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Lucas Jackson/Reuters
A new analysis by the ride-hailing giants sheds some light on a long-asked question about their congestion impacts on U.S. cities.

After the 2008 economic crash, Americans began driving less. But it didn’t last long: In every year since 2013, U.S. drivers have packed on more miles behind the wheel. This rise in vehicle-miles traveled (VMT, in wonk-speak) can be seen and felt in the nation’s metropolises. Congestion on major arteries like L.A.’s I-405 or San Francisco’s Geary Boulevard is getting worse; pedestrian death counts are reaching record heights; tailpipe emissions are growing thicker.

Also new since the Great Recession—Uber and Lyft. These ride-hailing services stormed into cities in the 2010s with a grand utopian promise: By tapping into America’s vast reservoir of idle vehicles, on-demand, app-based rides would reduce the need for personal car ownership and ultimately remove cars from the road.

But now, less than a decade into this experiment, the industry is ‘fessing up. Today the ride-hailing giants released a joint analysis showing that their vehicles are responsible for significant portions of VMT in six major urban centers. Still, Uber and Lyft’s combined share is still vastly outstripped by personal vehicles. As Chris Pangilinan, Uber’s head of global policy for public transportation, wrote in a blog post accompanying the findings, “although TNCs are likely contributing to an increase in congestion, its scale is dwarfed by that of private cars and commercial traffic.”

Led by the respected transportation consultancy Fehr & Peers, the analysis provides a high-level view of the combined mileage contributions from Uber and Lyft, as a share of overall VMT, over a recent month in the Boston, Chicago, L.A., San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. areas. Results are shown at the level of the larger metropolitan landscape, which includes both the central city and its surrounding suburbs, as well as the level of the core county that contains the city’s most concentrated homes and jobs.

Alongside their big mea culpa, Uber and Lyft are also pointing their fingers elsewhere—and justifiably so.

Notably absent here: New York City, the largest U.S. market for these “transportation network companies,” or TNCs. A Lyft representative said that this was partly because the city is unique in terms of its extremely low rate of car ownership and expansive transit system. Previous research by the independent transportation consultant Bruce Schaller has shown that yellow cabs and TNCs together make up 50 percent or more of traffic in central Manhattan—findings that pushed New York City lawmakers earlier this year to approve congestion fees for drivers entering the downtown core.

The new findings show that Uber and Lyft account for just 1-3 percent of total VMT in the larger metropolitan regions surrounding the six cities. But they have a far heavier traffic impact in core urban areas, as the table below shows: In San Francisco County, Uber and Lyft make up as much as 13.4 percent of all vehicle-miles. In Boston, it’s 8 percent; in Washington, D.C., it’s 7.2 percent.

These numbers suggest that ride-hailing is hitting traffic harder in many cities than previously understood. For example, independent research by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority in 2017 showed that, as of fall 2016, TNCs generated about 6.5 percent of the county’s total VMT on weekdays, and 10 percent of weekends. And the agency found that the grown in ride-hailing was already a major contributor to noticeable slow-downs on San Francisco streets.

Now, the Fehr and Peers memo indicates that TNCs accounted for nearly twice the VMT in San Francisco than the SFCTA had estimated, said Gregory Erhardt, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Kentucky who has researched Uber and Lyft’s effects on public transit ridership. That means the services are likely delaying commuters more, too. “This difference may be due to the continued increase in TNC use over the intervening two years,” Erhardt said. “With nearly double the TNC VMT, we would expect the effect of TNCs on congestion to be much higher in 2018 than was estimated for 2016 conditions.”

Ride-hailing did not seem to have an equally large footprint in all cities. Uber and Lyft posted lower shares of total VMT in L.A., Seattle, and Chicago.
Jeff Swensen for The New York Times
Ford and other companies say the industry overestimated the arrival of autonomous vehicles, which still struggle to anticipate what other drivers and pedestrians will do.

A year ago, Detroit and Silicon Valley had visions of putting thousands of self-driving taxis on the road in 2019, ushering in an age of driverless cars.

Most of those cars have yet to arrive — and it is likely to be years before they do. Several carmakers and technology companies have concluded that making autonomous vehicles is going to be harder, slower and costlier than they thought.

“We overestimated the arrival of autonomous vehicles,” Ford’s chief executive, Jim Hackett, said at the Detroit Economic Club in April.

In the most recent sign of the scramble to regroup, Ford and Volkswagen said Friday that they were teaming up to tackle the self-driving challenge.

The two automakers plan to use autonomous-vehicle technology from a Pittsburgh start-up, Argo AI, in ride-sharing services in a few urban zones as early as 2021. But Argo’s chief executive, Bryan Salesky, said the industry’s bigger promise of creating driverless cars that could go anywhere was “way in the future.”

He and others attribute the delay to something as obvious as it is stubborn: human behavior.

Researchers at Argo say the cars they are testing in Pittsburgh and Miami have to navigate unexpected situations every day. Recently, one of the company’s cars encountered a bicyclist riding the wrong way down a busy street between other vehicles. Another Argo test car came across a street sweeper that suddenly turned a giant circle in an intersection, touching all four corners and crossing lanes of traffic that had the green light.

“You see all kinds of crazy things on the road, and it turns out they’re not all that infrequent, but you have to be able to handle all of them,” Mr. Salesky said. “With radar and high-resolution cameras and all the computing power we have, we can detect and identify the objects on a street. The hard part is anticipating what they’re going to do next.”

