By on February 27, 2018

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)]

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57 Comments on “Captain Obvious Finally Arrives: Ride-sharing Actually Congests City Traffic...”


  • avatar
    Sub-600

    Knee-jerk reactions often lead to unintended consequences.

    • 0 avatar
      jalop1991

      “Knee-jerk reactions often lead to unintended consequences.”

      That’s why, after 9/11, many people cautioned against knee-jerk reactions.

      Why those same people aren’t expressing a similar attitude over the last two weeks post-Florida, but instead are *embracing* knee-jerk reactions, I don’t know.

      Actually, I do know.

  • avatar
    mmreeses

    If you set up a lemonade stand, you know what supply is by just looking up the block.

    Uber drivers have no idea what supply or demand is, just vague hunches. Uber HQ does via its god mode

    So you get a prisoner’s dilemma, tragedy of commons effect where drivers flood the city and only leave via attrition. Uber Hq wins cuz congestion and wasted gas aren’t their problems.

    And of course Uber lyft spins PR that tries to make them look good….and the media are happy to print it

  • avatar
    kosmo

    An idea people actually like using: Simple, convenient, timely and economical transportation via automobile.

    Who would have ever thunk it?!

  • avatar
    jeoff

    Add to that, the Uber drivers that will hold up traffic dropping off or picking up in the the middle of thoroughfares.

  • avatar
    turf3

    I wish you would call them what they are:

    “Unlicensed jitney taxicabs”.

  • avatar
    dwford

    “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.”

    This. How was this not obvious to everyone? All the empty miles between passengers is excess traffic added to the roads vs regular private commuting.

    • 0 avatar
      stuki

      Parking, and hunting for parking, is the biggest waste, and what Uber/Lyft provides the most obvious relief from. The driving part, aside from perhaps weekend nights, are no different from doing so in your own car.

    • 0 avatar
      dal20402

      People driving in the city and hunting for parking are a sign that the city is doing it wrong.

      Street parking is the parking people put the most value on and should accordingly have the highest price. Most private car trips in or to a city should end immediately at a garage, not feature any hunting for parking. Cities that keep street parking free or artificially cheap are shooting themselves in the foot.

    • 0 avatar
      ect

      dwford, to your point, a UC Davis study reported a few months ago found that ride sharing is drawing most of its traffic from people who would otherwise have taken transit, walked or cycled – thereby increasing traffic congestion.

      As others have noted, that may change when they run out of investor money and have to charge enough to make money.

  • avatar
    dejal1

    Congestion to me is the # of cars providing the rides instead of the # of rides.

    If there was just 1 car in Boston (no trucks, buses,cars, motorcycles) and that 1 car provided 944 trips over a 4 week period is that congestion? Or if there were 944 cars providing 944 rides over a 4 week period would they say that there was 944 times the congestion?

    If the # of cars parked waiting for rides ends up being too long a period of time, either the drivers will need to lower their prices or leave the business. The market will take care of waiting for rides.

    I’ve got a house I’m trying to sell. Small house, been in the family for 60+ years on property owned by the family for 100+. Agent says the house is worth X, no takers, price is lowered – no takers, lowered again – no takers.
    There will be a price that someone will take, the demand isn’t there at that price. Right now I’m a vacant car waiting for the next customer. It will come if I wait long enough or I can get the show on the road earlier if I lower the price.

    • 0 avatar

      Right but in this case the studies are showing people are using ridesharing more to replace walking and public transit then to replace cabs. Buses don’t circle blocks waiting for a flag on their smart phone ridesharing does. It is a very obvious increase in congestion.

      • 0 avatar
        stuki

        People use ride sharing because, despite congestion, ride sharing is still preferable to the service offered by buses and other alternatives.

        The people who complain, aren’t the once-were-bus-riders, now-are-Uber-riders. But rather, it’s those who were always in a privileged enough position to afford a superior alternative to any shared transport. IE, those who could afford taxicabs, black cars, or just a car and an house/apartment/workplace with a parking spot.

        Now they’re whining that Kalanick and his prole army, are getting uppity about being forced to ride at the back of the bus and shut up, like they are supposed to.

        Left to free people, congestion will increase until the most tolerant throw in the towel. Which will be long before people starve, or even dehydrate, to death in traffic in any meaningful numbers. Dedicated bus lanes, and even better, light rail, will keep people moving. As will bikes, scooters and feet. People are pretty resourceful and innovative wrt solving their most pressing problems, if they are only left alone to do so. Instead of being bullied around by whomever is privileged enough to have superior connections to the local thug army.

        • 0 avatar
          dal20402

          I will be curious to see if ride sharing is still the preferred alternative when Uber and Lyft run out of cash from gullible investors and have to price their service to at least break even.

