Ride-hailing apps like Uber are reducing public transport use in the US. But they could do the opposite

A phone showing Uber. Not shown: good old-fashioned public transport. Image: Getty.

Over the last half-decade, public transit ridership declined across the U.S. The number of vehicle miles traveled in cars is rising, and traffic congestion is getting worse in many American cities. At the same time, the century-old taxi industry is struggling, with many taxi companies going bankrupt.

Are ride-hailing companies such as Lyft and Uber to blame? What has been their impact and what should be done?

While ride-hailing threatens public transit, it is also key to its future success – but only with smart policies and the right price signals. As researchers working at the intersection of energy, the environment and public policy, we have been analysing transportation trends for decades – and seeing remarkably little innovation. Now we are on the cusp of major transformations. We see ride-hailing through the framework laid out in Daniel Sperling’s new book, “Three Revolutions: Steering Automated, Shared, and Electric Vehicles to a Better Future.”

A 2018 survey of ride-hailing users in metropolitan Boston found that nearly half would have used public transit if ride-hailing had not been available. Image: MAPC/creative commons.

More travel, less mass transit

Let’s start with the data. Public transit ridership dropped in 31 of 35 U.S. major metropolitan areas in 2017. It has declined by 3 per cent since 2014, and 2017 was the lowest year of overall transit ridership since 2005.

Meanwhile, total U.S. vehicle miles traveled, or VMT, has increased steadily since 2011. Most dramatically, Lyft, Uber and other ride-hailing companies have soared, from near zero trips in 2012 to about 2.6bn in 2017. As of 2016, 25m people globally used ride-hailing apps, including 15 per cent of the U.S. public.

Transportation network companies (TNCs) are rapidly winning market share from traditional transportation sources. Image: Daniel Sperling and Austin Brown; transit data from APTA, taxi data from US Census, projections from Schaller Consulting, 2018.

Parsing the impacts of ride-hailing

As ride-hailing has grown, so too has the number of researchers working to understand its impacts. Experts at UC Berkeley, UC Davis, the University of Colorado, the University of Michigan and Texas A&M University have all found that a significant fraction of ride-hailing customers would have traveled by transit, or opted against traveling at all, had ride-hailing been unavailable. This indicates that ride-hailing is displacing transit ridership and increasing vehicle miles traveled by cars.

Why is this happening? People are choosing ride-hailing because transit does not match the comfort and convenience offered by private vehicles, and taxis cannot offer the affordability and transparency of app-based ride-hailing. VMT is increasing as growing numbers of for-hire cars log “deadhead” miles driving to pick up passengers or returning from destinations. In New York City, unoccupied taxi and ride-hailing hours grew by 81 per cent from 2013 to 2017.

How Uber moved into New York City and defeated the formidable yellow cab industry.

But the net effects are highly region-dependent. Dense urban markets are responding differently than suburbs. In San Francisco, fully one-third of Lyft and Uber riders use ride-hailing in lieu of public transit. A survey in Denver found that 22 per cent of respondents would have used transit had ride-hailing been unavailable. In contrast, researchers found that only 3 per cent of Lyft and Uber riders in Austin switched to transit during a suspension of ride-hailing services.

Positive impacts too

While ride-hailing is pulling riders away from public transit in some places, it can also enhance transit ridership. The UC Berkeley survey found that 4 per cent of Uber and Lyft customers ended their rides at transit stations, which suggests that they were using ride-hailing to connect to transit. Our colleague Caroline Rodier has observed that multiple surveys show about 5 per cent of respondents relying on ride-hailing to access transit, although Rodier concluded that the increased transit trips are offset by diversion of trips away from transit.

Local governments and agencies can work with ride-hailing services to enhance public transit instead of undermining it. For instance, ride-hailing can help smooth transportation demand shocks caused by temporary transit disruptions, such as closures of subway stations for maintenance.


