What is ride-hailing doing to our transportation system?

By Robbie Webber

A new study from the Institute of Transportation Studies at University of California–Davis delves into the effects of ride-hailing (Uber and Lyft) use on other parts of our transportation system. What they find confirms some assumptions and disproves others. Interrelationships between parking, vehicle ownership, use of different forms of transit, and effect on vehicle miles traveled are all examined. The reasons respondents gave for using ride-hailing services may also impact transportation policy decisions.

Parking difficulties, including cost, was the #1 reason given for using ride-hailing. The second most common reason was that respondents knew they would be using alcohol. Avoiding both drunk driving and the need to provide more parking in cities are certainly positive effects.

How ride-hailing effects transit use, VMT, and vehicle ownership is a bit murkier. Bus and light rail ridership went down among users of the services, but use of heavy rail went up. This may be the result of ride-hailing filling the last-mile gap, which would be a complement to transit in less dense areas or where transit does not serve destinations such as major employment centers. SSTI has reported in the past on other studies that have also found that ride-hailing cannibalizes transit and disrupted bus routes, but this study makes clear that different types of transit see different effects. When asked why they switched from transit to ride-hailing, the most common response among respondents was that transit was too slow.

The effects on vehicle ownership are also of note. Over 90 percent of ride-hailing service users have not made a change in their vehicle ownership. However, among the remaining respondents, there was a strong correlation between increased use of ride-hailing and the likelihood that users would shed a vehicle. Those who used the services daily as opposed to weekly, monthly, or occasionally were much more likely to reduce the number of household cars.

This does not necessarily lead to an overall decrease in vehicle miles traveled or fewer car trips. The study asked users how they would have made the trip if not by ride-hailing. Between 49 and 61 percent of trips made by ride-hailing would not have been made at all, or would have been made by biking, walking, or transit. This clearly shows that the rise of ride-hailing has led to more car trips. Depending on the volume of “deadhead” miles­—those driven without a passenger—ride-hailing could lead to significantly higher VMT overall than use of personal vehicles.

Not surprisingly, ride-hailing is more common among the young, well-educated, and those with higher incomes. This may portend the noted effects rippling through the larger population as ride-hailing becomes more common both geographically and among more of the population.

The study was conducted in seven large cities, so whether the result will hold true for more suburban areas and smaller cities is still an open question. Since ride-hailing has been shown to cannibalize bus and light rail service, and the most common reason given by respondents in this study was because they considered transit service too slow, cities and transit agencies will need to decide either how to integrate ride-hailing into their transit service and planning or prioritize transit over single occupancy vehicles in general. Ride-hailing companies will likely be the first to adopt autonomous vehicle technology in order to lower the cost of operating their fleet. This could lead to even greater increases in VMT as vehicles drive around until they are called into service.

The study’s authors conclude:

“In the near  term,  policymakers  need  to  address  the  issue  of additional vehicle  miles  that  ride-hailing services contribute to cities (as well as those from personally-owned vehicles) which can further erode high-capacity transit services. Given limited road infrastructure and the expanding population of cities, it is critical that  high-occupancy  vehicles be  prioritized  on  the  roadways  if they are carrying a sufficient number of passengers. Both congestion pricing and enforced priority lanes can serve as effective measures to ensure that scarce roadway space is used effectively.”

Many important insights into the effects of ride-hailing on different areas of the transportation system are included in this study. Although the authors acknowledge that more research is needed, the study is worth a look to begin to plan for what the authors claim is a move away from household vehicle ownership model and towards mobility as a service. As they point out, this trend is likely to accelerate as AVs become more common.

Robbie Webber is a Senior Associate at SSTI.