Captain Obvious Finally Arrives: Ride Hailing Actually Congests City Traffic

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

A recurring theme among ride-hailing executives from the likes of Lyft and Uber is that their platforms will help reduce congestion in the world’s most populous cities. However, anyone actually living in these places will tell you it doesn’t appear to be working. Cities like New York were already clogged with taxi cabs but, instead of seeing all of these drivers buy personal vehicles to enlist as independent contractors for ride-hailing firms, Uber and Lyft brought in new drivers, more vehicles, and fresh competition.

Worse yet, ride-sharing alternatives like Uber Pool have moved people away from buses and trains and placed them in the backseats of cars — further compounding the problem. It turns out city dwellers who already owned an automobile didn’t suddenly decide to get rid of it, and those who were heavily invested in mass transit discovered an affordable car-based alternative.

It certainly sounds good when an executive tells you “private car ownership will all but end in major U.S. cities” by 2025. But it’s another thing to unpack how that’s supposed to work. Back in 2016, John Zimmer, co-founder of Lyft, said millennials don’t value car ownership like their parents did and the upcoming autonomous revolution will obliterate the need to have one in an urban environment — ultimately reducing congestion.

However, there are some problems with that statement. First, the need for a personal vehicle is already less important in an city with reliable public transportation. Second, most millennials are less prone to car ownership, as they typically make less money than their parents did at the same age and are more likely to live in cities. And, lastly, autonomous cars and ride-sharing absolutely do not guarantee reduced congestion or a better experience.

If you are driving somewhere in the city in your own vehicle, it’s an A-to-B journey before you temporarily clog up an area hunting for parking. Meanwhile, any vehicle you can hail for a ride spends much of its time looking for a passenger. While outfits like Uber are typically more efficient than traditional taxis, they both spend a significant amount of time milling about on the street as they wait for a fare.

A study from December attributed large increases in the number of taxis and ride-sharing vehicles to the slowing of traffic in Manhattan. It recommended policies to prevent further increases in “the number of vacant vehicles occupied only by drivers waiting for their next trip request” and suggested implementing fees to make the services less attractive to common folk, thus creating revenue for public transit. While the solution is not without problems, the study itself clearly identifies there is an issue here to be solved.

According to Christo Wilson, a professor at Boston’s Northeastern University, the impact on traffic is becoming progressively more evident. “The emerging consensus is that ride-sharing [is] increasing congestion,” she told the Associated Press after examining Uber’s practice of surge pricing during heavy volume.

One of the university’s studies on the matter surveyed 944 Boston-based ride-hailing users over four weeks in late 2017. Nearly 60 percent said they would have used public transportation, walked, biked or skipped the trip entirely if the ride-hailing apps were not available. “Ride sharing is pulling from and not complementing public transportation,” Wilson said.

However, like Lyft, Uber founder Travis Kalanick suggested in 2015 that his company would alleviate Boston of its traffic problem within five years.

A similar survey in San Francisco, from June, found that ride-hailing drivers make more than 170,000 vehicle trips on a normal weekday. That’s roughly 12 times the number of trips cabs make, and most of them are concentrated in the densest and most congested parts of the city.

Lyft spokesman Adrian Durbin responded to the matter by stating, “Lyft is focused on making personal car ownership optional by getting more people to share a ride, helping to reduce car ownership, and partnering with public transportation.”

Uber has adopted a similar strategy by offering carpooling options like Uber Pool. “Uber’s long-term goal is to end the reliance on personal vehicles and allow a mix of public transportation and services like Uber,” spokeswoman Alix Anfang explained.

However, neither of these services guarantee a secondary party will ever be picked up, and are often priced more competitively than their single-fare alternatives. That makes them more appetizing to users who’d rather not take public transit.

“This could be good for congestion if it causes vehicle occupancy rates to go up, but on the other hand, the Uber Pool rides and I guess these Express rides are really, really cheap, just a couple of dollars, so they’re almost certainly going to be pulling people away from public transport options,” Wilson said. “Why get on a bus with 50 people when you can get into a car and maybe if you’re lucky, you’ll be the only person in it?”

[Image: Michael Gil/ Flickr ( CC BY 2.0)]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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2 of 57 comments
  • Alfaromeo Alfaromeo on Mar 01, 2018

    uber or lyft is not real ride-sharing, they are grey taxi service. Real ride-sharing should be something like carpool. That's simple.

  • John Horner John Horner on Mar 06, 2018

    Uber is an unlicensed, unregulated taxi company with the cars and drivers provided by non-employee contractors. And yet, it is still loosing money by the boat load. Every Uber driver I know is someone who for one or more reasons has found it impossible to get a paying job. Almost anyone can qualify to driver for Uber. As others have said, they aren't providing "ride SHARING".

  • Bob65688581 We bought zillions of German cars, despite knowing about WWII slave labor. Refusing to buy something for ideological reasons is foolish.Both the US and the EU have imposed tariffs, so the playing field is level. I'll buy the best price/quality, regardless of nationality.Another interesting question would be "Would you buy one of the many new European moderate-price EVs?" but of course they aren't sold here.Third interesting question: "Why won't Stellantis sell its best products in America?"
  • Freshblather No. Worried there will be malicious executable code built into the cars motherboard that could disable the Chinese cars in the event of hostilities between the west and China.
  • Bd2 Absolutely not - do not want to support a fascist, totalitarian regime.
  • SCE to AUX The original Capri was beautiful. The abomination from the 90s was no Capri, and neither is this.It looks good, but too similar to a Polestar. And what's with the whacked price?
  • Rover Sig Absolutely not. Ever.