Cities need to move carefully to get TNC benefits

By Brian Lutenegger

A new report examines existing research and new data on the impact of Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft on U.S. cities. TNCs can have negative impacts on urban areas by contributing to traffic congestion—but, if planned and regulated properly, can find their ideal niche within urban transportation systems.

A new study by Schaller Consulting finds that the number of passengers transported by TNCs increased by 37 percent between 2016 and 2017 and is leading to increased traffic congestion in urban centers. The majority of TNC trips are concentrated in nine large metropolitan areas and also take the place of other non-auto forms of transportation (assuming they would have occurred at all). In fact, combined TNC and taxi passengers are expected to surpass local bus ridership by the end of this year. All of these impacts mean that TNCs—even taking shared-ride trips into account—put 2.6 new vehicle miles on city roadways for each mile of personal vehicle driving removed, a 160 percent increase.

Mobility Lab also weighed in with concerns over this rise in TNC usage in cities. They worry that TNCs may cause cities to defer needed improvements to their transit systems, assuming the former will solve the problem. Second, TNCs are lobbying to avoid regulation and to dictate transportation policy, much like automakers did decades ago. Based on the story of the rise of the automobile over the past hundred years, we know that cities must step in to regulate TNCs in order to meet their own transportation goals and implement their vision for their future.

The Schaller study does offer some worthy suggestions for sound policies that cities can pursue around TNC regulations that will reduce traffic. TNC trip fees that are high enough (albeit not yet politically viable)—perhaps $50 per hour in Manhattan, for example—would play a role in reducing the number of TNC vehicles.  More holistic pricing affecting all vehicles—clearly what the TNC providers would prefer over special fees levied on their passengers—are even less politically viable, the study notes.

A useful report for cities considering trip fees and taxes on TNCs is a new Eno Center for Transportation report that looks at the practices of seven U.S. cities and twelve states. They suggest that this mode of transportation should not be treated as an exception to the norm around taxation.  Instead they advocate for TNCs—as a now established presence within the transportation system—being integrated into the transportation system as a whole.

Beyond fees, the Schaller report discusses other tools to manage the additional traffic caused by increased TNC and taxi use. For example, bus lanes and traffic signal timing can help manage traffic in congested city centers. More critically, cities can mitigate traffic by:

  • Discouraging personal vehicle use in congested areas via parking supply regulation or access restrictions at certain times of the day;
  • Setting space-efficiency requirements for fleet-operated vehicles like TNCs and taxis, such as prioritizing high capacity transit, capping fleet vehicles, or mandating passenger occupancy levels; and
  • Providing frequent high-capacity transit service.

Limiting access to TNCs isn’t necessarily the answer to reducing traffic congestion. With proper incentives, TNCs can fill an important gap as first mile, last mile connections to public transit, resulting in increased ridership of the latter. These two pieces of our transportation system can indeed coexist together well.

Further, as SSTI discussed in a previous SSTI blog post, new research shows that TNCs are invading auto-access deserts, serving disadvantaged lower-income populations, and offering an alternative to a taxi industry that may be seen as discriminatory.  TNCs have the potential to increase equitable access to the destinations of daily life for residents in all locations and of all backgrounds.

Other commenters have noted that individuals, often low income and without a credit card and/or smartphone, are not able to use TNCs. Then it is not surprising that a UC Davis study found that those with a college education use TNCs at a rate double that of non college-educated people. Cities concerned about questions of equity can work with TNCs to ensure they are truly accessible to all, including the unbanked.

TNCs have the potential to occupy a symbiotic location within our transportation system—but their potential to increase traffic congestion, vehicle miles traveled, and problems with equal access within urban areas must be addressed. The challenge of TNCs, according to some observers, is that it is backwards to think that an auto-centric, internal combustion engine approach to traffic and mobility is the correct solution to our transportation needs well into the 21st century. It is critical at we not repeat the transportation planning mistakes of the 20th century.

Brian Lutenegger is a Program Associate at Smart Growth America.