
Asked about the last trip riders took with Uber and Lyft, 3 percent said they took similar trips afterward by public transit instead (Austin has much lower transit usage in general than New York). That also implies some substitution. Further complicating this picture, 9 percent said they bought a personal car as a result of the change.
The bulk of the evidence so far shows that these services don’t inherently make transportation more efficient at the level of an entire city, even if they have the potential to. They may make your travel more efficient, because you don’t have to hunt for a parking spot or wait for the bus. But when you aggregate the behavior of many people, transportation becomes less efficient when transit riders switch to cars, when new car services entice people onto trips they wouldn’t otherwise have taken, or when people who give up their cars wind up traveling even more in someone else’s.
It’s equally not preordained that these apps will make traffic worse, or that they must come at the expense of public transit. If more people left their solo cars for car-pooled ride-hailing, rather than leaving public buses for solo Uber rides, that would reduce the number of cars on the road and the miles they travel. If transit agencies partnered with these companies, as some have begun to try doing, ride-hailing could fill niches that trains and buses don’t handle well, like late-night journeys, transit for riders with disabilities, and suburban service.
“There’s this potential opportunity for policy makers, city planners and these firms themselves to find solutions where we’re steering toward that future,” Ms. Clewlow said. It’s unlikely we’ll get there by chance, though.Emily Badger @emilymbadger OCT. 16, 2017
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