What’s more, while ride-hailing may increase car-based travel, this is not necessarily a bad thing. More mobility increases access to jobs, health care and education. And a significant per centage of ride-hailing trips occur late at night when congestion is not a big concern and transit options are not always available.

Indeed, its late-night popularity suggests that ride-hailing is removing some of the most dangerous type of vehicle miles. According to a UT Austin study of all 273 U.S. cities with a population of more than 100,000, ride-hailing services reduced fatal drunk driving crashes by 10 to 11 per cent.

Ride-hailing also offers greater independence for elderly and disabled populations. The Center for American Progress observes that ride-hailing can help disadvantaged populations overcome geographic isolation and access jobs, education and health care services.

Complementing public transit

For transit agencies, ride-hailing services can be an attractive alternative to serving sparsely populated, low density areas with fixed routes and schedules. Private mobility companies and public transit agencies have launched nearly 50 pilot projects and partnerships to explore these opportunities. Many agencies are subsidising travel in ride-hailing vehicles to meet the needs of certain rider groups.

In San Clemente and Dublin, California, officials canceled fixed-route buses with the lowest ridership and provided discounts for people to travel in Lyft and Uber. Phoenix is discounting the price of ride-hailing trips to and from 500 city bus stops. Denver is offering free rides to suburban light rail stations.

Congestion pricing systems (shown: Singapore) can encourage ride sharing by charging drivers to travel in busy zones or at peak times. Image: Jason Tester Guerrilla Future/creative commons.

Reducing solo travel

The number of innovative transit partnerships is growing rapidly, but the jury is still out on what types of partnerships can yield win-wins for communities, companies and transit agencies. An overarching goal should be to increase mobility – that is, passenger miles traveled – while reducing vehicle miles traveled.

This will only happen if ride-hailing services continue to shift toward multi-passenger services, such as Lyft Line and UberPool. Such a change will require policy frameworks that encourage shared rides and discourage single-passenger rides – starting with ride-hailing services, and eventually including travelers using their own vehicles.


Road pricing practices, in which drivers pay fees to travel in high-use areas, have reduced traffic and increased pooled rides and transit trips in London, Stockholm and Singapore. Importantly, Uber and Lyft embrace these strategies to expand pooling services and gain relief from stifling traffic congestion, just like the rest of us.

Pooling and road pricing will be especially critical with the coming vehicle automation revolution. If automated vehicles are individually owned, they will likely generate massive new vehicle use, since travel will no longer be seen as onerous. Occupants can sleep, eat, text, read and watch videos while their cars do the navigating. But if those automated vehicles are pooled, then vehicle use would be pushed in the opposite direction, toward fewer vehicle miles traveled.

The ConversationU.S. cities and transit operators have done little innovating in the past 50 years, and are ill-prepared for the changes ahead. They need to decipher what is happening, build partnerships and support price signals that encourage pooling. Acting to maximise the societal benefits of ride-hailing and other transportation revolutions will provide benefits now and into the future.

Daniel Sperling, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Founding Director, Institute of Transportation Studies, University of California, Davis; Austin Brown, Executive Director, Policy Institute for Energy, Environment, and the Economy, University of California, Davis, and Mollie D'Agostino, Policy Director, 3 Revolutions Future Mobility Program, institute of Transportation Studies, University of California, Davis.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

On boarded-up storefronts, muralists offer words of hope

The murals on closed storefronts aim "to end ugly wall syndrome." (Courtesy of Beautify)

In Los Angeles, Melrose Avenue has a new mural that reads: “Cancel plans, not humanity.”

It’s an artwork by Corie Mattie, a street artist who kindly reminds us of our togetherness under quarantine. She and many other artists are putting murals up across the US as part of the Back to the Streets campaign, which aims to add some color to the streets – specifically on boarded up storefronts and abandoned streets that feel deserted during the coronavirus pandemic.

The goal is to bring some beauty to the streets while everything is boarded up – “to end ugly wall syndrome,” says project founder Evan Meyer. “It’s to get people to care about their communities, be part of the process.” 


