Uber and Lyft Don’t Reduce Cars. Transit Does.

Photo: B137/Wikimedia Commons
Photo: B137/Wikimedia Commons

Uber and Lyft have long promised that their services would “free” people from private car ownership — but data show the opposite is happening.

Census statistics show that in the eight major cities where Uber and Lyft are most concentrated, total car ownership has risen in the last five years — a worrisome reversal of earlier trends, transportation consultant Bruce Schaller wrote this week in CityLab.

In many cities, there was an increase in car-free households and car-light households — households with fewer cars than workers — between 2012 and 2017. But those reductions were eclipsed by growth in “car-rich” households, as Schaller calls homes with more two or more vehicles.

vehicles are up copy
The number of private vehicles are up in cities where Uber and Lyft are operating.

“Increased car ownership in America’s most walkable and transit-oriented cities is a deeply worrisome reversal from what came before,” Schaller writes. “From mid-2000 to 2012, transit ridership increased while car ownership grew slowly, if at all. But now car ownership is expanding faster than population.”

Uber and Lyft have worked hard to promote themselves as green alternatives to automobile ownership. But data are making it increasingly clear these companies are adding cars to the roads in our most congested cities, and undermining transit.

The one city that did make progress in increasing the number of car-free and car-light households was Seattle, where such households increased 23 percent over the last five years. The city has also enjoyed a sizable increase in transit ridership over the last few years — which it has achieved by investing heavily in rail and by expanding bus service hours dramatically.

Seattle's goal is the bring frequent transit within a short walk of almost every home. Graphic: City of Seattle
Seattle’s goal is the bring frequent transit within a short walk of almost every home. Graphic: City of Seattle

But, concerningly, even in Seattle, vehicles grew faster than population, 14 versus 12 percent.

San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Chicago all had growth in car-free and car-light households. It stayed about the same in Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C.; and in Los Angeles, car-light and car-free households actually declined.

Of course it can’t all be blamed on Uber and Lyft. In the last five years, an economic recovery and low gas prices have encouraged more lower-income Americans to buy cars. But Uber and Lyft aren’t going to save us, Schaller says. In fact, the presence of these companies makes investing in alternatives all the more urgent, he says:

Amid the many modes that can help out, we need to focus above all on one particular way for people to share the ride. But it’s not some new form of “shared mobility.” It’s frequent, reliable, safe, and comfortable public transportation.

46 thoughts on Uber and Lyft Don’t Reduce Cars. Transit Does.

  1. Conflating issues is often a thing. Number of cars owned won’t go down just because Uber/Lyft shows up. It can and will likely happen over a decade though.

    So if an Uber driver has 25 trips in a day, that’s 25 fewer cars/trips but you’re saying they are adding to the number of cars on the road? That doesn’t pass the smell test. There may be more cars but that would have nothing to do with Uber. Presumably, there would be even more cars w/o Uber/Lyft.

  2. It’s amazing how years on, and people STILL can’t figure out it’s just a taxi with scab drivers and an app, not a phone number.

  3. Your smeller needs work.

    Drivers of for-hire vehicles spend large amounts of their time driving around waiting for fares. This means more driving overall, even if it results in fewer total cars on the road (i.e., in ownership).

  4. I live in a neighborhood about a 20 minute local bus ride outside my CBD. The old guard drive for 100% of their trips, unless their car is broken down. New residents are multi-modal using a combination of TNC, walking, bike, bus, & car. I guarantee you that my neighbors with their fleets of cars & trucks clock more miles, more trips, more time in traffic, than the car-lite newcomers, even including some inefficiency on the part of TNC drivers. It’s not a linear equation, there’s quite a bit of complexity.

  5. Your statement leads me to believe you’re unfamiliar with the game. Michael makes some very good points.

    The amount of dead miles has been greatly exaggerated. Both Aps ping the nearest driver; there’s no need to spend time driving around, in fact it’s inefficient. It’s easier to pull into a place and park which also allows for going potty and/or drinking/eating. It is possible that starting out a driver may head to areas of demand and likely pick up a rider wanting to go there.

  6. I think we’re getting to the point where we might need to track not just car ownership, but also number of trips by private car vs Lyft/Uber. I own a car, but it’s 12 years old because I drive it only on weekends. I certainly don’t help the stats, but I cut down on traffic by taking train to work. I don’t see how this study can capture that.

  7. I totally agree. I don’t personally own a car, but I have access to one. I very rarely drive in the city, but I do use the car to get out of the city on weekends.

