Will Uber and Lyft Make Transportation More Sustainable?

A couple of weeks ago, I was leaving a friend’s house in Park Slope, Brooklyn, late at night. The minute I walked outside, I started debating myself: How should I get back home — train or Uber? The train is cheaper, but then I need to walk to the train station, wait for the train and then walk again from the train station in my neighborhood. Uber is far more expensive, but then I just need to wait a couple of minutes for the car and it will take me straight home.

I chose Uber.

Such experiences shape my belief that Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing services may evolve into a substitute for public transit for those who prioritize convenience and can afford it. In other words, I see these services as a potential threat to pubic transit, as a growing number of people may start using them instead of taking the bus or the train.

However, I might be wrong, at least according to a new report from the American Public Transportation Association — which found that shared modes (car-sharing, bike-sharing and ride-hailing services) “complement public transit, enhancing urban mobility.” More specifically, the report suggested that services like Uber and Lyft “are most frequently used for social trips between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m., times when public transit runs infrequently or is not available. Shared modes substitute more for automobile trips than public transit trips.”

The study, which was conducted in seven cities, portrays shared modes in the urban transportation eco-system as an opportunity rather than a threat to public transit, suggesting that the future of urban transportation could benefit from collaboration with private platforms. Therefore, “public transit agencies should seize opportunities to improve urban mobility for all users through collaboration and public-private partnerships, including greater integration of service, information and payment methods.”

It is important to note that this report was not published by Lyft, Uber or an organization connected to these companies but by APTA, an organization that describes itself as a “leading force in advancing public transportation.” So, we could assume this is an objective report (although Lyft is a new member at APTA, according to its website).

Another interesting study that is not finalized yet was conducted by Susan Shaheen, co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. According to the New York Times, Dr. Shaheen is working with NRDC to determine the environmental impact of Uber and Lyft’s car-pooling systems.

While her study is in progress, the early data suggests that “by getting “more butts in seats… car-pooled services may already be reducing traffic, gas use and automobile emissions,” Dr. Shaheen told the New York Times. In other words, her study may also reach a conclusion similar to the APAT report: Ride-hailing services have a positive, sustainable impact on urban transportation systems.

Unlike the APAT report, Shaheen’s upcoming report seems to differentiate between Uber’s and Lyft’s main services (UberX and Lyft) and their car pool services (UberPool and Lyft Line). The latter is definitely more sustainable than the former as you have “more butts in seats.” But I wonder if these shared rides — which seem, according to Lyft and Uber, to have a growing popularity — substitute more for automobile trips or public transit trips.

Shaheen’s study will provide an answer to this question, the New York Times reports, so we will have to wait and see.

Let’s assume though that the results will support the notion that sharing-economy services like Uber and Lyft take cars off the road and supplement urban public transit rather than substitute for it. If this is the case, should we indeed encourage cities and their public transportation systems to partner with these sharing-economy platforms?

Well, not so fast. There are two main issues cities should address before giving these services a friendly hug. The first is the social impact of ride-hailing services. Both the APAT report and another study conducted in New York show that most of the users of these services are affluent: According to the APAT report, the average household income of respondents was $90,926, and a New York data analysis conducted by FiveThirtyEight suggests that passengers of both taxi and Uber services are “highly concentrated in wealthier areas.”

Public transit is the great equalizer, regularly used by both rich and poor. Even if UberPool and Lyft Line will continue reducing their prices, it will still be unlikely that they will become a feasible alternative for poor people who can barely afford to pay the cost of their bus ride. Therefore, while a continuing expansion of private ride-hailing services could take more cars off the road, it is also important to ask if they will also leave only poor people to use public transit. FiveThirtyEight suggests one scenario, where middle-to-upper income city dwellers will actually use public transit more, not less, as they will shift from car ownership to a more economic combination of ride-hailing services and public transit. But I’m a bit skeptical how realistic this option is.

The second issue is governance. By adopting sharing-economy platforms and helping them play a more significant role in the urban mobility system, cities essentially give them more power and make them part of their fabric. This could become an issue, especially when it comes to companies like Uber — which has been criticized for a long list of wrongdoings, aggressive tactics and the way it treats drivers, and whose success“comes from being parasitic on the cities in which it operates,” as Tom Slee described in his book “What’s Yours is Mine.” To make a long story short: Do you really want to give companies that seem to lack self-governance and put their shareholders first the responsibility for a growing share of your city’s transportation system?

At the end of the day, it could be that evaluating Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing services through the lens of carbon emissions is just too narrow. It might be the time to consider a broader framework like resilience, using tools such as the Rockefeller Foundation’s City Resilience Framework to figure out if these sharing-economy services actually create a positive net impact in cities.

Image credit: Flickr/James Loesch