Monday, 26 February 2018

Uber and Lyft increase traffic congestion in cities

Many people claim that ridesharing services like Uber will reduce traffic congestion. However, what happens if people start to favour those services over public transport, or over walking or cycling? The New Zealand Herald reported today:
One promise of ride-hailing companies, such as Uber and Lyft, was fewer cars clogging city streets. But studies suggest the opposite: that ride-hailing companies are pulling riders off buses, subways, bicycles and their own feet and putting them in cars instead.
And in what could be a new wrinkle, a service by Uber called Express Pool now is seen as directly competing with mass transit...
One study included surveys of 944 ride-hailing users over four weeks in late 2017 in the Boston area. Nearly six in 10 said they would have used public transportation, walked, biked or skipped the trip if the ride-hailing apps weren't available.
The report also found many riders aren't using hailed rides to connect to a subway or bus line, but instead as a separate mode of transit, said Alison Felix, one of the report's authors.
"Ridesharing is pulling from and not complementing public transportation," she said.
One of the things we are discussing in the first week of my new ECONS101 class this week is economic decision-making. And one of the key aspects of the decision between alternatives is the relative price - the cost of one alternative compared with the cost of another. Public transport may be cheap, but it isn't always convenient. Once you factor in convenience (being able to be picked up from in front of your home, rather than having to walk in the rain to the nearest bus stop or subway station), it shouldn't be surprising that many commuters are choosing Uber or Lyft instead, because in relative terms the cost of Uber or Lyft may be lower than public transport (or walking, or cycling, especially in the rain). The new Uber Express Pool service looks set to make things even worse:
Uber's new Express Pool links riders who want to travel to similar destinations. Riders walk a short distance to be picked up at a common location and are dropped off near their final destinations — essentially, how a bus or subway line functions.
The service was tested in November in San Francisco and Boston and has found enough ridership to support it 24 hours a day. Round-the-clock service was also rolled out last week in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Washington, Miami, San Diego and Denver, with more cities to follow.
"This could be good for congestion if it causes vehicle occupancy rates to go up, but on the other hand, the Uber Pool rides and I guess these Express rides are really, really cheap, just a couple of dollars, so they're almost certainly going to be pulling people away from public transport options," [Christo Wilson, a professor of computer science at Boston's Northeastern University] said. "Why get on a bus with 50 people when you can get into a car and maybe if you're lucky, you'll be the only person in it?"
Overall, Uber might be a substitute for ambulances, but that isn't going to do you much good if your Uber ambulance is stuck in a traffic jam, mostly made up of other Ubers.

[Update: The irony of this op-ed by Richard Menzies, NZ general manager of Uber, should be obvious]

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