  8. Thank you. Owning a car but not using it very much is 1000x better than not owning a car and using Uber/Lyft as your main form of transportation.

  9. The results of Uber & Lyft are a good example of “Be careful what you ask for, you might get it”. Those services provide convenient, on-call, private, door-to-door trips that almost always arrive faster than taxis and at lower costs. In areas with high-priced downtown parking, they may well be cheaper than driving your own car. So people are using them.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  10. In CBDs, parking is often sufficiently scarce and expensive to deter for-hire drivers from parking and waiting for fares.

  11. I think this has much more to do with gentrification and displacement of recent immigrants than TNCs. Rich people moving in that can afford cars are displacing those moving out which did not have cars. Rich people can afford to own cars with high parking costs and take TNCs more often because they can afford it.

    TNCs done right can make it easier to not own a car at all. I haven’t owned a car since 2004. I took Lyft for 578 miles last year. That is driving to work about 12 times. Those Lyft trips were mostly for bulky items, late night, and travel time sensitive trips. Many people think they need a car in the driveway for those reasons.

  12. When driver remains inside the vehicle, it’s technically “stopping”. So while you can’t “park” in front of a hydrant, you can “stop” in front of a hydrant.

  13. It’s way too soon to make any big conclusions. It’s self-evident that TNCs are supplanting a portion of bus/train share, so it intuitively makes sense that we’d see more cars & less transit. And obviously, the impact of that modal shift would be felt most acutely where transit is most robust.

    What we don’t have a great grasp on is 1) how many personal car trips are being replaced by shared rides & 2) how the existence of TNCs impacts overall mobility choices & our urbanism/development pattern.

    Overall, I feel this article only captures the experience in certain neighborhoods of top10-15 metros & tries to extrapolate that across the continent. However, outside of the top 10-15 metros, there’s no “policy wonks” or even “data.” So everything is observational. And my observations completely at odds with this article. I’m seeing areas that were super dead 10 years ago, now with continuous TNC arrival/departures. And I’m seeing an entire generation of the new middle class eschewing incessant car usage for more local lifestyles, leveraging the wide variety of transportation tools available to them.

  14. Cars do a lot of good for people, and people want to drive alone and fast. They allow super commuters to live in houses with more square footage and commute to work conveniently but slowly.

    One of the main problem with cars is that they are too wide. Imagine if all bicycles and motorcycles had side seats: they would slow everyone down and add to congestion.

    The best fix for traffic congestion is to transition from side-seated cars to highway-capable single-width cars that allow driving in narrow paths and parking in narrow parking spaces.

  15. ANGIE SCHMITT — The federal government is the cause of increased car ownership. First of all, the Obama administration took over General Motors for several years before selling its stake to new private owners. Taxpayers were forced to promote this otherwise moribund car company at great expense.

    Even today, the federal government runs the former GMAC Financing. There is no balance in supply and demand of auto loans. Government forces private competitors to offer interest rates as low as 0% and repayment periods as long as 8 years. The latter causes the resale value of the car to fall below the principal owed. The business concept of Time Value Of Money is trashed by 0% interest rates, but consumers who still have good jobs can’t get enough of it.

    Secondly, and more importantly, Fed “money printing” done to support government overspending also provides cheap credit for the as-low-as-0% loans. Furthermore, from late 2012 until early 2015, the Fed bought home mortgage securities and U.S. Treasury debt, which drove stock prices and home prices through the roof. This made owners of such assets rich, hence the surge in car buying.

    At the same time, lower income people have been beaten down by rising prices. Any smart shopper knows annual inflation hasn’t been 0.5% or 1.0% or 1.5% in the past 10 years, as government sources report. Over 10 years, it only had to have averaged 5% for the combined total to be around 50%!

    So, Angie, you want Americans to give up their cars? They shall, as the cost of car ownership becomes unaffordable. Transit?? Sure, if it doesn’t go bankrupt, too! Self-driving cars?? Rich elite, perhaps foreigners, shall ride in self-driving cars past legions of Americans on bicycles, electric scooters and even skateboards! This is the future of American transportation as long as nearly nobody RESPECTS THE VALUE OF MONEY.

  16. Going car free can be tough, as doing so greatly limits mobility. Going car light though can have huge benefits – still gain the mobility made available by having a car while greatly reducing your costs by shifting some of your transportation to transit.