          • 0 avatar
            noorct

            Agree re: real pricing. For my 20 minute ride to and from the train station, the bill is $12 each way. Daily parking in the area is $18-$25 dollars depending how close you want to be. So before I even think about the minimal gas, mileage, wear and tear on my car (not to mention non-zero chance of parking lot dents if you park in a tight lot every day), Uber is a break-even proposition. Even if I didn’t assign any value to being driven vs. driving myself or the car wear items above, it would be a coin flip….

            Now I can’t imagine Uber and drivers are making enough to make this worthwhile. The driver is getting 60% of $12 for 20 minutes of driving in traffic each way. Is $7 for that trip enough to make any money? I’m not convinced.

    • 0 avatar
      dal20402

      Parking supply and roadway space supply are two separate issues and will interact differently in different cities. For instance, in my city (Seattle), there is ample underground parking, so much so that the road network is physically incapable of filling it all, but road space is in very short supply and can’t realistically be increased. In that scenario it’s at least arguable that rideshares create more congestion than private cars.

  • avatar
    stingray65

    Wow what city planner could have possibly imagined the possibility that lots of people are actually looking for alternatives to the inconvenience, “interesting” fellow passengers, crowds, bad smells, sticky seats, and other “qualities” brought to you by public transit. Those damn deplorable type citizens are always doing stuff that mess with the brilliant plans of their betters from public policy think tanks, transit unions, and government officials.

    • 0 avatar

      The problem is the cost of infrastructure to move those people inside of the city. There are huge inefficiencies when you take 30 people of a bus and put them in cars. These inefficiencies will show up in increased taxes required for traffic and road improvements not required if people had stayed in the bus. It will also result in a drop in potential GDP due to lost time sitting in traffic. You could handle that with very heavy congestion taxing on ride sharing during peak hours (or even with congestion monitoring cameras).

      • 0 avatar
        Detroit-Iron

        Your point would hold more validity if there actually 30 people on a bus (or subway car or whatever). Those things run so empty that, in another ringing endorsement for the mode, in the DC area a guy was able to assault a woman in the middle of the day because there was nobody else in the rail car.

        • 0 avatar
          dal20402

          Have you ever actually ridden the DC Metro?

          Most trips on the Red, Orange, and Green Lines are leaving people on the platform.

          • 0 avatar
            DC Bruce

            Been riding the DC metro since it was opened in 1976. The problem with any urban transport system (including roads) is dealing with the morning and evening surge. The Federal government has long attempted to ameliorate that by having staggered start and quit times. So, during peak times, the subway cars and roads are jammed. Off-peak, the subway is often nearly empty. I’ve rarely seen buses so jammed that people are left at a stop. Consequently, this is just another article pointing out the inefficiencies of public transit — buses drive around with empty seats as do rail-based systems, and cabs are often sitting around or cruising for a fare, just like Uber and Lyft drivers.

            I seriously question how many regular Uber/Lyft/taxi riders are being pulled from public transit. There is a big price difference. I use Uber to go between specific points that, for one reason or another, are not well served by public transit and which have poor parking availability.

            Dense cities like those in the northeast (including Washington DC), San Francisco and Seattle may have been pretty well served by taxicabs (except very few DC cabs were radio dispatched). But cities like Los Angeles were not. My daughters tell me that LA is pretty well served by Uber and that it’s pretty common for people who plan a “night on the town” to leave their car at home and take an Uber.

            If there’s a solution to all this, I don’t think it’s eliminating Uber and Lyft. More likely, its imposing a congestion charge or a centra city driving ban such as that which exists in London.

            Even without any regulations, you will see very few private cars being driven in Manhattan on weekdays. They’re all cabs and limos.

      • 0 avatar
        stuki

        Handle it by heavy taxes on having a car inside city limits, period. Congestion is driven at least as much by lack of available parking spots, as it is “circling.”

        Uber drivers don’t circle because they like to, or think burning gas and putting wear on their car makes them more money. But rather because there aren’t any available parking spots next to where they anticipate a fare.

        $20/hour to have a car on Manhattan, 8-8, $5/hour other times, equal treatment for anyone, and you’ll get a rather unbiased solution to the congestion issue. Or if not, $40-20, $60-30, $200-100…. Anything else, is just more of the same old “But the government should ban/tax THOSE guys, not meeeee! I know a guy in City Hall! And I spend $50K/year, as well as paid $5mill for a ramshackle!! To send my kid to the same school as the Party Bosses…” nonsense, that ridesharing provides a fairly elegant and non-discriminatory means of routing around.

        • 0 avatar
          Testacles Megalos

          Taxes and fees to drive behavior and contribute to infrastructure reconstruction…
          1. Rather than tax the presence of the car, following the Yurpeen lead. Restricted areas in downtowns, automobiles require permits to enter congested areas. Permits are issued only to businesses and residents in that area. Public transport, feet, bicycles are the other options.
          2. Tax fuel at its true cost – not just drilling/sucking/refining/distributing, rather also for the cost of the military needed to ensure supplies, the environmental and social damage caused by cars and the needed highways, etc…. $15/gallon might be enough and would encourage more thoughtful consideration of transport options without depriving by fiat the freedom to drive at will.

