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Ridesharing services could be worsening traffic congestion

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Ridesharing services like Uber risk worsening urban road congestion while their impact on private vehicle ownership is minimal, a study has found.

Researchers from the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) used datasets covering mobility trends and socio-demographic changes to show that ridesharing services lead, on average, to increased road congestion in both intensity and duration. They also found an 8.9 per cent drop in public transport ridership and an insignificant decrease of only one per cent in private vehicle ownership.

While many previous studies have focused on Uber alone, this latest study takes into account both Uber and Lyft: the two most popular ridesharing companies in the US. While Uber accounts for 69 per cent of the market share, Lyft accounts for a significant 29 per cent and its inclusion into the dataset “would give a more holistic and unbiased estimate” of their impact, the researchers said.

The study also found easy access to ridesharing discourages commuters from taking greener alternatives like walking or taking public transportation. Survey data from various US cities has shown that approximately half of ridesharing trips would otherwise have been made by walking, cycling, public transport or would not have been made at all.

Dr Hui Kong, an author of the paper, said the research showed the services “have intensified urban transport challenges and road congestion in the United States, mainly through the extended duration and slightly through the increased intensity. With this information, policies can then be introduced that could lead to positive changes.”

In particular, the substantial deadheading miles, defined as those which are travelled without a passenger, are the primary cause for their negative impact on road congestion. According to other studies, approximately 40.8 per cent of miles are deadheading miles.

“While public transportation provides high-efficiency shared services, it can only accommodate a small portion of commuters as their coverage is limited in most places,” said Professor Jinhua Zhao of MIT. “While mathematical models in prior studies showed that the potential benefit of on-demand shared mobility could be tremendous, our study suggests that translating this potential into actual gains is much more complicated in the real world.”

A study last year found that rideshare platforms present racial and other biases that penalise under-represented minorities and others seeking to use their services.

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