Many of the murals are painted on plywood panels that cover the entryways to independent businesses that have shut down during the pandemic. The project aims to prevent a sense of decay, especially as some businesses start to open back up while their neighbours remain closed.

“We need to protect our streets from becoming sad places quickly, when places are abandoned and don’t feel like they have love or life,” says Meyer, who is also the CEO of Beautify, a company that connects artists with places to make murals. Among the murals made during the pandemic, one at a department store says “Togetherness,” while another says: “You can’t quarantine love.”

“We’re seeing messages like hope, positivity and community,” Meyer says. “More than ever, it’s a time for community.”


(Courtesy of Beautify)

With artist-led projects in L.A., Seattle, San Francisco, Santa Monica, Pasadena, and others, the goal is to get 1,000 murals up across America. Murals are also being painted in small towns in Iowa, like Council Bluffs and Dubuque, and an earlier mural in New York City’s Rockaway Beach was created in 2014 with the same goal of bringing some life to neglected buildings that needed renovation after Hurricane Sandy

“We need to protect our streets from becoming sad places with broken windows, tagging and crime,” says Meyer. “A lot can happen if a place feels like it’s unwatched.” 

Los Angeles councilmember David Ryu endorsed the initiative in a recent blog post, saying it has helped boost morale on the streets of L.A. “When we brighten blighted walls, we improve neighborhoods,” he wrote. “It’s critical to have more business owners enlist their walls here to bring some much needed love and recognition to their establishment and their neighborhood.” 

The effort stems from a sister project called Beautify Earth, which has helped address a litter problem in Santa Monica’s commercial district. In addition to a cleanup force, the project has painted more than 100 murals on walls, dumpsters, utility boxes and garbage cans across the city.

On the Beautify website, artists can find business improvement districts, real estate developers, landlords and business owners who want to see something on their empty walls. Each artist who gets a commissioned wall through the Beautify website is paid 78% of the stipend, and Beautify takes a 22% administration fee. 

Meyer says he often explains to business owners that art can help their business.

“A lot of people have white empty wall space on their liquor stores, condos, park walls, even residential spaces,” says Meyer, adding that many are afraid to put something on their walls. “It’s not a liability, it’s an asset. Art protects walls, it is a graffiti abatement strategy.”


(Courtesy of Beautify)

Beautify isn’t alone in its field. Among the other cities that have similar mural projects, ArtPlace America has supported over 200 art murals across the US. Wynwood Walls, a public art project in Miami spearheaded by local developer Tony Goldman, has helped create a popular public art hotspot with murals by artists Shepard Fairey and Ron English. 

Chicago’s city government, too, has publicly funded over 500 murals through its Percent-for-Art program, which pays artists to paint walls on municipal buildings. A grassroots street art project in the state of Zacatecas, Mexico, has artists painting murals in violent and marginalised neighbourhoods. Similar crime prevention ventures have been initiated in Topeka, Kansas, in St. Louis, Missouri, and in Toronto, Canada, which has placed over 140 murals across the city over the past decade. 


Artist Ruben Rojas has painted murals saying "You Can't Quarantine Love" in several spots across Santa Monica, California. (Courtesy of Beautify)

One artist working with Beautify’s project is Ruben Rojas, who is overwhelmed by the response to his mural, “You Can’t Quarantine Love,” which has been painted in several spots across Santa Monica and beyond.

“Every day, I see the shares, photos of my murals, amazing captions and direct messages from folks that are truly heartwarming,” Rojas says. “I’ve seen this particular mural go around the world with ‘thank you’ messages from Johannesburg, Germany, and Italy. It really is humbling.”

Meyer says that kind of social media engagement shows how a mural can turn a plain old wall into a landmark. 

“Murals get seen,” he says. “People take photos and share them on social media. Nobody takes photos of your ugly white wall. Murals are the story of the local community.”

Nadja Sayej is an arts and culture journalist based in New York City.