          • 0 avatar
            28-Cars-Later

            Society will collapse @ $15/gallon. I’d much prefer a plague and/or nuclear strike. Maybe Lex Luthor can materialize and hit San Andreas for us?

          • 0 avatar
            stuki

            “Permits are issued only to “…..

            …the privileged and connected.

          • 0 avatar
            dal20402

            Society would absolutely collapse if we imposed $15/gal gas overnight.

            Transition to it over a long enough period of time (a couple decades), and it would adapt.

            In any case I think $15 is more than needed to account for all car-related externalities. I think $8-$9, which happens to be about the price of gas in a number of countries where you really, really, don’t need a car in daily life, would cover it. The proceeds would be used to support a real train network covering most medium to large towns (think like Switzerland’s) and reliable, clean bus service to the tiny places (again like Switzerland’s PTT buses).

            American cities would need to radically reshape themselves during the transition period. Eliminate stifling zoning rules and the free market would do all of that work. You might have to subsidize a “soft landing” for some exurban and rural property owners, though.

          • 0 avatar
            ToddAtlasF1

            It would adapt like its adapted to the environmentalists’ slow strangling of our economy. Eventually we’ll be weaned off the desire to live just as we’ve been weaned off the expectations of single family home ownership, retirement, job security, and children whose values we can shape.

      • 0 avatar
        stingray65

        I understand why the planners push mass transit in large cities, but they never seem to understand how much most people hate riding in cattle cars. One result is that mass transit ridership is down in almost every major market in the US over the past decade.

        • 0 avatar
          stuki

          Mass Transit works when it bypasses traffic congestion. Subways, overhead monorails etc. Otherwise, you’re just as stuck in traffic on the bus as in your car, so you may as well be in a car.

          As falling apart as BART is, it works like a charm during rush hour in the areas it serves. Good enough that you have billionaires choosing to ride it, versus seemingly posher means of getting around. Ditto bicycles and motorcycles (not sure any billionaire is contractually allowed by their board to hack through traffic on MCs…) But a bus, stuck in traffic with cars.. What’s the point? Unless you’re talking about other people riding it, to reduce congestion for you in your car, of course…

  • avatar
    whitworth

    I still think we’re WAY better off with Uber and Lyft than we were when Yellow cabs were the only way to get a ride. If for nothing else, just the economic savings to consumers. I would also bet DUIs (and thus fatalities and accidents) are WAY down since Uber and Lyft came along.

    I’m sure some select urban areas might experience more traffic, but I’ll wager every one of them had crippling traffic before the era of ride sharing and smart phones. They usually have a government that is adamantly opposed to building additional roads and instead plows money into things like public transportation and bike lanes.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m fine with ride sharing but they should have raised the bar of entry for Lyft and Uber and lowered it for taxis to create a more even playing field. Basically require passenger carrying insurance and endorsement on the licensee and maybe central dispatch of some sort that’s it for everybody.

      • 0 avatar
        Sigivald

        Why any of that other than insurance?

        (Taxi drivers don’t need a special endorsement anywhere in America, that I know of. Requiring it for anyone else, or for everyone, seems pointless.

        Nor is “central dispatch” as a requirement really anything more than “make it easier for taxi companies to compete because they already have that and the competition doesn’t”.

        Though arguably “the App handling Lyfy/Uber” is a “central dispatcher”, so they’ve already got it?)

      • 0 avatar
        stuki

        Nothing like harassing someone who just want to give their fellow man a more convenient and less costly ride!

        Nor forcing him at gunpoint to fork over to the deadweight leeches in the FIRE complex. For no other reason than subsidizing useless ambulance chasers, by guaranteeing them deeper pockets to feed on.

    • 0 avatar
      ect

      whitworth, it’s been demonstrated many times in many places that in urban areas you simply can’t build enough roads fast enough (let alone at an affordable cost) to cope with the additional traffic those roads attract. Public transit is the only way to avoid gridlock.

      And in densely populated cities, there’s no room to build new roads. At all.

  • avatar
    gtem

    I was blown away by how many cars in San Diego had Lyft or Uber stickers/signs on windshields. Granted it was hard to tell how many were actively on the clock and how many were driving on personal errands and just happen to do some ride sharing on the side. But it seemed really over-saturated with drivers.

    • 0 avatar

      Honestly even some smaller cities have alot. Charleston SC for instance had quite a few.

      • 0 avatar
        stuki

        It’s the most efficient way of organizing car use. Demand for a car is so variable, that it is wasteful to have ride sharing cars do nothing outside of peak hours. So you make it as easy as possible for anyone who has a car, to add to the capacity when demand is high. And otherwise just use their car for whatever else they nee a car for.

