Do Uber and Lyft Make Traffic Worse?

One of the express promises of ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft was that they would reduce traffic congestion by reducing vehicle ownership. City dwellers would opt not to own their own cars but instead rely on someone else's car to get around, thereby reducing the total number of cars on the road.

The thing about theories, though, is they are just theories until someone does a study. And several recent studies have shown that ride-hailing increases traffic congestion, and that the effect is the worst at the most congested times of day. According to one recent study in Boston, it is true that car ownership in the city is down, but those cars that remain are on the road more than ever before. Rather than replacing personal vehicle trips, Uber and Lyft draw most of their passengers away from public transit, biking, or walking. A similar study in Manhattan found the same, and that traffic congestion is significantly exacerbated by Uber and Lyft drivers cruising the streets in their empty cars waiting for their next fare.

Why is this happening? Several surveys have asked ride-hailing customers why they use the service. The top three reasons given are: (1) to avoid the hassle of finding parking; (2) to avoid driving while impaired; and (3) because public transit is inconvenient or slow. Avoiding the cost of car ownership (other than parking fees) does not make the list. Also notable is that two of the top three reasons are the direct result of public transportation planning decisions – the lack of parking and the inconvenience of public transit. Interestingly, a similar study in London, England – with its wealth of easily accessible public transit options – found that ride-hailing in that city did not draw riders from public transit in any significant amount.

Despite their early predictions having gone awry, Uber and Lyft have not let this phenomenon pass unnoticed. Uber recently rolled out Express Pool, a less expensive service that links riders with similar destinations to the same ride – the sharing of ride sharing, if you will. Testing of Express Pool in Boston and San Francisco has found sufficient demand to offer it 24 hours a day and to expand it to more locations. Lyft is working on a similar service called Shuttle for a flat $3 fare, competitive with most buses.

So are Uber and Lyft bad for our cities? Certainly not. Rather, they are disruptors that force change in established systems that have become calcified due to lack of competition. What has already happened to the taxi industry because ride-hailing undercut its costs, must now take place in public transit because of ride-hailing's greater convenience. Simply put, people will always prefer a point-to-point ride in a car instantly available at the tap of an app, rather than spend the extra time often necessary to navigate poorly planned public transit. Express Pool and Shuttle are effectively privately run buses, and early results (plus the London study) show that when shared transit works, people will ride it. Unless American public transit can figure out how to do the same, it may be headed for the same fate as the taxis.