This is how quickly transportation has changed in urban America. In July 2010, a service called UberCab went live in San Francisco—that’s fewer than eight years ago. Washington, DC’s Capital Bikeshare, the country’s first major bike-sharing program, really got off the ground in 2010.1 Austin became the first US city to host car-sharing service Car2Go a few months into the same year. Lyft launched in SF in June 2012.
That’s a ton more travel options in a short time, most of them enabled by the explosion of the smartphone and fostered somewhere in the Bay Area. Some have indubitably made it easier, cheaper, and safer for residents to travel through dense cities. But for city governments that feel responsible for getting all their residents around, the sudden burst of diversity has confused the whole picture.
Are people moving away from public transit, putting a small but significant dent in already dwindling public coffers? Are they taking more car trips overall, creating unbearable congestion? Are they selling their personal cars, opening up valuable curbside parking spots for delivery vans and bike-sharing stations? Transportation researchers, the sorts of folks who study cities and try to sort out how mobility services have transformed urban streets, are racing, tongues a-lolling, to catch up.
Now, hope: A new report shines a touch more light on how traveling around cities works today. Researchers at the Shared Use Mobility Center pored over data provided by an unnamed ride-hailing company—maybe Uber or Lyft, staying anonymous for competitive reasons—plus a 2015 survey of 4,500 car-share, bike-share, and transit users, plus newly released numbers from four transit agencies’ surveys of their own riders. Their verdict? The picture is still blurry, and definitely very complicated.
So no, Uber isn’t single handedly wrecking your city commute. (It’s not always the bad guy.) And transit agencies aren’t always working the way they should, providing frequent, reliable, or fast enough service to keep those with higher incomes away from the siren call of traffic-creating cars. “This study says what every study says: The transit agencies should be very concerned,” says Bruce Schaller, a former New York City traffic and planning commissioner who now runs his own consultancy. “From a transit agency standpoint, it’s a clarion call that they have to do better.”
To put a more positive spin on it: There are openings for transportation alternatives, like private services that coordinate with public transit to take commuters from their doors to the closest bus stop, or even all the way to work. (Think Chariot or Via.) These could be especially useful in less dense urban areas, where homes and businesses are too far-flung to be efficiently served by something like a fixed-route bus.
“We want to create an ecosystem of choices for people,” says Sharon Feigon, the executive director of the Shared Use Mobility Center, who co-wrote the report. “Transit agencies have got to think about the quality of the service that they’re providing and figure out how to maximize what they do best, and then how to utilize other services for the areas they can’t do as well.”
Feigon and her colleagues’ conclusions mostly comport with recent research on the relationship between new mobility companies and transit. First, people don’t always abandon public transit for Uber and its brethren. The researchers compared transit usage to ride-hailin’ riders in five cities (Chicago, DC, LA, Nashville, and Seattle) between 2010 and 2016, and found little relationship between the long-term trend lines and and peak-hour ride-hailing usage. In English: No one large city is abandoning public transit commuting en masse directly because of Uber or Lyft.
The researchers also found, unsurprisingly, that most app riders are taking short-ish trips around cities’ downtown cores, providing some of the most detailed data on ride-hailing travel yet. The most popular times for these trips are weekend evenings. And yes, the majority of ride-hail activity is happening in zip codes with more white, young, and higher income households, where residents are less likely to own cars at all. (They did find many high-use areas with majority black or Hispanic in each of the five cities studied.) This should give some agencies pause before collaborating with these private services—can they serve all areas equitably, regardless of income level?
The work leaves some really important questions off the table. How do Uber and Lyft affect traffic congestion in the country’s most crowded places? Are their riders really selling their personal cars, or choosing not to buy them altogether, leading to a net decrease of vehicles in busy downtowns? Are ride-hail users accelerating the decline of public transit, even if those results did not show up between 2010—when most cities didn’t even have service—and 2016? Finding answers to sorts of questions those is really hard.
“When it comes to the impact of ride-hail on traffic, and the impact on taxi cabs, if you’re playing pool it’s a straight shot in the pocket,” says Schaller, whose own research shows ride-hailing has increased the number of vehicles in Manhattan. Cities already do surveys of their own traffic problems, and already collect info on taxi trips through the kind of highly regulated systems that created alley-oops for unregulated ride-hail. Figuring out why traffic is getting worse and if public transit riders are sticking with the bus is harder. “When you’re talking about transit effects, you’re bouncing a couple times before you get to the ball you’re trying to hit,” says Schaller. Querying people’s transportation choices takes persistence, funding, and time.
Something that could help is more info direct from private transportation companies. “One of the big things that transit agencies and city planners would need to gain an understanding of how [web-based transportation companies] are impacting our cities is publicly available data,” says Regina Clewlow, a UC Davis transportation researcher who also runs her own urban mobility data startup. More detailed numbers on passenger pickups and drop-offs could give cities hints as to where they need transit service, and where they need to run it more frequently.
Just this week, Uber announced it would work with the city of Cincinnati, Ohio, handing over more data to a private consultant who could use it to make recommendations to the local transit agency. So better, more illuminating work may be on the horizon, and a better understanding for how private companies might supplement a city’s transportation network.
“What we need to learn from this study is to understand the subtleties of what’s going on and the nuances, and figure out a holistic system,” says Feigon. It’s always more complicated than you think.
1Correction appended, 1/31/2017, 12:50 pm EST: This story was changed to clarify the size of the Capital Bikeshare program.
© 2018 Condé Nast. All rights reserved.
Frank’s source: https://www.wired.com/story/uber-lyft-not-ruining-cities/
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