Uber and Lyft increase pollution and undermine public transport, study shows

Transport network companies like Uber and Lyft may be adding to congestion and emissions, and harming public transport, according to a new American study. The findings are consistent with other studies which show that so-called ‘ride-hailing’ companies have been adding to road traffic and reducing the use of public transport.

Uber was founded 10 years ago and in 2012 introduced UberX, a non-luxury ride service that offered an alternative to taxi services. Lyft was founded in 2012, and the two are the biggest ride-hailers in the USA. They have long argued that ride-hailing apps have the potential to make cities better by offering people mobility without the need to own a car, but a growing body of research suggests this is not what’s happening in practice.

The latest study looks at traffic levels in San Francisco between 2010 and 2016, dates which reflect the pre-Uber/Lyft era and the time when Uber and Lyft were well established. It found that traffic congestion – measured in journey times – increased by 62%, and at least half of that increase was attributable to Uber and Lyft. At the same time, use of public transport in the city has decreased.

Uber and Lyft have argued that they help public transport, by bringing people to stations and creating the conditions for people not to own a car. But the study’s author Gregory Erhardt, a civil engineering professor at the University of Kentucky, told an American technology magazine: ‘Those things are true to a degree, but the question is whether they’re true enough to offset the ways in which transportation network companies (TNCs) increase congestion. And we find that when you look at the data, that’s not the case.

This chimes with a report last year by Bruce Schaller, a former deputy transport commissioner in New York, which showed that the growth of ride-hailing has led to more traffic and less public transport use in major American cities—not the reverse that Uber and Lyft had hoped for. Schaller uses a different methodology to Erhardt, but their conclusions are very similar.

And another study based on the American Community Survey (part of the US census) concludes that household vehicle ownership has increased in cities where Uber and Lyft are most heavily used. What’s more, the rate of vehicle growth substantially exceeded population growth in five leading cities (Boston, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia and Chicago).

Despite its public statements that ride-hailing services help public transport, Uber said in a share offer (IPO) document earlier this year that it views public transport as a competitor.

Erhardt added: ‘If I’m riding in an Uber or Lyft, it’s pretty convenient and reasonably cheap, and I get door to door service. However, there’s an externality, there’s an effect on other people on the road… And the same thing happens if I’m driving my personal car as well. What city planners and city officials need to do is somehow balance that out, balance out the benefits of the person in the car, with the cost to everyone else.

Looking beyond congestion, the Massachusetts department of public utilities recently investigated the impact of Uber and Lyft on CO2 emissions that heat up the planet. It found that in 2018, TNCs had a net carbon footprint of nearly 100,000 metric tons of CO2. The authors of the studies reckoned that ‘if growth in ride-hailing emissions continues unchecked, it will make it very difficult for the state to meet its emissions reduction targets.’ In Massachusetts, the number of ride hailing trips went up 25% between 2017 and 2018, from 64.8 million to 81.3 million.

T&E’s new mobility officer Yoann Le Petit said: ‘The business model for Uber and Lyft may be working for them, but it’s not working for society. They are adding more cars to the road, increasing air pollution and CO2 emissions that cause global warming. Uber and Lyft would be well advised to speed up the uptake of zero-emission cars so at least any increase in traffic caused by their activities does not add fuel to the fire.