Evidence From Boston That Uber Is Making Traffic Worse

Survey results show a large share of ride-hailing trips are substituting for transit, an indication of how badly the MBTA needs to improve bus and train service.

Ride-hailing trips that start at someone's home are clustered in the center of the Boston region, where transit access is best and traffic is most intense. Map: MAPC
Ride-hailing trips that start at someone's home are clustered in the center of the Boston region, where transit access is best and traffic is most intense. Map: MAPC

Ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft are exacerbating rush-hour traffic jams in Boston, according to new research by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. The results should be a wake-up call about the need to improve bus and train service and prevent further shifts to car travel.

MAPC surveyed 944 ride-hailing passengers in greater Boston about their travel habits, using questionnaires administered via tablets during ride-hailing trips. More than two out of every five — 42 percent — said they would have taken transit if the ride-hailing service were not available. Another 12 percent said they would have walked or biked.

Combining those results with time-of-day data, MAPC estimates that 15 percent of ride-hailing trips are substituting for more spatially efficient modes of travel during the morning or evening peak (defined as 6-10 a.m. and 3-7 p.m.).

In addition, most of the trips either began or terminated in the center of the region — the area with the worst traffic congestion and the best transit access.

Graphic: MAPC
Most ride-hailing trips in greater Boston are substituting for transit, biking, or walking, not driving. Graphic: MAPC

The findings underscore the premium regular transit riders are willing to pay for ride-hailing trips, MAPC notes. A large share of people who substituted ride-hailing for transit — 51 percent — had unlimited fare passes, and that figure didn’t change much even for ride-hail trips that cost more than $10 or $20. On average, these passengers also tended to be poorer than the ride-hailing population overall.

These trip substitution patterns are an indication of how badly MBTA needs to improve bus and train service, MAPC says. Residents should be able to rely on the transit system instead of feeling compelled to shell out for ride-hailing fares, especially for trips to the center city. And not only are streets getting more congested as riders opt out of transit, but the agency is losing fare revenue.

MAPC also recommends increasing and restructuring Massachusetts’ flat 20-cent fee on each ride-hailing trip. The current fee is so low it barely registers in the price of a trip, and doesn’t vary in accordance with congestion levels.

  • AuggieEast

    That clustering looks to be mostly west of central Boston, namely Brighton, Somerville, and Cambridge, which most certainly are not “center of the Boston region”. In fact, downtown Boston and adjacent neighborhoods are all lightly colored on this map. This makes me question the conclusions drawn here.

  • 1980Gardener

    People have a nearly insatiable appetite for travel by car. There is simply no way though to meet this demand in a dense area like Boston.

  • TakeFive

    Eh, the problem is that ‘travel by car’ provides riders what is most valuable to them. Time/speed is usually at the top ie not making 30 stops along the way; convenience of no first and last mile issues; add safety and reliability as the cherry on top.

  • 1980Gardener

    yes, that is a huge reason for why people choose to travel by car. When making a mode of trans pot decision, time, speed and comfort tend to be the dominant factors. Cost too, if you are lower income.

  • Don’t worry, autonomous vehicles will solve this problem! Right? Replace the human driver with a robot and suddenly congestion disappears?

  • They were able to keep the level of demand below the level of supply in London. Why wouldn’t it work in Boston?

  • Noibn48

    I’d love to see a Chicago study as well. So many more clueless morons behind the hailing wheel, visually adding to the thick congestion. Even the suburbanites in town for weekend do better.

  • 1980Gardener

    I’m surprised you think that the level of demand is lower than supply in London – upon what do you base that?

    Regardless, even if true, there would be many possible explanations:

    – availability of mass transit
    – culture
    – location of work (e.g. Boston has a very large number of jobs outside of the urban core).

    I’m not saying it is impossible to have the supply of roads be greater than the demand roads, only that achieving such a state would be challenging – if not impossible.

  • Michael

    Like many US systems, Boston has a particularly high ratio of peak to off-peak service. The high peak/off-peak ratio means that driver and equipment utilization underperforms and also seems to drive ridership into higher frequency hours (of course those hours are also the most expensive to service…)

    Anyway, it’s no surprise that riders are taking other options when service is sparse outside of peak. The solution for Boston like most us systems is flatter scheduling with less peak/off-peak differences.

  • 1980Gardener

    What an unusual response. Why would I “weep” reading about something I would like to see? Are you actually interested in transport policy or some sort of troll?

    Regardless, this link shows the dangers of relying upon one article that is several years old. A few thoughts:

    1. Increasing the cost of a mode of transport will of course reduce demand for it. However, it does not change one’s appetite for it – it merely puts it out of reach of all but upper income folks.