  17. I’m old enough to remember the days when journalists would look at a chart like the one above — showing an even larger increase in per-capita household vehicle ownership in New York City versus Los Angeles (!!) — and at the very least question the veracity of the data, but I guess the kids working in the field today didn’t have the benefit of a j-school education, as I did.

    It took all of 10 minutes of research on the Census Bureau’s ACS website to figure out that Schaller’s numbers are not only false, but also state the opposite of reality: the percentage of vehicle-owning households in Boston and NYC has gone down over the past five years, not up. Why, praytell, would the author of the original article promote brazen falsehoods about it? Could it be because he runs a “consulting” company that appears to exclusively produce reports that are critical of Uber and Lyft? And that his “research” is funded by individuals and companies with the most to gain by painting ride-hailing in a negative light: namely the corporate owners of NYC taxi medallions?

    One might also point out the seemingly obvious truth that virtually nobody outside of the nation’s densest cities has the means to commute to and from work each day in their own private Uber. For the most part this phenomenon is limited to NYC, SF and Boston; everyone else uses public transit or – in the large majority of American cities where it remains woefully subpar, particularly in the southern U.S. – drives themselves to work.

  18. “Census statistics show that in the eight major cities where Uber and Lyft are most concentrated, total car ownership has risen in the last five years”

    Stopped reading here. This statistic is meaningless without looking at the counterfactual, or at least the second derivative (even that would be extremely lazy without trying to adjust for other confounders).

    If people want better traffic, maybe they should light a fire under the incompetent and corrupt transit agencies rather than blaming TNCs who have no power to unfuck American transit.

  19. It’s certainly true that driving lanes are too wide in areas where there is a lot of congestion in American cities.

    Smartcars are about five and a half feet wide. The Twizy is only 47 inches wide, just under four feet, and highly suited to operation in congested cites. Even SUVs are usually under six and a half feet, though some have as much as three and a half feet of mirrors.

    One way or another, it makes no sense to have lanes in congested areas that are wider than 10 feet. But 11 or 12 foot lanes are quite common.

    One reason for this is that highways have been built in urban areas. These roads attempt to move a lot of cars and move cars quickly in a single design, which is hopeless.

  20. If the trips were shifted from users not using cars in the first place (transit, biking, walking) or not making the trip at all, then it would add cars to the road.

  21. To be highly efficient, narrow cars and motorcycles need to be 39″ wide or skinnier in order to lane split and park with motorcycles.

    I’m one of the Americans who very much likes to squawk about congestion, but my hero is an American who was stuck in traffic, decided to build and skinny car, and he succeeded in building twelve prototypes. Here’s a video link about him and his car: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6hu-2oB_yWk&t=19s

  22. more to the point, transit’s the only thing that can skip traffic (regardless of the volume/density thereof): alongside, around, over, under

  23. “So if an Uber driver has 25 trips in a day, that’s 25 fewer cars/trips”

    No, not at all. At best, it’s the same amount of trips. An individual driving his/her car and an individual calling a taxi (conventional or Uber/Lyft) is the same amount of trips.

    In addition, since it’s not a choice between taxi or driving oneself but between those options as well as carpooling, walking, biking, or public transportation, the taxi ride may actually be increasing the amount of trips.

  24. @maddog49 – If you’re upset about bailing out car companies, wait until you hear about the staggering subsidy going into highways, and oil wars!

  25. @Jym Dyer – A good question, to which I don’t have the answer. I think some people believed that not having people drive their own cars into town would mean many more would take transit, but Uber & Lyft provide better alternatives for people that find door to door service valuable.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  26. We have a disagreement. Ofc we’re substituting 25 trips for 25 trips. But one vehicle is taking the place of (potentially) 25 separate cars and making enough money to pay the rent. I think it’s sad people can’t appreciate that for some this is a way to scratch out a living.

    Btw, both Uber and Lyft offer van/vehicle service for up to six people and those drivers do well. This is more likely among a business group, often hotel-based. People inclined to bike or bus wouldn’t bother with the expense of Uber/Lyft other than occasionally.

  27. Where’d that data come from; I’m skeptical. My understanding is most of it is estimated by those with an agenda? People who spend their day driving around looking for riders won’t last long.

    The app will ping or flash; you don’t have to stare at it. A quick tap sends you on your way with turn by turn instructions. Liberals can be as bad as conservatives when it comes to ‘making stuff up.’

