Is Uber killing transit?

Uber car
© Getty Images/ Spencer Platt

A new study from UC Davis raises some serious concerns.

It has long been a concern that if the roads are flooded with Uber and Lyft cars, will people switch from transit? Will it increase congestion? Now, a new study from UC Davis shows that people are indeed switching. Angie Schmitt of Streetsblog summarizes:

A large share of ride-hailing traffic is substituting for more efficient modes of transportation, they found. Between 49 percent to 61 percent of ride-hailing trips would have been made by transit, biking, or walking, or would not have been made at all, if the services were not available, according to the survey responses. In other words, Uber and Lyft are adding to traffic congestion.

According to the study, the main reason people switch from driving their own car to using Uber is the cost of parking, which wouldn't necessarily add to the number of cars on the road. But there is a lot more going on that is worrisome. There are issues of who is riding. It is mainly young, college educated and affluent Americans doing it; only 4 percent of those over 65 have used the services, while 36 percent of those 18 to 29 have.

changes in transit© UC Davis Study, Disruptive Transportation

But the real issues arise when you look at how these services have changed how we actually get around our cities. From the study:

  • After using ride-hailing, the average net change in transit use is a 6% reduction among Americans in major cities.
  • As compared with previous studies that have suggested shared mobility services complement transit services, we find that the substitutive versus complementary nature of ride-hailing varies greatly based on the type of transit service in question.
  • Ride-hailing attracts Americans away from bus services (a 6% reduction) and light rail services (a 3% reduction).
  • Ride-hailing serves as a complementary mode for commuter rail services (a 3% net increase in use).
  • We find that 49% to 61% of ride-hailing trips would have not been made at all, or by walking, biking, or transit.

That last point is particularly important; people are walking and biking less and roads are getting more crowded. From the report’s detail:

The 49% to 61% of ride-hailing trips that would have not been made at all, or by walking, biking, or transit, are adding vehicles to the road. In addition, depending the volume of deadheading miles associated with ride-hailing trips (miles traveled without a passenger, which have previously estimated to be 20% to 50%), the VMT [Vehicle Miles Traveled] associated with a ride-hailing trip is potentially higher than a trip taken in a personal vehicle.

reasons for avoiding transit© UC Davis Study, Disruptive Transportation

Angie Schmitt concludes, as I do:

The implications for transit riders are troubling. More affluent people are opting for ride-hailing because it’s faster and more reliable than transit. This creates a vicious cycle where additional ride-hailing trips cause more congestion, which slows down transit…People who can’t afford an Uber fare are left with even worse bus service.

Schmitt believes that the way to deal with this is to fix our transit systems and make them more appealing. “If cities and transit agencies don’t take action to improve the quality of bus and rail service, Uber and Lyft can end up doing more harm than good, clogging streets and cannibalizing transit.”

Others believe exactly the opposite: that there is no point in investing in transit, that the future (particularly with self-driving cars) is to let ride-hailing services become transit. Particularly in low-density areas, there is some logic to this.

Innisfil UberTown of Innisfil/Screen capture

North of Toronto, the Town of Innisfil basically subcontracted their transit system out to Uber. A bus system was going to be too expensive and the population was so diffuse that it would be ineffective, so it was cheaper (and actually more efficient) to let Uber do it. In much of the US as well, there is little incentive for suburban politicians and residents to invest in transit, which they don’t use anyway.

Many in North America believe that Uber killing transit and based on this study, even biking, is a feature, not a bug. So it is likely that transit will just get worse, not better.

Tags: Cities | Transportation

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