The Uber logo displayed on a phone screen

Ride-hailing apps discourage use of sustainable transport, study suggests

Image credit: Reuters/Toby Melville

Researchers at the University of California, Davis have carried out a study into the impact of ride-hailing apps Uber and Lyft on transport habits in the US, finding that these apps may increase the number of miles driven in cities and suburbs.

The team, based at the university’s Institute of Transportation Studies, surveyed 4000 people living in and around cities including New York, Washington DC, Boston and Seattle on whether they use ride-hailing apps and if so, how it has affected how they travel.

29 per cent of survey respondents living in urban areas use Uber or Lyft, compared with just 7 per cent in of those living in the suburbs. Young, affluent people were more likely to use these apps compared with older or lower-income populations, and the most commonly cited reasons for using ride-hailing apps were difficulty with parking and avoiding driving while intoxicated.

Uber and other companies behind ride-hailing apps tend to present their services as an affordable alternative to other private taxi services, such as London’s black cabs. However, the University of California study suggests that use of these apps actually reduces uses of cheaper, more environmentally means of transportation, and increases the number of journeys taken.

The respondents reported that 49 to 61 per cent of trips completed with a ride-hailing service would not have been made at all, or would have been made by foot, bicycle or public transport.

Analysis of the survey results found that once a person adopts a ride-hailing services, they become less likely to use both buses (six per cent fall) and light rail services (three per cent fall), although ride-hailing services do not have a negative effective on use of standard rail services.

Based on their findings, the authors report that Uber and Lyft are likely to be associated with more miles being driven in American cities. This could be because the convenience of ride-hailing discourages use of alternative means of transport: not just public transport but also arrangements such as ride-sharing between a group of friends or colleagues.

Although adoption of Uber and Lyft could reduce dependence on car ownership, the researchers report, the number of miles being driven overall has increased, along with traffic in cities where ride-hailing apps are popular.

“This new evidence […] suggests that ride-hailing is likely adding vehicle miles travelled to transportation systems in major cities,” the authors report. “The 49 [per cent] to 61 [per cent] of ride-hailing trips that would not have been made at all, or by walking, biking, or transit, are adding vehicles to the road.”

“Ride-hailing services have disrupted traditional transportation providers, including public transit agencies and automobile manufacturers,” they conclude.

“While the introduction of ride-hailing has brought about welcome innovation in the transportation sector, further data and collaboration are required to ensure that these services can be effectively woven into the fabric of cities such that they are sustainable, equitable, and safe”

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