  28. Couldn’t find anything searchable on this site. Maybe this? https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/transportation/uber-lyft-boosted-car-travel-by-94-million-miles-in-seattle-last-year-study-says/

    Bruce Schaller, an independent transportation consultant, took that figure and combined it with data and survey results from other cities to arrive at his Seattle estimate.

    So a surveys? Plus I would not agree with this as I’ve already stated:

    Uber and Lyft, Schaller’s study of nine major cities says, aren’t really causing people to drive less; they’re pulling passengers who otherwise would walk, take the bus or just stay home.

    He just making chit up, as in wishful thinking. You have a more interesting source?

  29. “Ofc we’re substituting 25 trips for 25 trips.”

    Here’s the first problem: you seem to be stuck in the mindset that cars are the only way to travel and that the only choices are driving oneself and taxing a taxi.

    Which leads to the second problem with your response:

    “But one vehicle is taking the place of (potentially) 25 separate cars”

    That’s only a partial truth. The Uber (or other taxi) ride could take the place of someone driving his/her own car. But it can also take the place of someone walking, biking, taking public transportation, or maybe not even making a particular trip. Plus, one vehicle can never take the place of 25 separate cars on any given trip (unless we’re talking about a large bus).

  30. We can agree to disagree.

    People inclined to bike or bus wouldn’t bother with the expense of Uber/Lyft other than occasionally.

  31. Where on earth did you get that?? You think exposing obvious cronyism in municipal transportation is indicative of someone working for Big Oil?! No, I do not work for the oil industry in any way, shape or form, nor have I ever. I also don’t work for Uber, Lyft, or any other company associated with the ridesharing business (that one I do occasionally get asked, as does every journalist covering them).

  32. I think the point made by this article is actually quite intuitive. Replacing 25 cars with 1 car doesn’t do anything good unless it happens at the same time.
    At any given snapshot in time (e.g., rush hour), the number of cars on the road will not reduce if people choose uber instead of driving their personal car, with increased mileage for the same trip (as the driver needs to get to the rider to pick up). It’s therefore really not less congestive or more green compared to personal cars as the number of trips or miles may not actually reduce. One great advantage of rideshare apps though, is the ability to take parking out of the equation.
    A second advantage is that the cost of a rideshare trip (for now, they can always raise prices) makes it accessible to people who previously did not own cars and were dependent on transit – this can potentially increase the number of cars on the road at any given time and reduce transit usage, further bankrupting transit systems. It is here that people need to be careful and decide if they are ok with becoming increasingly dependent on rideshare apps

  33. Driving a car increases how many cars are on the road. An uber puts two people in one car instead of two people driving separate cars. Whether you take the uber or not, that uber driver is still out on the road. I don’t think ride sharing is the answer to minimizing cars on the road.
    HOWEVER, if we can somehow manage to figure out expanding Ubers idea to Ride share with other random people and then get dropped off within walking distance of your destination, well then that’s a big move. If we can put 5 people in a car all commuting to work instead of 1. That is huge.
    How can we organize that? What if in your uber/lyft account you put in your general location and then your general destination location. Uber lets you connect with other people in your area and you all get picked up the same way a bus works. The ride is cheaper and you only have to walk a few blocks max.
    How do we keep cars off the road? stop driving them. I am a car-light owner. I take the train to work M-F. I walk two blocks to the grocery store every other day with my reusable bags to buy the food I need. I walk to the hardware store and to the park. When I want to get out of the city on the weekends I drive to my destination that would normally be more difficult with public transit as I often like to explore new places.

    I think a big solution to this problem is a shift in perception. I am an architect and am constantly pressed with these questions. Often time the failure of a public transit system is not because it was designed poorly, but because you have to many middle class commuters who think the public transit is unsafe and dirty. It only is that case because none of them are riding it. Take “The L” in Chicago for example. That train packs people into it every morning and everyone as a collective agrees that that is the best way to get into the city. Therefore, the city has to maintain the train, keep it clean, and keep it safe. However, if you look at the Metro Train in Los Angeles it is struggling (but growing in popularity finally). People there don’t use the train because they feel that it’s gross and unsafe which is not true. It’s also so much cheaper than parking downtown (unless your company pays for it, but what could all of that company money go to? A new coffee machine for you?)

    People are sacrificing saving money to be comfortable in their own car because they trust it, feel safer, feel cleaner, and are familiar with it. If we want change we have to shift societies perception. We can implement things all we want in the city… Everyone thinks things only change on massive scales, but if everyone tried to focus in on themselves to make a change, then there can be a world of a difference. Give it a try for yourself.

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