A preview of the driverless-vehicle future: Uber and other TNCs are cannibalizing New York’s transit ridership and worsening congestion and emissions

By Eric Sundquist

The effect of transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft is one of the central concerns of transportation planning, in part because TNCs can provide a hint about what might happen when driverless vehicles become widely available. In addition, to date the lack of TNCs’ willingness to share data has limited our ability to assess these effects.

A new report by Brooklyn-based Schaller Consulting, focusing on these services in New York City, sheds welcome new light on the topic, and provides plenty of evidence for pessimism about the sustainability of TNCs, conventional or driverless, without significant policy intervention.

The report’s methodology is more thorough and its conclusions less optimistic than those in a 2016 report by the city’s mayor’s office. Schaller employs multiple data sets to assess travel in cabs, car services, and TNCs, including portions of trips without passengers, as well as by bike and transit.

It finds that until about 2014, growth in travel in New York was being absorbed by the city’s transit system. However, after 2014 TNCs began cannibalizing transit travel, as well as adding new vehicle-miles because of how TNCs operate—including vehicle-miles for travelers who might have avoided a vehicle trip before (induced demand.) “Even where TNC trips replace personal auto trips,” the report finds “TNC growth can generate additional mileage on city streets because of deadheading to pick-up locations and drivers’ personal use of the vehicle.”

Figure 1. Change in ridership, New York, 2012-3. (Schaller Consulting)

Figure 1. Change in ridership, New York, 2012-3. (Schaller Consulting)

 

Figure 2. Change in ridership, New York, 2015-6. (Schaller Consulting)

Figure 2. Change in ridership, New York, 2015-6. (Schaller Consulting)

 

Figure 3.Vehicle mileage, New York, indicating a net increase of 600 million miles from TNCs. (Schaller Consulting)

Figure 3.Vehicle mileage, New York, indicating a net increase of 600 million miles from TNCs. (Schaller Consulting)

The report suggests several policy responses, including better street management, improvements to transit, and road pricing. According to the report:

Uber, Lyft, Via, Juno and Gett, the TNCs currently operating in New York City, have brought new transportation options welcomed by many New Yorkers. The rapid growth of these services shows how much New Yorkers value speed, reliability and comfort in making travel choices. TNCs, similar to bikes which have joined them atop the rankings for ridership growth, offer these attributes in an on-demand, door-to-door service.

While a valuable addition to transportation options in New York City, the growth of TNCs is unfortunately also working counter to important public policy goals centered on sustainable, high-efficiency modes such as transit, walking and biking. The task for public policy is to support the mobility benefits that TNCs clearly offer, on the one hand, while seeking to manage and mitigate impacts on traffic conditions, the capacity of city streets to support a growing workforce and population, and goals for environmental sustainability.

The report argues that these findings also provide information about how autonomous vehicle service might operate—with similar downsides requiring policy responses:

The arrival of fleets of shared autonomous vehicles may seem like a far-off possibility as no one knows how soon autonomous vehicle technology may arrive at this scale. However, the same impacts—good or bad—can arrive well before autonomous vehicle technology is sufficiently mature to operate in dense urban environments. The modeling shows that changes in travel and vehicle mileage are generated primarily from the combination of demand-responsive service and shared use of the vehicles, with automated operations being of secondary importance. In other words, the SAV future can arrive with continued growth of TNCs driven by actual people. That future may thus be evident today, as documented in this report.

Eric Sundquist is Managing Director of SSTI.