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How Ride-Hailing Could Improve Public Transportation Instead Of Undercutting It

Ride-hailing services have reduced fatal drunk driving crashes and offer greater independence for elderly and disabled populations.

Photo by Richard Vogel/AP.

Over the last half-decade, public transit ridership declined nationwide. The number of vehicle miles traveled in cars is rising, and traffic congestion is getting worse in many U.S. cities. At the same time, the century-old taxi industry is struggling, with many taxi companies going bankrupt.


Are ride-hailing companies such as Lyft and Uber to blame? What has been their impact and what should be done?

While ride-hailing threatens public transit, it is also key to its future success — but only with smart policies and the right price signals. As researchers working at the intersection of energy, the environment, and public policy, we have been analyzing transportation trends for decades — and seeing remarkably little innovation. Now we are on the cusp of major transformations. We see ride-hailing through the framework laid out in Daniel Sperling’s new book, “Three Revolutions: Steering Automated, Shared, and Electric Vehicles to a Better Future.”

More travel, less mass transit

Let’s start with the data. Public transit ridership dropped in 31 of 35 U.S. major metropolitan areas in 2017. It has declined by 3% since 2014, and 2017 was the lowest year of overall transit ridership since 2005.

Meanwhile, total U.S. vehicle miles traveled (VMT) has increased steadily since 2011. Most dramatically, Lyft, Uber, and other ride-hailing companies have soared, from near zero trips in 2012 to about 2.6 billion in 2017. As of 2016, 250 million people globally used ride-hailing apps, including 15% of the U.S. public.

Parsing the impacts of ride-hailing

As ride-hailing has grown, so too has the number of researchers working to understand its impacts. Experts at UC Berkeley, UC Davis, the University of Colorado, the University of Michigan, and Texas A&M University have all found that a significant fraction of ride-hailing customers would have traveled by transit, or opted against traveling at all, had ride-hailing been unavailable. This indicates that ride-hailing is displacing transit ridership and increasing vehicle miles traveled by cars.

Why is this happening? People are choosing ride-hailing because transit does not match the comfort and convenience offered by private vehicles, and taxis cannot offer the affordability and transparency of app-based ride-hailing. VMT is increasing as growing numbers of for-hire cars log “deadhead” miles driving to pick up passengers or returning from destinations. In New York City, unoccupied taxi and ride-hailing hours grew by 81% from 2013 to 2017.

But the net effects are highly region-dependent. Dense urban markets are responding differently than suburbs. In San Francisco, fully one-third of Lyft and Uber riders use ride-hailing in lieu of public transit. A survey in Denver found that 22% of respondents would have used transit had ride-hailing been unavailable. In contrast, researchers found that only 3% of Lyft and Uber riders in Austin switched to transit during a suspension of ride-hailing services.

Positive impacts too

While ride-hailing is pulling riders away from public transit in some places, it can also enhance transit ridership. The UC Berkeley survey found that 4% of Uber and Lyft customers ended their rides at transit stations, which suggests that they were using ride-hailing to connect to transit. Our colleague Caroline Rodier has observed that multiple surveys show about 5% of respondents relying on ride-hailing to access transit, although Rodier concluded that the increased transit trips are offset by the diversion of trips away from transit.

Local governments and agencies can work with ride-hailing services to enhance public transit instead of undermining it. For instance, ride-hailing can help smooth transportation demand shocks caused by temporary transit disruptions, such as closures of subway stations for maintenance.

What’s more, while ride-hailing may increase car-based travel, this is not necessarily a bad thing. More mobility increases access to jobs, health care, and education. And a significant percentage of ride-hailing trips occur late at night when congestion is not a big concern and transit options are not always available.

Indeed, its late-night popularity suggests that ride-hailing is removing some of the most dangerous type of vehicle miles. According to a UT Austin study of all 273 U.S. cities with a population of more than 100,000, ride-hailing services reduced fatal drunk driving crashes by 10-11%.

Ride-hailing also offers greater independence for elderly and disabled populations. The Center for American Progress observes that ride-hailing can help disadvantaged populations overcome geographic isolation and access jobs, education, and health care services.

Complementing public transit

For transit agencies, ride-hailing services can be an attractive alternative to serving sparsely populated, low-density areas with fixed routes and schedules. Private mobility companies and public transit agencies have launched nearly 50 pilot projects and partnerships to explore these opportunities. Many agencies are subsidizing travel in ride-hailing vehicles to meet the needs of certain rider groups.

In San Clemente and Dublin, California, officials canceled fixed-route buses with the lowest ridership and provided discounts for people to travel in Lyft and Uber. Phoenix is discounting the price of ride-hailing trips to and from 500 city bus stops. Denver is offering free rides to suburban light rail stations.

Reducing solo travel

The number of innovative transit partnerships is growing rapidly, but the jury is still out on what types of partnerships can yield win-wins for communities, companies, and transit agencies. An overarching goal should be to increase mobility — that is, passenger miles traveled — while reducing vehicle miles traveled.

This will only happen if ride-hailing services continue to shift toward multi-passenger services, such as Lyft Line and UberPool. Such a change will require policy frameworks that encourage shared rides and discourage single-passenger rides — starting with ride-hailing services and eventually including travelers using their own vehicles.

