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.

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8 responses to “Does Uberization Increase Traffic Congestion?”

  1. djrippert Avatar

    In Virginia, taxi cab companies and traditional limo companies (also threatened by ride hailing apps) donated $188,000 from 2016 – 2017 to state politicians. Rental cars (also threatened) added another $30,000.

    Uber? $0

    DC (local) is less corrupt than Richmond. Campaign contributions are capped at $5,000 per campaign for companies. And, as I have written previously, there is a bill that was unanimously passed that will lower that a lot. However, even in DC the shenanigans never end. Back in 2011 (before the ride hailing revolution) DC’s taxi companies were skirting the rules …

    “Most of the money-order donations were attributed to taxi drivers, who during the campaign were apparently betting that a Gray administration would look more favorably on their positions than Fenty and lobbied Brooks about it. Over the objections of taxi drivers, Fenty had changed how customers are charged from a zone system to time-and-distance meters.

    Representatives of the D.C. Professional Taxicab Drivers Association acknowledged that the taxi industry raised thousands of dollars in cash for the Gray campaign. “No one from the campaign ever explained to us that it was illegal,” Nathan Price, president of the association, said of the cash donations. He said he didn’t know how many drivers gave contributions of more than $25 at fundraisers.”

    So, absent any real facts, why does Mayor Bowser want to tax ride hailing companies?

    C’mon, you know the answer to that. They haven’t paid their tithe.

    The next generation technology companies need to learn that their tax burden doesn’t end with the IRS and state and local tax authorities. The politicians have to be paid off too.

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    “Uberization” is proof positive that the current model for funding roads is kaput.

    Uber’s business model is based on using existing, already-paid for, infrastructure and what it pays in gas tax – barely covers maintenance and operations and even that will change if Uber converts to electric vehicles.

    Uber may well tip the scales towards more tolling of roads.. !!!

  3. Which is the cause and which the effect? You say, “Uber and Lyft account for much of the commuter bus and rail system’s ridership decline.” So are they cause the cause of Metro’s decline?

    No, that’s not true, at least from what I read or have experienced. Metro seriously overextended its commitment to provide late night services to bring riders downtown and to U Street to the theater and restaurants — only to find that they couldn’t do the required track maintenance in the few hours of downtime after that and before morning rush hour. Metro built its system on the cheap, with minimal sections of third (alternative) tracks to allow daytime maintenance, and a huge system bottleneck at the single under-the-river tunnel in each direction from Rosslyn to Georgetown. As the backlog of maintenance has grown and the system has become more fragile, these limitations have become more apparent.

    Metro ridership during commuting hours is not that far off its historical peaks, even after adjusting for the Silver Line and notwithstanding the occasional, inexcusable fatal accidents. The evenings and weekends are different. People who go downtown to eat and play in the evenings often can get there by Metro but cannot get home that way due to early closure. Plus, the late night waits are 20 or 30 minutes, a lot if you just miss the previous train. Plus, you have to get to the Metro from wherever you are, and that has become less trivial as areas of DC far from Metro have become evening City destinations.

    So, naturally, Uber and Lyft have filled that void for evening and weekend transport, and, increasingly, for commuting too, as breakdowns and safety and maintenance interruptions have made Metro’s reputation for reliability crater.

    Is their success a response to, or did they cause, the decline in ridership? I say more the former. Of course, once people get in the habit of calling for an Uber and learn how convenient it is to go door to door by one mode, yet still without a parking hassle, some of them will never go back to Metro. But Metro brought that (at least in part) on itself.

  4. LarrytheG Avatar

    On the issue of METRO and it’s issues… I’d just point out that most transit systems have similar issues and the impacts of Uber and Lyft .. pretty much are the same wherever there are METRO-type rail.

    So.. it’s a bigger, wider issue where the concept and viability of transit itself in an uber/lyft world may be at issue.

    Harder to understand – is why/how Taxi’s could not re-invent themselves with their own ride-hailing apps and compete toe to toe with Uber/Lyft/others.

    Finally – I would ask – Did the concept of beltways around cities – doom METRO type transit?

  5. Reminds me there was a major NoVA transportation survey a few months ago. We were selected, and we had to give full details on our transportation use for a selected 24-hr period.

    Have not heard the results. Also I do not recall ever getting the $20 Amazon gift certificate we were supposed to get for participating.

    That survey might help answer some of the questions.

  6. LarrytheG Avatar

    Now days – it’s fairly easy to conduct what is know as origin-destination surveys using tolling and law enforcement technology that can “read” license plates.

    A company called Inrix also collects trip and transportation data.

    So the tools for “big data” with respect to transportation do exist.

    but how we pay for roads is also an issue – and changing – because the
    gas tax does not generate enough money to pay for actual needs anymore.

    And more and more areas are going to tolls – electronic tolls – which also
    can generate a lot of data to analyze.

    There is no way in Urban areas to really expand the road network anyhow and now urban areas are considering the use of dynamic tolling to effectively cap the total number of vehicles during peak demand periods.

    That is actually implemented by making the tolls so high that few will pay them and will then use transit and/or shift their trip to a lower demand period.

    Those tolls would also apply to Uber/Lyft.

    We are approaching the ability – technologically – to toll by the trip and the day is coming when Uber/Lyft will not have drivers – they’ll be autonomous AND they won’t burn gas – they’ll be electric.

  7. Why not create a collaborative system between long-haul and short-haul options?

    Mass transit is notoriously bad at dealing with the first-mile and last-mile issues. This is a natural market for ride-sharing companies such as Uber and Lyft or local jitneys.

    Time-of-day (traffic density) tolls might work against Uber in the long-run.

    If we could logically design (maybe too much to ask) a system of transportation pooling terminals that were easily accessible and allowed rapid embarkation/disembarkation in weather protected environments, Uber could handle pickup from home and drop off to work and the buses, Metro, light-rail, etc. could handle the long-haul highway segment in between. This would decrease the number of vehicles on the road, decrease cost compared to an Uber only trip, and should speed things up.

    We always want to discuss “either/or” solutions. Sometimes “and” works best.

    1. A number of people are talking about using Uber as a feeder to mass transit. It’s definitely worth a try. I don’t know that people will want to use Uber this way, but we won’t know until give it a shot.

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