Does Uberization Increase Traffic Congestion?

The ride-hailing market in Washington, D.C. is booming — ridership for Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing services have more than quadrupled since late 2015, reports the Washington Post. And that’s a problem, some say. All those vehicles on the road are adding to traffic congestion.

According to figures provided by the Washington mayor’s office, some of that traffic is diverted from traditional taxicab companies. Taxi ridership has fallen 31%, or about 6 million trips, since the ride-hailing boom began in late 2015. As far as traffic congestion is concerned, that’s a wash.

But a Washington Metro consultant last year noted that Uber and Lyft account for much of the commuter bus and rail system’s ridership decline. Average weekday ridership is down 135,000 from the decade-ago peak. Those riders are crowding the roads, while Metro’s revenues are sagging, making it difficult to keep up with maintenance and safety needs. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser has proposed increasing the gross receipts tax on “for-hire” vehicles to 4.75% to raise money for the Metro.

City officials concede, however, that they don’t have hard data on how many trips the ride-hailing services are providing, or how many passengers they are carrying. Calculating the impact is a challenge because, for Uber at least, a growing business segment is comprised of shared-ridership services. When riders share trips instead of riding solo, they take vehicles off the road.

In other big ride-hailing markets such as New York, San Francisco, and Boston, there is growing concern that the Uberization of transportation is cannibalizing mass transit and putting more vehicles on the road. Not only is the trend bleeding business from mass transit, it might even be creating new trips.

Bacon’s bottom line: I’m a big believer in the disruptive potential of Uberization (by which I mean the entire panoply of ride-hailing services encompassing Uber and all of its competitors and offshoots), but I acknowledge that the trend poses complex trade-offs.

The obvious benefit of Uberization is that people wouldn’t be flocking to ride-hailing services if they didn’t offer a superior value proposition. Do we really want to a tax 21st-century transportation mode to subsidize a 19th-century mode (commuter rail) and a 20th-century mode (buses)? Another plus is that if more people ride Uber, they won’t need to park their own car. Reducing the demand for on-street parking could free up space for other uses such as bicycles.

On the other hand… If Uberization does, in fact, put more vehicles on the road, the trend adds to traffic congestion, which imposes a social cost on other drivers. Arguably, more vehicles also equals higher CO2 emissions — at least until cars are powered by solar- and wind-generated electricity. Finally, given urban political realities, if Uberization undermines the economics of mass transit, taxpayers could wind up paying more to subsidize the failing transit systems.

The Washington Post article creates the impression that there is a growing backlash against Uberization. I worry that the backlash might become powerful enough to stifle the industry’s growth, experimentation and evolution into new forms. We’re still in the very early phases of the 21st-century transportation revolution, and as far as I’m concerned, the transportation future can’t come soon enough.