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Ask a Scientist: When It Comes to Addressing Pollution and Congestion, Are Ride-Hailing Services Taking Us for a Ride?

, senior writer | March 11, 2020, 11:25 am EDT
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This post is a part of a series on Ask a Scientist

The two biggest ride-hailing companies, Lyft and Uber, insist they’re eco-friendly.

Lyft’s website boasts that the company is committed to “full carbon neutrality and 100 percent renewable energy” by—among other things—establishing a carbon offset program, putting more electric cars on the road, and setting a goal to achieve 50 percent shared rides by the end of 2020.

Meanwhile, two years ago Uber launched a year-long pilot project offering cash incentives to North American drivers who use electric cars and committed $10 million “to campaign for ideas that put the long-term public interest over maintaining the mobility status quo,” including congestion pricing.

“Our goal is to make every journey a shared one,” Uber states on its website. “When we help more people move with fewer, fuller, and more efficient cars, we may help save fuel, improve air quality, and increase a transportation system’s efficiency with each trip. Just what our cities need.”

Laudable goals, no doubt. But are cities getting what they need from ride-hailing companies?

Not yet.

A new UCS study examined the impact of ride-hailing companies on seven US cities and found that they increase carbon emissions, worsen air quality, and cause more traffic congestion.

The study—the first to quantify the pollution from ride-hailing—found that the average ride-hailing trip emits nearly 70 percent more carbon pollution than the trip it replaces.

There are concrete actions that ride-sharing companies can take to meet their professed sustainability goals beyond making feelgood promises. And if they fail to deliver, city and state authorities will have to adopt policies that encourage and ultimately require the companies to move more quickly to cut emissions.

The study, Ride-Hailing’s Climate Risks, includes thumbnails of what some states and cities are doing to push ride-hailing services in the right direction as well as tips for what ride-hailing- service users can do. To get a fuller picture of the role states, cities and the general public can play, I asked Elizabeth Irvin, a transportation expert who reviewed the study, to explain in more detail what local authorities are doing and what users can do.

After reviewing the study, Irvin rejoined the UCS staff as a senior transportation analyst after a seven-year absence. Between 2013—when Irvin was an outreach associate at UCS—and this year, she earned a master’s degree in city planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and worked for the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning and the Chicago-based Center for Neighborhood Technology, where she served as the organization’s transportation director. We’re pleased to have her back on board.

EN: First, I want to welcome you back to UCS. You’ve been living in Chicago for several years, so let’s start with the Windy City. What impact did ride-hailing services have there, and what did the Chicago City Council do about it?

Elizabeth Irvin is a senior transportation analyst in the Clean Transportation program

EI: It’s great to be back and working at the UCS Chicago office. Chicago is a great city, especially for a transportation nerd like me. We have one of the nation’s oldest and most iconic public transit systems, and we’re also a major hub in the national highway and freight rail network. And, like many other cities, we’ve seen an explosion of ride-hailing.

The City of Chicago, which has been collecting data from ride-hailing companies for several years, released a report last fall that found that the number of ride-hailing trips nearly tripled in three years, jumping from 27.6 million in 2015 to 102.5 million in 2018. It also found that ride-hailing trips were discouraging transit ridership directly, when people chose Uber or Lyft instead of taking a bus, and indirectly, by increasing traffic congestion, which slows down buses and makes public transit less reliable.

Making matters worse, ride-hailing was heavily concentrated in overly congested parts of the city with ample access to public transit, and only a fraction of the people who used the services in those areas requested shared—or pooled—rides. At the same time, the data showed that ride-hailing was filling important gaps in transportation access, particularly for trips within and between lower-income, predominantly African-American and Latinx neighborhoods on the city’s South and West sides. In those areas, at least 50 percent of the trips requested were for pooled rides, which are less expensive than solo rides.

Armed with this information, Chicago restructured the fee it charges for ride-hailing trips to encourage more pooled rides and reduce congestion, and uses a portion of the revenue generated by the fee to improve the city’s public transit system. Since January, riders pay higher fees for solo trips to or from downtown during weekdays and lower fees for pooled rides. Shared rides that start and end outside of the downtown area are the cheapest, making ride-hailing more affordable for residents living and working in communities with fewer transportation options.

EN: Now, let’s head West. California is in the forefront on many energy and environmental issues, and ride-hailing is one of them. State legislators passed a bill two years ago requiring ride-hailing companies to reduce emissions and transition their fleets to electric vehicles. What impact did these companies have in major California cities? Are ride-hailing companies complying with the emissions law? How can they get their drivers to buy or lease electric vehicles?

