Are ride-share services (Uber/Lyft) a boon or bust for mass transit? See our Friday Roundup today.

Ride-share services like Uber and Lyft, virtually unknown a few years ago, have become ubiquitous in metro areas. Their effect on transit and urban congestion has become a contentious issue, with opponents and proponents each able to point to research to support their positions. 

And it’s not just the impact on transit and congestion that has metro politicians concerned. The Seattle City Council attempted to break new ground (does that have a familiar ring?) by adopting legislation (currently placed on hold by a federal court) that would allow ride-share drivers to unionize. That effort, initiated two years ago, drew national attention and opposition from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The New York Times reports subway ridership has been dropping as “passengers flee to Uber.”

n another alarming sign of the crisis plaguing New York City’s subway, ridership dropped for the second year in a row as passengers flee the system for Uber and other ride-hailing services, draining the transit system of badly needed revenue…

But the declining subway ridership could have wide-ranging consequences: It could hurt the transit agency’s finances, increase street congestion and stall the city’s economic success as it competes against global cities with better transportation networks.

Concern about finances has prompted officials to consider new regulations.

The growing concerns about gridlock on city streets has prompted the City Council to consider new legislation to rein in Uber and other services by setting a cap on new vehicles.

The NYT cited a study by Bruce Schaller, a consultant who had previously served as a deputy commissioner for the city’s transportation department, who begins by noting how these services have become transformative.

Municipal and civic officials in cities across the country are grappling with how to respond to the unexpected arrival and rapid growth of new mobility services. These include ride services such as Uber and Lyft (also called Transportation Network Companies, or TNCs), “microtransit” companies suchas Via and Chariot and more recently dockless bikeshare and electric scooter offerings.

Here’s the conclusion from the executive summary of the report.

New mobility has much to offer cities: convenience, flexibility, on-demand technology and a nimbleness to search for the fit between new services and inadequately served markets. But development of ride services must take place within a public policy framework that harnesses their potential to serve the goals of mobility, safety, equity and environmental sustainability. Without public policy intervention, big American cities are likely to be overwhelmed with more automobility, more traffic and less transit and drained of the density and diversity which are indispensable to their economic and social well-being.

CityLab writer Laura Bliss also looks at the ride-share services, citing difficulty in obtaining good data from the companies themselves. Among her observations,

To be sure, Uber, Lyft and other TNCs aren’t winning an especially hard-fought battle for riders. Service cuts and performance declines on many transit systems—especially bus networks—offer passengers little reason to stay loyal. In some cities, the rise of ride-hailing may be as much a statement on the quality of public transit as anything else. Schaller estimates that, in 2018, the number of annual for-hire vehicle passengers (which includes ride-hailing and the ever-shrinking pool of taxi trips) will outstrip the number of bus riders nationwide. “[This] shows the acute need for public transit to provide the same level of prompt, reliable and comfortable service that’s attracting people to TNCs,” he said via email.

An Investor’s Business Daily editorial contends the services are hurting mass transit and that’s OK.

But Uber and Lyft aren’t just substituting one form of transportation for another, they’re creating entirely new opportunities for people to get around.

In New York, taxi pickups in the city declined by about 5 million between 2014 and 2018, but ride sharing trips exploded by almost 15 million. Clearly, all those extra trips were coming from somewhere other than taxis, rail and buses….

Ride-sharing services are producing ancillary benefits as well. Demand for parking lots is declining in cities, freeing up valuable real estate for more productive uses…

Ride-sharing is also serving low-income neighborhoods that had few options before. And the increasing use of ride sharing is also cutting down on drinking and driving — thereby saving lives.

And then there are benefits to drivers who are turning their cars into cash cows, which means more tax revenues for city governments.

So, what’s the problem?

Back in February, the AP noted that the ride-share services increased urban traffic congestion and that competition with mass transit was becoming more direct.

One promise of ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft was fewer cars clogging city streets. But studies suggest the opposite: that ride-hailing companies are pulling riders off buses, subways, bicycles and their own feet and putting them in cars instead.

And in what could be a new wrinkle, a service by Uber called Express Pool now is seen as directly competing with mass transit.

In January, Wired looked at the issue in an article headlined, “turns out Uber and Lyft might not be ruining the American city.” Again, noting inconclusive data and the oft-cited Bruce Schaller, Aarion Marshall reported,

[Sharon Feigon, the executive director of the Shared Use Mobility Center] and her colleagues’ conclusions mostly comport with recent research on the relationship between new mobility companies and transit. First, people don’t always abandon public transit for Uber and its brethren. The researchers compared transit usage to ride-hailin’ riders in five cities (Chicago, DC, LA, Nashville, and Seattle) between 2010 and 2016, and found little relationship between the long-term trend lines and and peak-hour ride-hailing usage. In English: No one large city is abandoning public transit commuting en masse directly because of Uber or Lyft.

There’s clearly a lot to sort out. In Seattle, Mayor Jenny Durkan is forming a council of tech leaders to look into the city’s challenges, including transportation. Geek Wire reports,

It’s the mayor’s latest effort to bridge the gap between the tech industry and City Hall and harness the expertise of technologists to mitigate the consequences of rapid growth.

There are a lot of studies, plenty of punditry and advocacy, and policymakers poised for action. What do you think should be the response? 

We have three questions for you to consider.

Thank you!