Study: Uber and Lyft Caused U.S. Transit Decline

Photo:  Khol Vinh
Photo: Khol Vinh

Uber and Lyft are still crushing transit across the U.S, according to new study examining the effects in 22 cities.

When Uber and Lyft enter a city, the app-based taxis decrease rail ridership by 1.29 percent per year and decrease bus ridership by 1.7 percent, the study by three University of Kentucky researchers found [PDF].

Worse, the effect is cumulative. Authors Michael Graehler, Richard Mucci and Gregory Erhardt estimate that Uber and Lyft for example, have reduced bus ridership in San Francisco a staggering 12.7 percent since they entered the market in 2010.

This isn’t the first study to make such findings, but it is one of the broadest, helping to explain why transit ridership has declined in almost every U.S. city over recent years. These declines could not be explained by service reductions or by maintenance issues — although those have been an issue in Washington and New York City.

Increased service could counter the trend, but it would not be enough to make up for the damage. Graehler and his co-authors estimated that San Francisco would have to increase bus service by 25 percent to offset the effects of Uber and Lyft in depressing ridership.

The study comes as transit agencies like L.A. Metro are grappling with unexplained ridership drops. The system’s ridership declined 3.4 percent last year, despite major investments in the rail network.

But the declines have occurred in almost every major city — save Seattle — and they track closely with the rise of Uber and Lyft. In New York City, Graehler points out, daily Uber and Lyft trips grew from 60,000 to 600,000 from 2015 to 2018. That’s almost identical to the decline in daily transit boardings in New York: 580,000.

“This makes sense because [Uber/Lyft] trips are short and concentrated in city centers, which are the exact same places bus ridership is highest,” Erhardt told Streetsblog. “What appears to happen is that travelers divert from transit to [taxis], increasing congestion for everyone, including the buses.”

The study also found bike share has an effect on transit ridership — although the relationship was a little more complex. The study found bike share increased rail ridership, but decreased bus ridership by 1.7 percent.

The study did find that Uber and Lyft increased ridership slightly on one kind of transit: Commuter rail, but the effect was insignificant.

“Our results suggest that the recent decline in transit ridership in major U.S. cities cannot be attributed to transit service cuts alone,” said Erhardt. “The ridership decline is steepest from 2015 onwards, and correlates with the introduction of Uber into a market.”

Transit agencies may not have the resources to increase service at the scale needed to offset the effects of Uber and Lyft. On average they would need a 20-percent service increase, Erhardt said.

“A more effective approach may be to think beyond the bounds of transit agencies to consider policies such as congestion pricing, or a broader re-thinking of how right-of-way is allocated in the urban streetscape between cars, transit, bicycles, pedestrians and other uses,” he said.

124 thoughts on Study: Uber and Lyft Caused U.S. Transit Decline

  1. The only reason people use Uber of Lyft is because public transportation doesn’t work. Who in their right mind wants to pay $30 when you could get there for $2.50. This is really a good example of fake news

  2. In SF, Muni is losing riders in their traditional way–lots of missed runs. The bus that never comes can’t carry riders.

  3. What kinda half baked anecdote are you trying to pull out of your butt here? A $2.50 ride share only exists at promotional rates for extremely short rides, and a single transit ride rarely approaches $30 for commuter rail over dozens of miles. Maybe if you’re comparing a group ride split to multiple tickets, but that’s not even a valid comparison

  4. @david vartanoff – I wonder how many of those missed runs are due to the combination of delayed by downtown UberLyft traffic congestion and the voter’s mandate for schedule adherence (which means switchbacks).

  5. Or in the case of the MBTA $7 rail and $2.50 subway vs $45 Uber. Uber is always significantly higher than mass transit. Nobody would ride Uber Lyft If public transportation ran properly

  6. Agreed with AL M transit agencies are awful at charging customers their willingness to pay. It makes no sense charging people $2.50 for a 2 mile ride on a jam packed bus and $2.50 for a 10 mile ride on a bus with three passengers. People are willing to pay a lot of money (look at what they are paying Uber and Lyft) for better service.

