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Ride-Hailing Apps Were Never Going To Fix Traffic

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Over the last few years, Uber and Lyft have made it abundantly clear they believe ride-hailing services can and will reduce traffic congestion in cities. Private car ownership in cities will all but end by 2025, one exec said. There’ll be “no more traffic in Boston in five years,” another said. But more and more studies are finding the opposite is happening, reports the Associated Press.


The increased use of ride-hailing services has reduced use of other transit—subways, buses, bicycles, walking—and instead is placing more individuals into cars. Uber’s latest service, Express Pool, is essentially designed to compete with mass transit, a feature that’d come at an obvious expense to mass transit users who can’t afford the ride-hailing app.

Here’s a snip of the AP piece:

Uber and Lyft argue that in Boston, for instance, they complement public transit by connecting riders to hubs like Logan Airport and South Station. But they have not released their own specific data about rides, leaving studies up to outside researchers.

And the impact of all those cars is becoming clear, said Christo Wilson, a professor of computer science at Boston’s Northeastern University, who has looked at Uber’s practice of surge pricing during heavy volume.

“The emerging consensus is that ride-sharing (is) increasing congestion,” Wilson said.


The study also found that riders aren’t using Uber or Lyft to reach subways or bus lines, rather they’re ditching the mass transit options entirely, Alison Felix one of the report’s authors, told the AP.

“Ride sharing is pulling from and not complementing public transportation,” Felix told the news agency.

Uber said its long-term goal is to “end the reliance on personal vehicles and allow a mix of public transportation and services like Uber.”

“Uber helps fill gaps in communities across Boston that lack convenient access to the T (Boston’s subway system), helping people affordably and reliably move around the city,” the company said in a statement.


Whether Uber and Lyft actually reduces congestion has been a focal point in cities like San Francisco, which considered filing a lawsuit earlier this year to obtain location data of tens of thousands of drivers for the ride-hailing companies.

And it’s no question that the city has more drivers on the streets hustling for ride-hailing apps than traditional taxi services; a study last June found that ride-hailing drivers make more than 170,000 vehicle trips on a typical weekday, reports the AP, about 12 times the number of taxi trips. The ride-hailing trips are “concentrated in the densest and most congested parts of the city,” according to the AP.


What’s more, a survey of 4,000 adults living in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington D.C., found that as much as 61 percent of ride-hailing trips wouldn’t have been made at all if the option didn’t exist. Put differently, those are trips that aren’t being taken on foot or public transit.


The same’s true in Manhattan, where traffic in Midtown slowly moves at an average of 4.7 miles per hour, down from 6.5 mph just five years ago. The reason? “An explosion of ride-hailing app services has transformed the way that people get around the city and is choking the streets,” reports the New York Times.

At this point, I’m just not sure why anyone ever expected these services to reduce congestion. The success of new-age taxi businesses—even with hypothetical autonomous cars coming—is predicated on having enough drivers. Uber’s new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said as much as recently as November:

“Ten years from now, are we going to have more drivers than we have today? I absolutely think so,” Khosrowshahi said today at the New York Times DealBook Conference.

That may sound counterintuitive for a company obsessed with self-driving technology, but Khosrowshahi insists the math holds up. How? Because Uber’s growth will offset the effects of automation, he says, at least for the near future. In 10 years, Khosrowshahi estimates that 70% or 80% of Uber rides will be autonomous, which means that at least 20% or 30% of rides will still require drivers. But because Uber’s network will likely be 10 or 20 times larger than it is today, that 20% or 30% will require a larger pool of drivers.


Both Uber and Lyft try to attract drivers by paying them incentives, in what basically amounts to an effort to artificially suppress the cost of passenger fares by using their major investor cash.

Uber’s preference is to prevent passengers from being hit by “surge fares,” according to The New York Times. The answer? Put more drivers on the road:

Drivers, who typically keep what’s left of their gross fare after Uber takes a roughly 25 percent commission, prefer some scarcity in their ranks to keep them busier and push up earnings. For its part, Uber is desperate to avoid shortages, seeking instead to serve every customer quickly, ideally in five minutes or less.

This is particularly true of shortages so pronounced as to create a “surge” — that is, a higher fare than normal. While surges do mitigate shortages, they do so in part by repelling passengers, something directly at odds with Uber’s long-term goal of dominating the industry. “For us, it’s better not to surge,” said Daniel Graf, Uber’s vice president of product. “If we don’t surge, we can produce more rides.”


Taken together, it’s hard to see how anyone ever bought into the congestion idea. The entire premise of the ride-hailing industry has been who can achieve total domination. Uber had a leg up for years; then Lyft picked up steam thanks to a terrible 2017 for its main competitor.

Now, more competitors are getting into the mix, meaning more cars are going to be on the road, driving more passengers around who’re paying even cheaper (artificially suppressed) fares, because that’s what’s needed to win over the hearts of passengers who’re just looking for convenience and the cheapest, most efficient way to get around.


Meanwhile, if the trend continues, public transit agencies—which more low-income individuals rely on to get around and to their jobs—can’t get nearly enough funding to build and support robust services. The increased use of ride-hailing apps—and, consequently, increased congestion—will continue to siphon riders away from public transit, hurting those agencies even more.

We reached out to Lyft, and we’ll update this post if we hear back. Lyft told the AP that it’s 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.”


If that’s the case, hopefully the company is reading about these studies today.