The Dark Side of Ride Hailing Apps
Ride hailing services like Uber and Lyft are rapidly becoming a leading mode of transportation in many US cities, and are often praised by economists for their exceptional efficiency in connecting riders to drivers, especially compared to sluggish taxi services. As a result, the two private companies have become venture capital darlings: Lyft is valued at $15.1 billion while Uber is valued at a whopping $72 billion, making it the highest valued tech unicorn in the United States. Other ride hailing services around the world have made major inroads into urban transportation markets.
However, a new study by UC Davis researcher Regina Clewlow shows that the efficiency of ride hailing apps is offset by a harmful side effect: increased traffic. The study notes that ride hailing apps have not decreased personal car ownership, but instead have spurred reductions in the use of public transit options like buses and subways as well as biking and walking, which in turn has resulted in more personal cars clogging up roads. According to former New York deputy transportation commission, Bruce Schaller, the rapid growth of ride hailing in the US (up 37% in the past year) is the major contributor to increased traffic.
At first glance, this statement seems obvious. Many US cities were largely designed around accommodating automobile transport, making them adaptable to services like ride hailing. But policy responses must tread cautiously: more cars on the road can often lead city and state governments to expand road capacity. The idea of induced demand, where increasing roadway capacity incentivizes more driving and increases overall congestion, has long been an accepted maxim in the field of urban planning.
More highways will not solve congestion, especially with continuing growth in the ride hailing sector. Other strategies could prove more successful. Ride hailing services like Uber and Lyft aren’t going away any time soon, but some cities like New York have moved to cap the number of drivers as a way to reduce traffic and increase driver wages. Other cities like Washington, DC have expanded their bike lane capacity, while cities like Los Angeles are increasing spending on public transit, which are often neglected by many cities due to high construction costs and requirements for tax increases, among other issues.
Regardless, increased congestion as a result of ride hailing is more than just a hindrance for anyone trying to get to their destination quickly. Personal automobile transit is one of the most environmentally unfriendly and least energy efficient ways to travel, and more cars clogging up urban areas is a surefire way to increase pollution. Even the increasing transition of automakers towards electric cars can still pollute heavily depending on the source of electricity generation.
Still, ride hailing apps do show some cause for optimism. Both the UC Davis study and a recent University of Minnesota study show that ride hailing has in some cases augmented the increased use of subway and commuter rail. Similarly, the future onset of autonomous vehicle fleets operated by Uber, Lyft, Apple and Google could make way for the possibility of optimizing ride hailing trips, ultimately reducing congestion, although there is still debate over whether this could hold true or not.
As ride hailing apps enter their adolescence, both their problems and benefits are becoming more apparent. Mitigating their faults will require adequate planning by governments, businesses, and riders in order to better approach issues like traffic and pollution.