    Seattle is successful because they asked tax payers if they want better transit and they said yes, and here is $65 billion to do it (SDOT MOVE Seattle and Sound Transit 3 tax levies). LA experienced the same thing when they asked for $100+ billion.

    Instead of getting angry with tax payers for choosing ride-share over transit how about just asking them to pay for the transit they want? Transit agencies may be surprised how many voters say YES!

  7. Also, Uber and Lyft have been bleeding billions of dollars, so the fares they are charging now aren’t a sustainable business model.

  8. I feel the author is really confusing objectives with effects here.

    Does transit exist to increase its own ridership? Should transit agencies simply maximize ridership?

    No, transit exists to improve mobility in a city. IF transit service has improved, then even if its ridership has declined, that’s still good for the people in the city; ignoring costs, they’re now better off. And even more so for now having an additional mobility option in Uber/Lyft.

    Now, yes, I agree that congestion is bad, and that building a city for everyone to get around by car is supremely stupid, and that we’d all be better off if we better priced private vehicle use of our roads and gave 10-100x more space to bicycle and transit rights-of-way; but conflating “ridership” with “value” is wrong.

  9. I’m the only one in my family who doesn’t use Uber/Lyft.

    For those who can afford it, the difference in time is massive compared with two bus rides including a transfer. So they use it some of the time. It’s on a credit card, so they don’t have to see how much they are spending until later.

    Consider this example from my wife. She’s at 5th Avenue and 9th Street in Brooklyn. Before, she would just wait for the bus. Now, she often uses Citibike in one direction or another.

    Otherwise, she can check Bus Time. If the bus is coming soon, she uses the bus. If the bus is 20 minutes away, then it’s a 20 minute wait, $2.75, and a two block walk on the other end. Or a five minute wait and an $8 ride right to our door.

    I’m enough of a cheapskate to save the $5.25 on principle. But to say I’m an outlier in our society is an understatement.

    Of course the risk is the bus goes away, and the Uber ride becomes $16. But the reality is that bus ride probably costs the same $8 as Uber right now, absent a subsidy.

  10. American cities have only cut, cut, and cut again the transit service they’ve provided for decades now. But, sure, blame rideshare.

  11. Transit quality and change in transit quality are two different metrics. The taxi services are increasing their mode share at the cost of transit rides because transit in this country sucks as the starting point. Transit is first a jobs program (NYC), second a transit service of last resort (every other American City).

    Decreasing service quality from a shit baseline just means the shit is getting worse.

  12. You missed what he meant. Who would pay $30 for Uber when you could have a decent transit ride for $2.50? It must be the transit ride is not decent.

  13. Here’s the problem. In NYC we were asked if we wanted better schools and were willing to pay for it, and we said yes and jacked up property taxes 18 percent.

    Then they pushed through a retroactive pension increases for those cashing in and moving out, and we got nothing.

    People suspect the same is true of the MTA, after one revenue increase after another. Unfortunately, all that money has been sucked into the past too, leaving none for the present.

    We’re the worst, but this sort of thing has happened across the country. No one is in a position to offer more for more. It’s more for less. The entire public sector is being discredited as a result of past self-dealing by Generation Greed.

    I doubt Uber and Lyft have retirement benefits at 60 percent of cash pay, plus massive debt service for past maintenance.

    The only way out, as far as I can tell, is a separate “Generation Greed surcharge” so people don’t associate these payments with the cost of actual public services.

  14. In NYC mass transit is not a jobs program. It is frankly the life blood of the city. It made NYC(along with the elevator). The growth of the outer boroughs was along the subway lines. It still is.
    Rideshare isn’t the cause in NYC. Car traffic hardly moves during rush hour. The best and normally the fastest way to get around Manhattan is on the subway. Ridership had increased until the last couple of years,
    Mass transit is the last resort in most other cities because its not convenient and has not kept up with demand the times.