EI: California has been the most proactive state in assessing and regulating ride-hailing, from labor issues to climate impacts, at least partly because both Uber and Lyft are headquartered in San Francisco, which has one of the highest rates of ride-hailing usage in the country. A recent report found that more than 13 percent of all driving in San Francisco County is in Uber and Lyft vehicles.

The 2018 legislation you mentioned established a Clean Miles Standard focusing on emissions per passenger mile rather than emissions per vehicle mile, giving companies flexibility to meet the standard with a combination of strategies, including getting their drivers to buy or lease electric vehicles and increasing the percentage of pooled trips. The law is still in early stages of implementation, and UCS is working to ensure that California bases its regulations on the best available data to significantly reduce emissions.

How can Uber and Lyft get their drivers into electric vehicles? Let me explain. Although the companies are responsible for reducing their fleet emissions, they don’t own their fleet vehicles, their drivers do, and many of them are taking advantage of short-term rental programs—leasing a car for days, weeks, or months—instead of purchasing a new vehicle or entering into a traditional long-term lease. Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing companies already offer less expensive lease rates for drivers who complete a certain number of trips, so why not provide similar incentives for drivers to lease electric vehicles? The companies also should provide charging infrastructure for their drivers who don’t have access to charging at home and install charging stations around town if drivers need to recharge during the day.

Partnerships among ride-hailing companies, leasing companies, and charging companies can make electric vehicles more affordable for drivers. For example, last fall Lyft announced its Express Drive program in Denver will provide 200 Kia Niros on short term leases and is partnering with Electrify America to provide charging, which is included in the lease price. Another ride-hailing company, Maven Gig, has made the Chevy Bolt available to its drivers in several markets and is working with EVgo to provide charging infrastructure. Including fast-charging costs in the lease price is one way to assure drivers they will have predictable or fixed fueling costs. It also would increase the utilization of existing charging stations, which would benefit charging companies.

EN: How are Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing companies working with public transit agencies to complement, rather than compete, with one another?

EI: Uber, Lyft and Via have been collaborating with cities around the country on pilot projects that help people get to public transit and provide more frequent and flexible service in suburban areas where there are not enough riders to warrant standard bus service. These pilot projects are taking many forms. Uber and Lyft, for example, are integrating public transit schedules into their apps. Lyft also made it possible for riders in Denver to pay public transit fares through its ride-hailing app. And four years ago, Pinellas County, Florida, replaced several low-ridership bus routes with subsidized Uber rides to train stations.

Cities also are working with ride-hailing companies to address specific local issues. Summit, New Jersey, avoided having to enlarge a commuter parking lot by subsidizing Uber and Lyft rides to the city’s train station. Community leaders in the Chicago suburb of Bedford Park are looking at ride-hailing as a better way to transport workers to manufacturing, industrial, and warehouse jobs. And in some cases, transit agencies are developing their own ride-hailing type services. Los Angeles, for example, just announced that it is planning a pilot project for a “microtransit” service in a few neighborhoods.

EN: What are the main takeaways from what we’ve seen in California, Chicago, Denver, and elsewhere? What are the key policies federal, state, and local authorities should adopt to better integrate ride-hailing into a sustainable transportation mix?

EI: Cities need data to understand how these new services are affecting them and must retain the authority and flexibility to address those impacts. The UCS report provides valuable information about the potential impact of ride-hailing services on carbon emissions based on publicly available data, but there are many questions still to be answered. For example, how many people have decided to sell their car, or decided against buying a new car, because ride-hailing services make it easier to hire a driver when they need to drive somewhere? There isn’t any evidence that this is happening in significant numbers, but smart policy decisions, including investing in public transit and congestion pricing, could make this phenomenon more likely.

EN: Finally, what can ride-hailing-service users do?

EI: People can use ride-hailing services in combination with public transit, biking, and walking to reduce overall car use and cut carbon emissions. Instead of taking an Uber all the way to your destination, for example, get a ride to a bus or subway stop. Or choose a pooled ride when you can.

People also can use their power as consumers to tell these companies to invest in cleaner options, including encouraging their drivers to use electric vehicles and providing pooled service if it’s not available in your community. It’s also important to engage in local transportation policy debates. Push public officials to support cleaner transportation options, including investing in public transit, sidewalks, bike lanes, and electric vehicle charging infrastructure. If you make it clear the demand is there, public agencies will hopefully respond.

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  • Pat Chambers

    Do we have to go? Can’t we let technology rule out much of this needless roaming? Perhaps the pandemic will teach us that we can exist happily without the diversion of constant movement? Walk, work on your domicile, swim, run, volunteer, but eschew anything that involves fuel consumption (if you have the option.)