    2. More current data and reporting has shown that the demand for roads in London continue’s to outstrip supply – so much so that, in 2016, Urban Europe found that London had the worst traffic congestion on the continent. The study found that Londoners are spending 101 hours per year stuck in traffic – meaning that the roads are not handling the demand.

  • That Urban Europe report is about Greater London, not London proper.

  • 1980Gardener

    Which is on point, because, after all, this article is about Greater Boston – not Boston proper. It is important to compare apples to apples.

  • newtonmarunner

    The constraint of your solution is politics. Our governor does not believe transit is a service like the library or the police but like a business that should be profitable. And the state legislature doesn’t seem to be willing to spend more money for services fewer people will use.

    That said, I agree with your solution. Just recognize the politics.

  • Michael

    Flatter scheduling is vastly more efficient. Eg. 8 green lines per hour all the time is much cheaper than running 12 and 4. We should do something closer to 10 all the time then price for peak. Imo it would be better service within the existing cost constraints.

  • Variable congestion tolls permanently eliminate traffic congestion on freeways wherever it’s properly implemented (which includes neither London nor Boston), so that takes care of the suburbs.

  • crazyvag

    Adding tolls to cars should be applied equally to uber/Lyft as much as to individual vehicles. People quickly get used to a certain level of conversion and as soon as the word sites that driving is 10 mins faster, more people will drive leaving no improvement to that mode of transit and buses that share the road.

  • newtonmarunner

    The Green Line in the Central Subway runs 40 trains per hour (10 tph per branch), and with 2-car trains it is at capacity at rush hour. We could try to run 1-car trains during non-rush (or at least on the D) every 6 minutes per branch, but that would be tough.

    Do the same thing with the other lines — run shorter trains during certain hours.

    I don’t know how you do the buses, whose service drops so dramatically on weekends.

  • newtonmarunner

    Cambridge, Somerville, and Brighton all have a greater percentage of youth than most places in Boston. That’s the other big thing.

  • AuggieEast

    True but sonewhat irrelevant to my point

  • Michael

    Yeah, in general costs in a transit system are driven by peak – it determines amount of rolling stock, station sizing, electrical capacity, staffing, etc. With that in mind, if we’re trying to gain/retain riders, we want off-peak ridership as they are nearly free. i.e. riders 0 to 30 on a 10 pm Saturday bus have almost no cost to a system, while riders 60 to 90 on a 8 am peak bus mean another bus must be bought, larger bus shelters, etc. No excuse to ever have low quality off peak service, but we’ve normalized it in the US.

    simple 2 to 3 per hour clock face commuter rail service (ever :05, :35) with timed connections to surface transit would do a lot for the inner boston burbs. It would also likely be cheaper than current peak heavy design with almost no connectivity outside the Boston cbd.

  • 1980Gardener

    do you have any example?

    However, that is not really the point of my comment. My comment spoke to the ability of a city to supply the public’s desire for roads – yours speak the city’s ability to simply put that desire out of reach for low-income and middle-income folks. Two sides of the same coin, but coming at the question from a different side.

  • Komanoff

    Hey guys. In December I wrote up the ups and downs of London congestion charging for Streetsblog-NYC. Have a look: https://nyc.streetsblog.org/2017/12/05/london-traffic-would-be-at-least-20-percent-slower-without-congestion-pricing/. At the end of that post is a link to a more detailed treatment, with helpful illustrations. Enjoy.

  • 1980Gardener

    thank you!

  • The 110 express lanes in Los Angeles is a good example of eliminating traffic congestion by charging the market clearing rate.

    Your comment seems to suggest that the current level of demand, artificially inflated by years of pricing below market equilibrium and below the cost of building and owning roads, somehow needs to be satisfied by attempting to build our way out of congestion. But that’s futile.

  • WQ4

    You have talked about the effect of underpricing road capacity, which can cause the quantity demanded to move up along its demand curve.

    In addition to below-market pricing for road capacity, the quality of transit and urban geometry has not kept up with road improvements. Substitute goods (transit) are exogenous to demand, so changes in transit quality can increase the demand function for road capacity.

    So there are two effects in many cases. First, there is an increasing quantity demanded for road capacity through underpricing the product. Second, over time, there is a decrease in the quality of transit and urban geometry raises the demand curve for road capacity. So congestion pricing addresses the first and improving transit and urban geometry addresses the second.

  • 1980Gardener

    “Your comment seems to suggest that the current level of demand, artificially inflated by years of pricing below market equilibrium and below the cost of building and owning roads, somehow needs to be satisfied by attempting to build our way out of congestion.”

    – Seriously? My comment said the exact opposite – “There is simply no way though to meet this demand in a dense area like Boston.”

    – I question whether you have a genuine interest in this topic.