Mr. Salesky said Argo and many competitors had developed about 80 percent of the technology needed to put self-driving cars into routine use — the radar, cameras and other sensors that can identify objects far down roads and highways. But the remaining 20 percent, including developing software that can reliably anticipate what other drivers, pedestrians and cyclists are going to do, will be much more difficult, he said.

The industry’s unbridled confidence was quickly dented when a self-driving car being tested by Uber hit and killed a woman walking a bicycle across a street last year in Tempe, Ariz. A safety driver was at the wheel of the vehicle, but was watching a TV show on her phone just before the crash, according to the Tempe Police Department.

Since that fatality, “almost everybody has reset their expectations,” Mr. Abuelsamid said. It was believed to be the first pedestrian death involving a self-driving vehicle. Elsewhere in the United States, three Tesla drivers have died in crashes that occurred while the company’s Autopilot driver-assistance system was engaged and both it and the drivers failed to detect and react to hazards.

Companies like Waymo and G.M. now say they still expect to roll out thousands of self-driving cars — but they are much more reluctant to say when that will happen.

Waymo operates a fleet of 600 test vehicles — the same number it had on the road a year ago. A portion of them are the first set of vehicles it will be buying through the agreements with Chrysler and Jaguar. The company said it expected to increase purchases as it expanded its ride service.

“We are able to do the driving task,” Tekedra Mawakana, Waymo’s chief external officer, said in an interview. “But the reason we don’t have a service in 50 states is that we are still validating a host of elements related to offering a service. Offering a service is very different than building a technology.”

G.M. declined to say if it was still on track to start a ride service “at scale” this year, as it originally planned. Its chief executive, Mary Barra, told analysts in June that Cruise was moving “at a very aggressive pace” without saying when commercial operations would begin.

China, which has the world’s largest auto market and is investing heavily in electric vehicles, is trailing in development of self-driving cars, analysts say. The country allows automakers to test such cars on public road
Flying taxis? More Uber buses?

There were no splashy announcements accompanying Uber’s initial public offering Friday morning. And the person chosen to ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange wasn’t CEO Dara Khosrowshahi or exiled founder Travis Kalanick but the company’s first intern, Austin Geidt, who started her career by handing out flyers to potential riders on the streets of San Francisco almost a decade ago.

“We are focusing on what we can control,” said Khosrowshahi, a surprisingly subdued sentiment about the biggest tech IPO in years.

It was a calculated departure from the stock market debut of Uber’s arch-rival Lyft a few weeks earlier. Lyft’s founders rang the bell remotely at a hot-pink pop-up space in downtown Los Angeles, paired with an announcement that the company would spend $50 million per year funding local transportation initiatives. (Lyft’s stock price promptly plummeted.)

In its early days, Uber’s businesses model was deemed so disruptive that other startups began billing themselves as “Uber for...” Yet, over the last decade, tracing the #DeleteUber hashtag serves as a retrospective of the company’s many public missteps. The hashtag was deployed after Kalanick said Uber could track the movement of reporters who wrote negatively about the company; to protest the company’s questionable surge pricing practices; in response to a landmark workplace harassment case; and in memory of Elaine Herzberg, who was killed in 2018 by an Uber-operated autonomous vehicle.

And then there was the strike: On Wednesday, Uber and Lyft drivers in 10 cities staged a walkout to protest what they called exploitative pay policies at the two companies, whose shareholders are now poised to make millions.

But the strike also highlighted just how engrained Uber and Lyft have become in local transportation. As the strike’s hashtag #AppsOffMay8 began to circulate, riders who wanted to boycott Uber and Lyft’s cars in solidarity with drivers found themselves in a predicament. Uber and Lyft now own and operate so many urban transportation services it’s difficult to know how exactly to extricate from them. Uber owns Jump, the dockless electric bike share company. Lyft owns Motivate, the country’s biggest bike-share operator.

There’s no question that Uber has a tight hold on cities. Nearly a quarter of all Uber’s revenue comes from just five: New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, and São Paulo, all places where studies have asserted that Uber and Lyft increase congestion and hurt transit ridership. In San Francisco, where 1 of every 11,600 people is a billionaire, mostly thanks to IPO offerings like Uber’s, Uber and Lyft are the largest contributors to traffic congestion.

But in many more smaller cities across the U.S., Uber and Lyft work directly with public transit agencies, providing on-demand transportation during off-peak hours, and even operating actual buses to fill service gaps. It’s worked so well in some places that cities, unable to subsidize the growing number of trips, have capped the number of rides allowed per passenger. What happens when these smaller cities—the ones without great bike and scooter infrastructure, the ones that are making cuts to public transit—go all in for Uber’s services?

In 2015, The Awl’s Matt Buchanan, now an editor at Eater, wrote “The Uber Endgame,” one of the first stories predicting how Uber would cannibalize public transit:

Let’s grant that Uber’s vision will come true. (It might!!!!!) While zero car ownership will undoubtedly and unremittingly be a net social good — can’t wait until driving is something one does for fun, ban cars! — and while perhaps nearly everybody will be able to afford Uber the Utility, what happens in the time between now and the Ubertopia? Capitalism may eventually provide everything for everyone (so we keep hearing!), but what about the people who can’t quite afford to Uber everywhere during the years when it costs more than public transit — which becomes broken and neglected as a large portion of the population effectively abandons it and no longer demands its maintenance, much less improvement?

Just a few weeks ago Uber was, perhaps for the first time, honest about these ambitions, as Jalopnik’s Aaron Gordon first spied in its IPO filing documents. “We believe we can continue to grow the number of trip