Uber and Lyft Are Cannibalizing Transit in Major American Cities

New research from UC Davis shows that cities must strengthen transit in response to the growth of ride-hailing services.

Photo: Oran Viriyincy/Flickr
Photo: Oran Viriyincy/Flickr

The arrival of ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft has led to more car traffic and less transit ridership in major American cities, according to a new study from researchers at UC Davis [PDF]. The results of their first-of-its-kind survey strongly suggest that large cities must take steps to prioritize and strengthen transit service in response to the growth of ride-hailing apps.

Unlike previous surveys that attempted to assess the effect of ride-hailing and car-sharing, which tended to be based on self-selected samples of people who use a particular service, Regina Clewlow and Gouri Shankar Mishra of UC Davis sampled the general population. They randomly surveyed 4,094 adults living in both urban and suburban areas of Boston, Chicago, New York, Seattle, DC, Los Angeles, and the Bay Area.

A large share of ride-hailing traffic is substituting for more efficient modes of transportation, they found. Between 49 percent to 61 percent of ride-hailing trips would have been made by transit, biking, or walking, or would not have been made at all, if the services were not available, according to the survey responses. In other words, Uber and Lyft are adding to traffic congestion.

After people start using ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft, they are 6 percent less likely to ride the bus and 3 percent less likely to ride light rail. But ride-hailing apps did lead to a net increase in heavy rail trips, which might indicate their use as a last-mile connection to stations beyond walking distance:

Among adults who use ride hailing apps like Uber, bus ridership dropped 6 percent, a recent study found. Graph: UC Davis
Chart: UC Davis

Ride-hailing services also appear to reduce drunk driving, with 38 percent of users saying they regularly hire rides to get to bars and parties.

And they reduce car ownership, with about 9 percent of people who use the services reporting that they’ve gotten rid of at least one vehicle. Clewlow and Mishra caution that this is a smaller effect than previous research has suggested, however, and that decisions to own a car are primarily influenced by “socio-demographic, attitudinal, and built environment” factors.

Ride-hailing users tend to be younger, college-educated, higher-income people who live in urban areas. The 33 percent usage rate among people making more than $150,000 a year is more than double the 15 percent rate among people making less than $30,000.

The implications for transit riders are troubling. More affluent people are opting for ride-hailing because it’s faster and more reliable than transit. This creates a vicious cycle where additional ride-hailing trips cause more congestion, which slows down transit — a dynamic that has been documented in New York by analyst Bruce Schaller. People who can’t afford an Uber fare are left with even worse bus service.

People say they switch from transit to ride-hailing because transit is slow, unreliable, and unavailable. Chart: UC Davis

Put it all together and Clewlow and Mishra’s research suggests that cities have to strengthen and improve transit service in response to the growth of ride-hailing. They recommend dedicating street space to high-occupancy vehicles like buses and adopting policies like congestion pricing to counteract the rising traffic caused by ride-hailing services in central cities.

Ride-hailing services can be a helpful addition to transportation systems, curbing car ownership, reducing drunk driving, and complementing transit networks. But if cities and transit agencies don’t take action to improve the quality of bus and rail service, Uber and Lyft can end up doing more harm than good, clogging streets and cannibalizing transit.

164 thoughts on Uber and Lyft Are Cannibalizing Transit in Major American Cities

  1. *Edited* This now replaces a response with links, logic, etc. However, I just scrolled down to discover you are here to troll. That’s a shame.

  2. Build mixed use neighborhood on surface parking lots, and eliminate parking minimums. Calculate the long term costs of investing in greenfield development, including infrastructure maintenance and service provision. Prioritize public transportation over private transportation. Encourage people to do business on the sidewalk in front of their own homes.

    Seriously, if kids want to sell pot on the street corner, why shouldn’t they?

  3. The gas tax and vehicle fees collected don’t even pay for the maintenance needed for smoothly paved asphalt roads, obviously. You can argue that the money should be sufficient to do this if it were performed more efficiently or affordably, but those funds are not diverted. The federal highway gas tax is a billion in the hole each year, most state funds are as well. Instead sales taxes, property taxes and other fees are diverted into road maintenance, enforcement, licensure and associated costs, which includes medical, legal, military, cleaning, environmental, disabiilties and doesn’t even include loss of property taxes from required pavement and public parking (up to 1/5 of urban space with reduced residential values near highways). New or wider highways, bridges, tunnels, etc..are usually paid for with future debt, paid off with general funds, same for when they crumble.
    I’m a driver, so i appreciate these subsidies, but believe that other modes of transportation need to be funded to improve access to the pursuit of happiness for all. The belief that motorists pay for the roads is firmly rooted but it’s a thin stalk of opinion.

  4. Just giving the example of how singapore maintains road congestion. If we had true market pricing of the road system, then there would not be any road congestion, as the number of vehicles on the road would be capped to allow for vehicles to always move at the designed road speed. Capping the number of vehicles would be achieved by putting a market-based price on the road use. Yes, simple economics as you said.

  5. The simple fact is a road-based network is built in 1950 for a specific number of parking spaces and single-occupancy vehicles. Fast-forward 60 years, and development has caused the number of parking spaces to increase by 2x-4x, as well as single-occupancy vehicles. The road network was never designed to accommodate this level of vehicles. Since there are no controls built into the road network to cap the number of vehicles, congestion becomes a huge problem. Something has to be done to put vehicle maximums into the system. Vehicle maximums will result in more passengers per vehicle, therefore more vans, shuttles, buses, etc. Depending on implementation, it my make it impossible or very expensive to drive a private car during peak commuting time.

  6. We already have systems in place that work off real-time dynamic pricing. Think of airline fares, train fares, Uber, HOT lanes in some cities. There’s also stepped pricing systems that utilities use. They are all designed to make sure there isn’t a commodity shortage.

  7. Busses and mass transit is becoming obsolete. Uber will go driverless and you will be able to jump on a pod and tell it where you want to get off. They will hold a dozen or so people and the computer will sort out the routing so you can go door to door.

  8. See, you say that but that doesn’t solve the congestion and storage problems at all, which are quickly outstripping pollution and travel times as major concerns in cities.

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