Uber, Lyft, reduce car ownership and car travel

Traffic congestion is one of the negative sides of the car-dominated transportation system.  The road system wasn’t built to handle the amount of traffic currently on the roads.  Building more roads is not the solution since traveling in that direction simply leads to more sprawl because of geometrical requirements placed on cities that just build more roads.  Instead the solution to traffic congestion is higher density urban design, and less individual car ownership.  Instead people would travel around either in mass transit systems or ride sharing services.  The car companies are pushing for a future of autonomously driven pods, with the car companies providing a “transportation as a service” business.

There’s lots of research backing up what I just wrote which I don’t want to get into at the moment.  Instead, there is some research just published which partially backs up that line of reasoning.

The paper — Measuring the Impact of an Unanticipated Suspension of Ride-Sourcing in Austin, Texas — covers an event which occurred in Austin TX in May 2016.  The “residents of Austin, TX voted against Proposition 1, which would have allowed transportation networking companies (TNCs) to continue using their own background check systems.”  Meaning, Uber, Lyft, and similar companies operate their own background check systems to operate ride sharing services without requiring the drivers meet the requirements to be official Taxi drivers.  The next day Uber and Lyft suspended service in Austin, giving the opportunity to compare traffic patterns before-Uber/Lyft and after.

The study polled a few thousand Austin residents to see what they did.  The study found 41 percent of those surveyed returned to driving their own vehicle after Uber and Lyft suspended service, and 9 percent actually bought an additional car for this purpose.  Of the remainder, 3 percent switched to mass transit, and 42 percent switched to a different ride sharing company.

The result, then, was an increase in car traffic in Austin of people who’d previously used Uber or Lyft.

There was a strong correlation between inconvenience and returning to an individually owned car.  Those inconvenienced people were 5x more likely to return to driving a car, or buying a car.

This result isn’t all that surprising, is it?  Americans seem to think individual car ownership and driving solo is the preferred default method to get around town.  We’ve got 100+ years of collective experience behind those notions.

The problem with the individual car ownership model is the resources consumed per car which exists.  Each car requires 8 or more parking spaces worth of land devoted to parking the car, for example, plus the metal and energy required to manufacture all those individually owned cars.  Such cars are used at a low utilization rate, perhaps being driven 2 hours out of 24 whereas taxi’s or cars in car-sharing fleets can have a higher utilization, perhaps 12 hours out of 24 hours.

The car sharing model is an interesting adjunct to mass transit and taxi systems.  Generally speaking, traveling in shared vehicles means the resource/energy consumption to build those vehicles are amortized across more people.  Plus, shared vehicles that spend most of their day on the road do not need as much land to park the vehicles.

In other words, shared vehicles (whether mass transit, taxi’s or car sharing services) act to reduce the number of vehicles on the road, reduce land devoted to parking cars, reduces resources/energy consumed to manufacture vehicles, etc.

The people who use Uber/Lyft are looking to reduce their own costs.  Owning a car is expensive, and instead catching a ride with Uber/Lyft instead can be cheaper.  That is, if you’re living in a walkable area allowing you to access the majority of services you need on foot.  A dense urban area, as opposed to the spread out low-density suburbs most Americans inhabit, tends to have all kinds of shops and services and attractions readily within walking distance and not requiring a car to access.

The suspension of Uber/Lyft in Austin demonstrates an unpleasant truth.  Regular mass transit systems are not enough for folks to use to avoid car ownership.  During the suspension period, the majority of impacted people turned to individually owned cars and a tiny sliver of a fraction of people turned to the mass transit system.  None turned to the taxi system.

I’ve never been in Austin and therefore do not know whether their publicly owned mass transit system is any good.  This result indicates it’s not.  The mass transit system in my neck of the woods, Silicon Valley’s VTA, pretty much sucks.  And the taxi system is very expensive and not at all useful.  Looking at it simply as a consumer, Uber/Lyft are the most attractive of the options.

That’s unfortunate because, in theory, the public owned mass transit and the publicly regulated taxi system are preferable.  Both are under government regulation which should result in fair service levels that serve all citizens.  A privately owned/operated system like Uber/Lyft do not have the incentivization required to ensure all citizens have access to the services.

I’m speaking as an American in an American city.  My European travels in Romania, Czech Republic, Brussels, and elsewhere, showed me densely integrated urban areas with good mass transit and taxi systems that are widely used.  In Romania both the mass transit and taxi systems are inexpensive and extremely widely used.  But such a system only works in densely built urban areas — European cities tend to have buildings with 6-8 floors — where there’s enough people per square mile for a sufficient customer base to the shops along the street in business, and enough riders in the transit system to keep it active.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

One Comment

  1. David, I like the focus of your article. But even before addressing ride-sharing, shouldn’t the discussion begin with the relative success that other countries have with a combination of great public transportation and ubiquitous taxi service? I feel that with the advent of ride-sharing, it is as if the U.S. has only just discovered the efficiency and practicality that other countries have long recognized, albeit in a somewhat different form.

    In any event, I firmly agree that, whether by policy or market force, we’d all like to see less abuse of resources — energy, materials, space, public monies, etc. If this requires us to discover ride-sharing as a means to efficiency, fine, whatever. And, whether as a parenthetical aside or as a prime mover of the issue, we also all know that ride-sharing with privately-owned vehicles driven by their owners is only a place-holder for a couple more years until large corporations use their autonomous vehicles to ferry us around.

    Hey, unrelatedly, would you like to write up an update of Formula E racing? With better rules (no more silly car-swapping, more opportunity to change things around, less single-supplier parts), you have seen commitments from Mercedes, Porsche, Audi, BMW, Renault, Citroen, and Jaguar (many of whom are pulling out of other racing series to re-focus on E-racing). In just a couple of years, it will be a really interesting racing series!

    Thanks.

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