  • Ray

    Nice to finally see a group of people that understand what it will take to have a efficient road network. The road network is already built, so there’s no point to try to move people onto a different system, it’s better is make the most efficient use of the system we already have. Capping the numbers of vehicles is key an efficiently operating road network. Once vehicle numbers are capped and congestion removed, only then will mass transit be cost/time competitive with a private automobile. And the current form of large bused-based mass transit should shift to more flexible private van and shuttle-based services that will meet the comfort/time/price needs of their patrons.

  • If you can prove your claim that demand for roads in Boston cannot be satisfied—that demand is perfectly inelastic–then you will have made a truly revolutionary breakthrough in the field of economics, because conventional wisdom is that perfect price inelasticity of demand does not exist in the real world, not even for food or water.

    So I remain skeptical that, despite the evidence I have already presented, an equilibrium between supply and demand for roads cannot be reached.

  • Ray

    Only when the public learns that unlimited underpriced access to the road network is destructive to the efficient operation of transport will we see some real changes. Road networks have always been built with a maximum vehicle capacity for efficiency movement. Until we create a real policy to cap the number of vehicles in operation, any form of road-based mass transit will be at a huge disadvantage.

  • 1980Gardener

    “If you can prove your claim that demand for roads in Boston cannot be satisfied—that demand is perfectly inelastic–then you will have made a truly revolutionary breakthrough in the field of economics, because conventional wisdom is that perfect price inelasticity of demand does not exist in the real world, not even for food or water.”

    – Those are two different concepts which you are confusing. Let me help.

    – First, my opinion is that the demand for roads in Boston cannot be satisified – there is simply not enough space to build the roads necessary to car the number of cars people want to drive. That cannot be proven, obviously, because it is an opinion about an event that has not yet occurred (meaning, an attempt to build enough roads to satisfy demand).

    – Second, that does not mean that demand for roads in is inelastic. Rather, it only means that the supply cannot satisfy the demand.

    – Third, “inelastic” demand speaks to the idea that demand is independent of cost (separate from desire). When the cost of driving is increased, that will decrease the demand for driving. Decreasing the demand through cost pressure is NOT the same thing as meeting demand through increasing supply – they are entirely separate concepts. Does that make sense?

    “So I remain skeptical that, despite the evidence I have already presented, an equilibrium between supply and demand for roads cannot be reached.”

    – Again, you are confusing and mixing up economic terms and theories. I hope the above clears things up for you.

  • “that does not mean that demand for roads in is inelastic. Rather, it only means that the supply cannot satisfy the demand.”

    That is self-contradictory. Would I be correct in guessing that you have never successfully completed a college level economics course?

  • 1980Gardener

    “That is self-contradictory.”

    – No, it’s not. I’m trying to help you understand, but you are getting some of the fundamentals mixed up. Please see the above explanation for help.

    “Would I be correct in guessing that you have never successfully completed a college level economics course?”

    – No, that would be an incorrect guess.

    – Do you have anything substantive to offer on this topic? My respect for your views diminished when you responded with the childish “weep” comment (especially since you were incorrect…) and now you are digging yourself a deeper hold with your insults.

    – If you have any substantive, meaningful response to my comment, then please share. Otherwise, troll elsewhere.

  • I’m sorry for offending you when I wrote “read it and weep.”

    Yes, I disagree with your “contention that Boston cannot build enough roads to satisfy demand for driving.” But if you were to replace “demand” with “wants” or “desires” then I would agree. (Boston cannot build enough roads to satisfy everyone’s desire to drive.)

  • 1980Gardener

    “I’m sorry for offending you when I wrote “read it and weep.””

    – That’s fine. wasn’t at all offensive, just a little childish.

    “Yes, I disagree with your “contention that Boston cannot build enough roads to satisfy demand for driving. But if you were to replace “demand” with “wants” or “desires” then I would agree. (Boston cannot build enough roads to satisfy everyone’s desire to drive.)”

    – Good. then we are on the same page then (as should be obvious given my use of “insatiable appetite” and “public’s desire”). But again, and not to belabor the point, but you shouldn’t equate satisfying demand through increased supply with meeting available supply by lowering demand. Two different concepts – I appreciate that the distinction can be confusing. I hope this helps.

  • “you shouldn’t equate satisfying demand through increased supply with meeting available supply by lowering demand.”

    Indeed, satisfying demand through increased supply is futile and expensive (for taxpayers), while meeting available supply by lowering demand is quick, cheap, and permanent.

  • 1980Gardener

    Great – I think you now understand the distinction. I’m glad I was able to help you out. take care.

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  • Claude

    If poor people with a monthly pass are willing to walk away from a free ride to pay Uber $20 we need to seriously ask what the city transit department is doing wrong.
    Houston did well for itself by changing most the bus routes to a grid pattern, so most destinations can be reached with only one or two transfers and a minimum of doubling back.

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