    Taxis have always been a supplement to mass transit. They really were in DC where they were kept artificially cheap for years.

    There hasn’t been growth in the mass transit systems in NYC in 60 years except for two in Manhattan. No wonder the outer boros(yes shorthand) use UBer and local car services. which should be part of mass transit too.

  15. How on Earth can you claim that a transit system that carries more than 7.5 million riders a day is s “jobs program”? You might have had a good point in there somewhere, but saying clearly asinine things doesn’t help your case.

  16. As an example. The current fare hikes under consideration in NYC could have been completely avoided, with no detriment to service, if the board elected to lay off the subway conductors. Hell across Transit, MNRR, LIRR the MTA spends approximately ~1 Billion per year on highly visible make work jobs (conductors).

    That is before you get into work rule reform on the capital construction and operation sides (looking at LIRR) that no politicians will touch because it affects jobs.

  17. Claiming there is some unnecessary spending on unnecessary jobs isn’t the same as saying it’s “first a jobs program”, which is the stupid thing you actually said.

  18. That goes to a separate point. Are strategic decisions at the agency being made for the benefit of the riders or for the benefit of its direct and indirect labor. Since the 2014 round of contract negotiations between Cuomo and the MTA unions I argue that decisions are made with labor in mind first, customers second.

  19. I believe the stats and it saddens me but at the end of the day this is a challenge for transit to improve, not to rant about uber. SF Muni for example is mostly Terrible! It has always been 2-3x faster to bike and in some extreme cases it is faster to walk. Munis problems are largely not financial they are bad design and bad management. Too many stops, lack of curb bulbs etc. also from the finance side, it should not costs millions of dollars to adjust a bus line and move a few stops. It’s bureaucracy gone mad and that is what is killing transit!

  20. Transit planners seek to maximize benefit at the system level. The problem is that doing so imposes large personal costs on riders. The benefits riders receive from transit are diffuse, indirect, and hard to perceive. The costs they suffer are concentrated, direct and easily viewable. Riders seek to minimize that personal cost function. That’s why they will always prefer more personalized forms of transport – car or Uber. It represents a much better personal decision. Transit planners are trying to get riders to choose against their own best interests for the benefit of the transit system. Riders will not voluntarily waste hours each week just to make the transit system more viable. Hence the obvious focus by transit planners on coercing people into doing as they are told.

    Coercion ultimately will not work. People will move away from it and business will follow. Transit must instead compete in terms of price, convenience and environment. That’s what people value in a personal car. You can’t conform the prospective rider to the transit system. You must conform the transit system to the prospective rider. I admit that may not be feasible. But it is what must be done for transit to succeed.

  21. You’re doing the same thing again and it really undermines your point. Making broad-brush asinine claims when you could have made accurate, true ones. You could have easily just claimed that union work rules are too rigid and don’t allow the MTA to make necessary fiscally-wise and rider-friendly changes. You should really look at how you approach making claims, because hyperbole really doesn’t do you any favors.

  22. The challenge for cities should be to design a transportation system that works best for the public at large. That doesn’t necessarily mean putting people back on transit. Crowded trains and buses are bad for quality of life. So are city streets congested with cars and SUVs, no matter what individuals might prefer.

    Healthier and lower-impact ways of getting around like walking, bicycling, and even scooters would be better for all of us and could replace many short trips on transit and in taxis in city centers if only the streets were designed to facilitate them.

  23. They’re sustaining a loss in order to gain market share before the switch to autonomous vehicles, which was always their long-term goal. When they no longer have to pay a driver, they’ll be in the black. However, they needed to gain enough market share beforehand to make it worth their while to develop autonomous vehicles.

