Congestion on a city road

Ride-hailing apps are increasing congestion in cities, study suggests

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A study of ride-hailing app users in Boston has found that users are hailing private taxis for journeys that they would otherwise walk, cycle, use public transport for, or even not take at all.

In 2015, Travis Kalanick, Uber’s ousted CEO and founder, told a group of executives in Boston about his vision for a world “where there’s no more traffic in Boston in five years.” The company has suggested that the growth of its ride-hailing app and similar services could help lower congestion by reducing car ownership in cities.

“If you imagine you’re on top of one of these skyscrapers and looking down at all the cars, we want all those cars to be Ubers because if they were, the transportation system would be more efficient,” Kalanick said.

However, a study conducted by computer scientists and other researchers at Northeastern University suggests that the rise of ride-hailing companies could be causing greater congestion in cities by discouraging people from walking, cycling and using public transport in favour of an inexpensive private taxi ride.

“The emerging consensus is that ride-sharing [is] increasing congestion,” Professor Christo Wilson, a computer scientist at Northeastern University, told The Associated Press.

According to Wilson and his co-authors, it is difficult for public agencies to plan for the transformation in personal mobility caused by ride-hailing services as there is so little information available about these trips. For some years, Wilson has focused studies on Uber’s practice of ‘surge pricing’, which raises the price of rides in busy locations and during periods of high demand, such as after major sports events.

How Uber decides on when and where to increase prices and by how much remains mostly unknown; the company does not release information about its surge-pricing algorithm.

The researchers’ latest study of 944 ride-hailing app users in Boston found that six out of 10 of users would have walked, cycled, used public transportation or not have taken the journey at all if the app was not available. This supports the findings of similar studies conducted elsewhere. Many users were using Uber, Lyft and other hailed rides as a mode of transport entirely disconnected from public transport, they found.

“Ride sharing is pulling from and not complementing public transportation,” said Alison Felix, an author of the study.

According to the study, the speed of ride-hailing makes it an attractive alternative to public transport. Even those with travel cards would be willing to choose ride-hailing services over public transport in spite of the extra expense.

“Lyft is focused on making personal car ownership optional by getting more people to share a ride, helping to reduce car ownership and partnering with public transportation,” said Lyft spokesperson Adrian Durbin.

Uber spokesperson Alix Anfang stated: “Uber’s long-term goal is to end the reliance on personal vehicles and allow a mix of public transportation and services like Uber”.

A new Uber service, Express Pool, could compete with or complement mass public transport as it is expanded beyond its trial sites in the US. This service allows users heading in similar directions to walk a short distance, share a ride to a convenient location and split the cost between them. Services such as these could work particularly efficiently, Uber argues, on routes such as those connecting airports with transport hubs in city centres.

“This could be good for congestion if it causes vehicle occupancy rates to go up, but on the other hand, the Uber Pool rides and I guess these Express rides are really, really cheap, just a couple of dollars, so they’re almost certainly going to be pulling people away from public transport options,” said Wilson.

“Why get on a bus with 50 people when you can get into a car and maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll be the only person in it?”

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