No matter how you get to work, chances are you’ve spent at least a handful of hours frustrated by the commute. At some point, construction, poor weather, or simply congested roadways have taken valuable hours from all of our days. Given the constant annoyance of bad traffic, it is unsurprising that people get excited about any technology that may reduce the problem. Such was at least part of the hope for ridesharing technologies like Uber and Lyft.
To date, that hope has been at least premature, if not misplaced entirely. Recent studies have shown that the introduction of Uber and Lyft to a city actually increases traffic. A study by transportation analyst Bruce Schaller found that popular ridesharing apps were responsible for 51% of the increase in traffic in San Francisco between 2010 and 2016. Results in other major metro areas were similar.
The increased traffic appears to be primarily attributable to two things. First, rideshare drivers spend around 40% of their road time between passengers, merely taking up space on the road without moving customers where they want to go. Second, Schaller’s research suggests that the convenience of ridesharing has increased the total number of trips taken. He finds that 60% of trips taken with rideshare apps replace trips for which people would have either taken public transit, biked, walked, or simply not made the trip. Uber and Lyft dispute some of Schaller’s methods, arguing that he does not adequately account for factors like increased tourism and freight delivery as causes of increased congestion.
Even if some of the companies’ criticisms are valid, the challenges of passenger-less rideshare vehicles and rideshare trips replacing non-car travel are almost certainly both real. It is possible that, as Uber, Lyft, and others collect more data about patterns of mobility, they will be able to effectively limit the amount of time their cars are on the road with no passengers. By contrast, increased traffic due to rideshare replacement of non-car travel will not be abated by the companies alone. Their incentives align with reducing the amount of time drivers have no passenger in the car, but not with ceding a share of their market to public transit or other modes of transportation.
The challenge of rideshare trips replacing non-car travel will require affirmative government action to overcome. Broadly, cities may take one of two paths, or a combination of both. First, they can design their infrastructure and public transit systems in such a way as to make walking or public transportation a more attractive option for the individual consumer than a solo car trip. Second, they may choose to limit the number of rideshare vehicles allowed on the road. Such a program would be similar to the grant of a set number of taxi medallions. Some cities, such as Chicago, have begun charging a tax on Uber and Lyft rides specifically to help fund improved public transportation. Such a scheme may enable the city to keep its other transit options competitive with rideshare and reduce overall traffic congestion.
To date, the growth of Uber and Lyft present a cautionary tale for tech optimists. On one hand, the growth of these companies has presented riders with a convenient way to travel, and has enabled some people to forgo owning their own car. However, there is evidence that the explosion of vehicles on the road has dramatically increased traffic congestion in the nation’s largest cities. While some of the traffic problems may be solved as the companies continue to collect data, it will likely take affirmative action by local governments to make other transportation options more compelling and abate the worst of the traffic problem.