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 didnât 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 nationâs metropolises. Congestion on major arteries like L.A.âs I-405 or San Franciscoâs Geary Boulevard is getting worse; pedestrian death counts are reaching record heights; tailpipe emissions are growing thicker.
Also new since the Great RecessionâUber and Lyft. These ride-hailing services stormed into cities in the 2010s with a grand utopian promise: By tapping into Americaâs 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 âfessing 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 Lyftâs combined share is still vastly outstripped by personal vehicles. As Chris Pangilinan, Uberâs head of global policy for public transportation, wrote in a blog post accompanying the findings, âalthough TNCs are likely contributing to an increase in congestion, its scale is dwarfed by that of private cars and commercial traffic.â
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 cityâs most concentrated homes and jobs.
Alongside their big mea culpa, Uber and Lyft are also pointing their fingers elsewhereâand justifiably so.
Notably absent here: New York City, the largest U.S. market for these âtransportation network companies,â 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 Manhattanâfindings 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, itâs 8 percent; in Washington, D.C., itâs 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 countyâs 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 Lyftâs effects on public transit ridership. That means the services are likely delaying commuters more, too. âThis difference may be due to the continued increase in TNC use over the intervening two years,â Erhardt said. âWith 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.â
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.