Road pricing practices, in which drivers pay fees to travel in high-use areas, have reduced traffic and increased pooled rides and transit trips in London, Stockholm, and Singapore. Importantly, Uber and Lyft embrace these strategies to expand pooling services and gain relief from stifling traffic congestion, just like the rest of us.

Pooling and road pricing will be especially critical with the coming vehicle automation revolution. If automated vehicles are individually owned, they will likely generate massive new vehicle use, since travel will no longer be seen as onerous. Occupants can sleep, eat, text, read, and watch videos while their cars do the navigating. But if those automated vehicles are pooled, then vehicle use would be pushed in the opposite direction, toward fewer vehicle miles traveled.

U.S. cities and transit operators have done little innovating in the past 50 years and are ill-prepared for the changes ahead. They need to decipher what is happening, build partnerships, and support price signals that encourage pooling. Acting to maximize the societal benefits of ride-hailing and other transportation revolutions will provide benefits now and into the future.

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Fredrick Douglass was born into slavery in 1818. At the age of 10 he was given to the Auld family.

As a child, he worked as a house slave and was able to learn to read and write, and he attempted to teach his fellow slaves the same skills.

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via Thomas Ledia / Wikimedia Commons

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The Hitlers moved out of the Braunau am Inn when Adolph was three, but the three-story butter-colored building still stands. It has been the subject of controversy for seven decades.

via Thomas Ledia / Wikimedia Commons

The building was a meeting place for Nazi loyalists in the 1930s and '40s. After World War II, the building has become an informal pilgrimage site for neo-Nazis and veterans to glorify the murderous dictator.

The building was a thorn in the side to local government and residents to say the least.

RELATED: He photographed Nazi atrocities and buried the negatives. The unearthed images are unforgettable.

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In 1989, a stone from the building was inscribed with:

"For Peace, Freedom

and Democracy.

Never Again Fascism.

Millions of Dead Remind [us]."

via Jo Oh / Wikimedia Commons

For three decades it was home to an organization that offered support and integration assistance for disabled people. But in 2011, the organization vacated the property because Pommer refused to bring it up to code.

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In 2017, the fight between the government and Pommer ended with it seizing the property. Authorities said it would get a "thorough architectural remodeling is necessary to permanently prevent the recognition and the symbolism of the building."

Now, the government intends to turn it into a police station which will surely deter any neo-Nazis from hanging around the building.

Austria has strict anti-Nazi laws that aim to prohibit any potential Nazi revival. The laws state that anyone who denies, belittles, condones or tries to justify the Nazi genocide or other Nazi crimes against humanity shall be punished with imprisonment for one year up to ten years.

In Austria the anti-Nazi laws are so strict one can go to prison for making the Nazi hand salute or saying "Heil Hitler."

"The future use of the house by the police should send an unmistakable signal that the role of this building as a memorial to the Nazis has been permanently revoked," Austria's IInterior Minister, Wolfgang Peschorn said in a statement.

The house is set to be redesigned following an international architectural competition.

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via Chela Horsdal / Twitter

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The Salvation Army faced criticism after a leader in the organization implied that gay people "deserve to die" and the company also came under fire after refusing to offer same-sex couples health insurance. But the organization swears it's evolving on such issues.

via Thomas Hawk / Flickr

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes explicitly announced it was anti gay marriage in a recent "Statement of Faith."

God instituted marriage between one man and one woman as the foundation of the family and the basic structure of human society. For this reason, we believe that marriage is exclusively the union of one man and one woman.

The Paul Anderson Youth Home teaches boys that homosexuality is wrong and that same-sex marriage is "rage against Jesus Christ and His values."

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In 2012, Chick-fil-A's CEO, Dan Cathy, made anti same-sex marriage comments on a radio broadcast:

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But the chicken giant has now decided to change it's says its charitable donation strategy because it's bad for business...Not because being homophobic is wrong.

The company recently lost several bids to provide concessions in U.S. airports. A pop-up shop in England was told it would not be renewed after eight days following LGBTQ protests.

Chick-fil-A also has plans to expand to Boston, Massachusetts where its mayor, Thomas Menino, pledged to ban the restaurant from the city.

via Wikimedia Commons

"There's no question we know that, as we go into new markets, we need to be clear about who we are," Chick-fil-A President and Chief Operating Officer Tim Tassopoulos told Bisnow. "There are lots of articles and newscasts about Chick-fil-A, and we thought we needed to be clear about our message."

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Instead, the Chick-fil-A Foundation plans to give $9 million to organizations that support education and fight homelessness. Which is commendable regardless of the company's troubled past.

"If Chick-Fil-A is serious about their pledge to stop holding hands with divisive anti-LGBTQ activists, then further transparency is needed regarding their deep ties to organizations like Focus on the Family, which exist purely to harm LGBTQ people and families," Drew Anderson, GLAAD's director of campaigns and rapid response, said in a statement.

Chick-fil-A's decision to back down from contributing to anti-LGBT charities shows the power that people have to fight back against companies by hitting them where it really hurts — the pocket book.

The question remains: If you previously avoided Chick-fil-A because it supported anti-LGBT organizations, is it now OK to eat there? Especially when Popeye's chicken sandwich is so good people will kill for it?

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Oh, irony. You are having quite a day.

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