        Minimizing the incremental cost to the ride share driver, which can then be reflected in fares. Compared to the inanity of paying for “Taxi Medallions,” in order to drive a dedicated car for those houses only, the efficiency improvement is huge.

  • avatar
    Sigivald

    Surprising nobody, people prefer cars or taxis to transit.

    If they want to reduce congestion, introduce congestion prices.

    It’s almost like there are these “market forces” things that can be used to price scare resources like “space on roads” or something?

    • 0 avatar
      dal20402

      Speaking of market forces, rideshare companies can only operate at a loss of half their net revenue for so long. What will happen when the price of a rideshare actually reflects the cost of the service?

      • 0 avatar
        stuki

        The delta between what the hailer pays, and the driver collects, will shrink. Uber technology was clever as heck, and revolutionary, when Uber launched. But now, any programmer with some experience driving Uber on the side, can do a 95% mockup of the most important pieces, and run it cheaply in the cloud.

        At their essence, none of these services are any more than pirate cabs. Or even more fundamentally, dudes who have cars and are (mostly) sober, picking up hitchhikers and expecting those to pitch in for gas and upkeep.

        The less novel the coordination tech gets, the more commoditized, hence low margin, it will get. Hence, Kalanick the brash tech disruptor out; Khosrowshahi the smooth relationship builder in. The latter to schmooze local thugs into giving Uber the kind of privileges cab companies used to have, and which Uber was originally set up to route around.

  • avatar
    Add Lightness

    Just wait until the way to avoid high hourly parking charges is to have your autonomous car circle the block until you call for it.

  • avatar
    bunkie

    This is just another example of the “Tragedy of the Commons”. A libertarian wet dream gone wrong.

    The solution is to impose congestion pricing here in Manhattan which will have the consequence of making me move my car (used solely to get away on weekends) to a garage two blocks north. I’m all for it.

    • 0 avatar
      stuki

      It would only be a “tragedy” if the number of people utilizing a car didn’t increase. Of course you’ll have more congestion, when a cheaper way of obtaining a car, allows more people the use of one. Doesn’t make the added congestion any more of a “tragedy,” than any other invention that allowed more people to afford something desirable. If the cheapest car was priced at 12 annual federal deficits, Manhattan congestion would be reduced even further. Which, again, doesn’t mean people being able to afford cars, are some sort of “tragedy.”

      As long as people are willing to tolerate the current, or higher, level of congestion; ridership, and attendant congestion, will increase. At some congestion level, those least tolerant of it, will either move to less congested places, take the subway, or ride a bike. You’ll reach an equilibrium one way or the other. And that equilibrium will be the one allowing the most people to freely express their desires, and their congestion tolerance. Can’t beat that for social utility. Nor for freedom.

      Of course, everyone wants to be a special snowflake, and want the gommiment to prevent others, but not them, from using a car. So that they can do so without facing as much congestion as they would in a free society. So, you get support for all manners of childish permit schemes, and similar nonsense. None of which differ in any way whatsoever, from any other form of crass corruption and influence peddling.

      • 0 avatar
        bunkie

        The truth is that managing resources is difficult and, at times, messy. The Libertarian approach is often, in my view, a denial of this fact.

        Of course, Manhattan would fill up with empty Uber and Lyft cars competing with cabs. Is the public better severed by this? In the short term, yes. But the long-term cost is real and lasting.

        In my view, much of Libertarian thought is simply laziness disguised as a systemic solution. Societies are complex structures and much of the mechanisms that make them work need constant maintenance and review to combat the influence peddling and corruption you rightly cite. The solution to poor government is not to destroy it, but to fix it. That takes work and commitment. It also takes faith in the possibility that government and other social constructs can be better. But none of that happens without a commitment to do so.

        • 0 avatar
          stuki

          Managing “resources” is all fine and dandy. But not managing _people_, who do not agree to how you feel they should be managed.

          Using government to ban someone who cannot afford a car on their own from sharing one with others, just so that those who can afford their own exclusive use one, dont have to put up with “all those proles” “congesting” them, is just disgusting in anything even pretending to be a free society. No different than “front of the bus for me, back of the bus (or being dragged behind it) for you.”

          “Congestion” self limits in free societies, as those least tolerant of it, can leave for less congested pasture. While those who don’t mind it quite as much, can pile themselves together to their hearts’ content.

      • 0 avatar
        thelaine

        You nailed it, Stuki.

  • avatar
    JSP

    Can we stop calling ride-hailing ride-sharing? IMO it’s only ride-sharing when two or more people share one vehicle to make a similar journey. In that case true ride-sharing would reduce the number of cars on the roads.

  • avatar
    alfaromeo

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

  • avatar
    John Horner

    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”.


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