  24. You may avoid Uber because you’re a cheapskate on principal, but a fair number of people in this city can’t afford to pay $8 regularly. What Uber is doing is siphoning off transit riders who might be able/willing to pay higher fares if mass transit improved enough, leaving the MTA only with a captive audience for whom even $2.75 is a big hit. That doesn’t bode well for the future.

  25. Nonsense. I hate traveling by cars and avoid it at all costs. The noise, fumes, bumping around, constant speed changes are all things which make me nauseous in short order. I much prefer to travel to train, even if it’s slower.

  26. yes, I should have said “most” people. Sorry to hear though that you have such a bad experience with cars.

  27. With the varying state of crisis that so many US transit agencies are in…I’m still not convinced we’d be seeing this if our transit systems weren’t all so busted.

    Look at how the NYC subway is frequently melting down, for example. Does anyone REALLY think New Yorkers would be volunteering to pay extra to sit in traffic if the subway were more reliable?

  28. How can it do that when it’s underfunded and the alternative is heavily subsidized? Cars are better in a lot of situations simply because we spend a lot more money on them in aggregate than we do on transit. If transit was funded to the extent private autos were, it would invariably be faster, and nearly as comprehensive. You might not get “door-to-door” travel with transit, but most people will trade a trip which is significantly shorter overall for walking a few blocks at either end. And auto trips aren’t without walking, either. When you park in some of these massive parking lots (or find a curbside parking spot), you often have to walk the equivalent of a few blocks to your final destination anyway.

  29. If only politicians listened to people, these systems wouldn’t be in a state of crisis. For at least a decade, possibly two, people have been screaming at the top of their lungs that they want alternatives to the private auto. What has been the response? It’s been mostly to continue to fund massive road projects while giving a few crumbs to transit. If we did what people wanted, the NYC subway would have been kept in good repair. There also would be ongoing expansion projects to get subway service to the parts of Queens and Brooklyn which current down have it. There would also be a subway link to Staten Island. Indeed, these things were in the drawing boards a century ago, but never got built. A lot of politicians still think it’s the 1950s and want people to be forced to buy automobiles.

  30. What really boggles my mind is that these drivers only hurdle to become a driver are that they have a license, insurance, a X year old car or newer, and no criminal record. How about they have to have advanced driving certifications? And how about limiting the number of them in a given area.

  31. Insufficient hired staff + higher absenteeism. I am talking about buses that never left the barn, not just delayed enroute. Lest you think Muni is an outlier, AC Transit’s BOD mtg today will consider a relatively minor official service degradation to match schedules to actually available drivers. Honest but sad.

  32. Trump sure thinks it’s the 1950s. This is a real issue when many in Congress are white multimillionaires in their seventies.

  33. This seems like good news as buses are currently overcrowded. Reducing congestion on buses is a positive development. Also, increasing rail transit over bus transit is certainly a positive development. The benefits of ride-sharing are quite dramatic; they may reduce bus overcrowding, but they also dramatically reduce driving alone in personal cars and car ownership. Thank you Uber!

  34. Ride-sharing and other types of carpooling are unquestionably a good development for our society. Why drive alone when you can carry a passenger or ride with another driver via Uber?

  35. One person’s ‘crowding’ is another’s efficient bus. Having 1 or 2 people in a TNC will further delay buses, exacerbating the problem. The solution to crowded buses is more buses, not cars. Rail costs more to operate as well, so if the cost per passenger goes up, especially if comparable travel times with a bus, that is bad.

  36. True. Also, ride-sharing reducing overcrowding on buses and congestion on bus routes is a good thing. Also, the study points our that ride-sharing has increased train usage (in addition to reducing driving alone everywhere), another huge benefit of ride-sharing.

  37. Speaking as a San Franciscan, many folks avoid buses because they are too crowded, often rolling past stops due to being full or just being extremely uncomfortable. Buses also get stuck in traffic; trains will always be faster, greener, and more reliable.

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