Ian Ollis: A desire named street car
Ride-hailing services, and the millennials who use them, are killing the future of public transportation.
We’ve all heard of, or used, a ride-hailing service such as Uber, Lyft, Ola, Hitch-a-ride, EasyTaxi, or Grab in the past few years. Sometimes called e-hailing services or transportation network companies, they provide a taxi-like service that you can summon via an app on your phone and pay via credit card. As-yet unpublished research by students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the impact of ride hailing in Singapore shows that companies such as Uber and Lyft are diverting customers from public transportation, thus increasing congestion in urban areas with the additional vehicles on the road. The London mayor is seeking powers to limit the number of Uber drivers operating in the capital, blaming a surge in private-hire drivers for the city’s increasing congestion and pollution. Ride-hailing companies have fired back, in some cases blaming the poor quality of public transportation or pointing out that they comprise a small percentage of the number of vehicles on the road, but the evidence is pointing in the other direction. In Massachusetts, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council has recently released a report based on their own research into the use of ride hailing in the greater Boston-Cambridge area. In the autumn of 2017, the council recruited and trained Uber and Lyft drivers to ask passengers if they would take a tablet-based survey during their ride-hailing trip. The 1,000 responses covered are worrying. As many as 59% of ride-hailing trips resulted in an additional vehicle on the road — and 15% of all ride-hailing trips replaced more sustainable modes of transport during peak periods. This includes metro rail, buses and cycling. The council now believes this worsens regional roadway congestion and is causing a significant revenue loss for buses and metro rail services. The use of rail and buses fell in 31 of 35 major metropolitan areas in the United States last year, according to an annual overview of public transit usage by the New York-based TransitCenter advocacy group, using data from the US Department of Transportation’s National Transit Database. The Washington DC Metro transportation authority believes that about 30% of its ridership losses are tied to train and bus reliability issues, with teleworking, a shrinking federal workforce, ride hailing and other factors to blame for the remaining 70%. The Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California also published a study in October 2017 which found that “based on the results of those who did change their behaviour, we find that shared mobility likely attracts Americans in major cities away from bus services and light rail (6% and 3% net reduction in use, respectively)” and further explained that “ride hailing is likely contributing more vehicle miles traveled than it reduces in major cities”. Bruce Schaller, a transportation consultant of the Schaller Consultancy, produced a report on the traffic situation and the future of transportation in New York City. “Uber promised to take one million cars off the road in New York City and help eliminate our city’s congestion problem for good. Lyft promised reductions in carbon footprint from people driving alone.” However, he further explains: “As a result of growing trip volumes, transportation network companies (ride hailing) added [965 million kilometers] of driving to city streets in 2016 — more than total yellow cab mileage in Manhattan.” Ride hailing added an estimated 7% of distance driven by all vehicles in these congested areas from 2013 to 2016. A continuation of ride-hailing company-led growth in travel is not sustainable in New York. Schaller believes that the central task for public policy now is to shift ridership back to sustainable public transportation. All this research points in the same direction. Ride hailing is adding more cars to congested roads and to the clogging up of parking spaces, particularly in drop-off zones and emergency lanes in cities. Rarely are there designated parking bays capable of coping with the increased traffic that ride hailing is producing. Ride hailing is reversing the shift to mass transit — public transportation on trains and buses. This will have a major impact on congestion on roads and freeways, which is growing exponentially over time and having an impact on the environment. An electric train has one of the lowest impacts on the environment. With California promising that their new high-speed bullet trains will be powered exclusively from electricity generation from renewables in the future, the impact of the alternatives (aeroplanes, cars and even buses) on the environment will be huge compared with fast trains. In South Africa, the e-toll system in Gauteng was designed to make driving private cars on freeways more expensive in an effort to push people to take the Gautrain, although this wasn’t exactly explained to the public. However, ride-hailing services will work against this trend. There will also be the impact of more vehicles on the road, causing more wear and tear, leading to higher road maintenance costs. US cities and states are starting to charge ride-hailing operators per trip to cross-subsidise the loss to public transportation. These charges are set to increase. London is intent on capping the number of cars used for ride hailing, and this trend is set to continue. But there is one final, alarming, revelation from this research. In the vast majority of cases, it is millennials who are abandoning buses and trains for ride-hailing services offered by the likes of Uber and Lyft. As one study puts it, “82% of ride-hailing passengers were born after 1983”. Older commuters are actually increasing their use of public transportation, but not millennials. They want flexibility, quality of service, and immediate solutions rather than waiting for buses or trains. As millennials are the future, this does not bode well for public transportation or for the environment. The private motor car, however it is used, is not a long-term transportation solution for the planet. We cannot build sufficient roads and highways to cater for the rapid increase in private motor vehicle ownership, and ride hailing will make that growing problem even worse. The attempts at ride sharing will help to slow the problem down to an extent, but the level of the industry’s growth will more than negate this. Some are predicting that ride-hailing companies’ business model will collapse into bankruptcy. If it doesn’t, expect trips to be taxed or car numbers capped by legislation. Now imagine what the advent of driverless (hence cheaper) ride-hailing vehicles will do to the congestion problem? DM Ian Ollis studies transportation planning at MIT and can be followed on Twitter @ianollis