Photo: AP

Ride-hailing companies see themselves as a way to reduce the reliance on automobile ownership and a path forward to eliminate god-awful congestion. But a new study on the impact of companies like Uber and Lyft from the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies offers a different outlook: Instead, it turns out, they’ve likely increased congestion and, more worrisome, reduced use of public transit.

The study collected surveys from respondents across seven major metropolitan areas, with questions focusing on the adoption and utilization of so-called mobility services like Uber.

One key stat that stands out? As many as 61 percent of ride-hailing trips would have otherwise been made on foot, public transportation, bicycle, or not at all.

From the study (which you can read here):

Directionally, this new evidence of mode substitution suggests that ride-hailing is likely adding vehicle miles traveled to transportation systems in major cities. 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.

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Unlike previous studies, the researchers found that respondents reduced their use of public transit (like buses and light rail services) after they began using Uber and Lyft. They found a slight increase (3 percent) for heavy rail use, but the study says: “This data demonstrates that the substitutive versus complementary nature of ride-hailing varies considerably based on the prevalence and quality of public transit services.”

Public transit has a bad reputation in the U.S., subway issues in New York City notwithstanding. But the NYC subway system is one of the easiest ways to get around town, and in some cities, the bus system is all some residents have to rely on. Public transportation systems already face funding issues. Allowing public transit use to be diverted to companies like Uber without addressing what’ll eventually materialize in additional funding shortfalls isn’t just going to hurt the systems themselves; it’s going to hurt actual people who can’t afford ride-hailing.

Here’s the quickest cost-comparison example I could come up with, based on when I lived in Detroit: A bus pass for the regionwide and city bus system costs $69.50. Taking Uber into downtown Detroit for work from the last apartment I lived in—about two miles roundtrip, a much shorter trip than most residents—would cost anywhere from $8-12 just for one day. The bus system in Detroit may be treacherous and unreliable, but I’m just not sure cities have the resources to appropriate enough funds to subsidize a taxi service, especially to the point it could replace the utility and economic value of public transit. I mean, say the government subsidized 50 percent of fares. That’d still cost me $120-180 per month, and that’s only to get into downtown Detroit on my short trek.

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It should be obvious, too, that Uber and Lyft aren’t so much complements to public transit as they are competitors. Cities are already choosing to subsidize the services instead of funding public transit. Uber and Lyft have their own services that “pool” riders who’re traveling along similar routes, akin to a bus line operating on a fixed path. This makes for the beginning of a startling dilemma.

Data from the Pew Research Center helps illustrate the point:

Americans who are lower-income, black or Hispanic, immigrants or under 50 are especially likely to use public transportation on a regular basis

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About 15 percent of Americans have used Uber and Lyft, Pew notes, and

26% of Americans with an annual household income of $75,000 or more have used these services, while just 14% have never heard of them. For those living in households with an annual income of less than $30,000, just 10% have used these services and 49% are not familiar with them at all.

Setting aside the business model for Uber and Lyft, and whether or not its viable, ride-hailing isn’t going away in the near-future. If policymakers want to ensure that both ride-hailing and public transit complement one another, it’s something they should start addressing soon. And with a dearth of research on the topic currently, that’s why, based on the findings from UC Davis, the researchers say policymakers need to be conducting more studies now because they’re essentially making crucial decisions without much to work off.

Further research is needed to understand how ride-hailing may influence future trajectories of traffic volumes and associated emissions so that cities can effectively plan for transportation infrastructure and public transit investments. Absent of data, cities and transit agencies are essentially in the dark when making important decisions that influence how citizens move in their regions.

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There might not be a silver bullet just yet, but this study should be a call to start focusing on the issue now rather than later.