Shaping ride-hailing for a better transportation system, Part 1: How does ride-hailing relate to our goals for the transportation system?

This is the first of a two-part series. The second, describing a menu for local policy, is here.

Regulation of Uber and Lyft has often obsessed about a narrow set of issues, such as background checks, employment status, and competition with taxi companies. These issues matter, but it’s worth re-focusing on the impact of ride-hailing on the transportation system as a whole.

In this piece, the first of a two related posts, I’ll lay out some goals we might have for a transportation system. This work has happened many times before, but I’ll focus on criteria that will set us up to assess the value of ride-hailing – and ultimately to design the best possible role for it.

First, our goals

Before we consider how to shape ride-hailing services to improve our communities, we have to specify a few distinct goals for a transportation system. I won’t review the vast literature of performance metrics for transportation – though you could look here or here or here. Instead, it’s worth listing a few general metrics or attributes of a local transportation system. They’ll overlap at the edges, but the goals are mostly distinct, and stating them clearly can advance our thinking about how ride-hailing fits in.

Goal #1: Efficiency

Naturally, we want our local transportation system to be efficient. We want it to be fast, and we don’t want congestion. We want a lot of bang for our buck – both private and public expenditures. And we want it to be easy and convenient. There are many measures of efficiency, but the general idea is straightforward.

Another way of considering efficiency is to assess transportation’s role in economic efficiency more broadly. How quickly, cheaply, and easily can people get to work, thereby supporting the labor market? How well do we move freight? How well can people reach destinations that provide goods and services – and increasingly, how well do the goods and services reach people where they are? Those are all facets of transportation’s efficiency in support of the entire economy.

Goal #2: Equity

Transportation should also be equitable, meaning that it should serve everyone, and in particular it should watch out for the most socially and economically disadvantaged users. Low-income households often spend a lot of time and a large share of their income meeting their transportation needs. At its most dire, a poorly functioning transportation system is a barrier to full participation in society.

This goal is tricky because sometimes it feels at odds with efficiency; for example, the central trade-off for a public transit system is between productivity (prioritizing routes with high ridership) vs. coverage (serving as much of a population as possible). In other words, do we go for the high-bang-for-the-buck routes or try to serve everyone? Despite this trickiness, equity remains a primary criterion by which to judge transportation outcomes.

Goal #3: Environment (here: greenhouse gas emissions)

Transportation has many environmental impacts. I’ll focus here on greenhouse gases (i.e., GHGs, or carbon dioxide and certain other gases, or “carbon emissions”), but I cover local air pollution under Health below. GHGs are a reasonable focus because transportation now accounts for 14% of human-caused GHG emissions globally and 28% in the United States, mainly from moving people. And that’s just direct emissions – transportation also involves more GHG-emitting activities in its supply chains, and in the construction and maintenance of infrastructure.

Ride-hailing generally involves cars, and cars generally burn gasoline or diesel (at least for now), so ride-hailing generates greenhouse gas emissions. But to what extent? Ultimately, we won’t have simple answers, but we will lean on what we know of direct and indirect effects to consider the possible outcomes shortly.

Goal #4:  Health

We don’t usually think about health as a goal for the transportation system, but we should. Transportation is a major source of local air pollution for thousands of cities worldwide, and air pollution kills millions of people each year, with the worst urban air pollution overwhelmingly in the developing world.

In more affluent countries, people are more likely to die from lifestyle-related diseases, often complicated by obesity and inactivity. Developed-world transportation systems – characterized largely by the act of sitting in a car – are therefore unhealthy. Indeed, the term active transportation has emerged as the moniker for walking, biking, and transit in part because that name captures part of the benefit.

Goal #5: Safety

Keeping people alive and unharmed has long been a goal for transportation systems everywhere, albeit to varying degrees and with widely varying outcomes. Over recent decades, an international movement has emerged, first internationally and now vibrantly in the U.S. as well, under the banner of Vision Zero, the name signifying the goal of reducing the number of deaths and major injuries in the transportation system to zero.

So how does ride-hailing stack up?

Let’s examine ride-hailing through these five lenses and see how it does.

How efficient is ride-hailing? It is certainly convenient and easy, at least where there are many drivers. Since ride-hailing draws drivers easily to the platform, it can do a well of inducing supply whenever and wherever there is demand.

However, other measures of efficiency – for the transportation system as whole – may not fare so well. There’s compelling early evidence that ride-hailing vehicles en masse contribute to congestion, and not just in New York City, the poster child for transportation chaos compounded by ride-hailing.

Also, on a mile-by-mile basis, it’s expensive – not necessarily more than a taxi, but then taxis are too pricey for regular use by most people. That question of its relevance to “most people” leads straight to the topic of equity.

How equitable is ride-hailing? Again, it’s a mixed bag. On the one hand, Lyft and Uber provide theoretical access to everyone. But at $10-15 for a single typical ride (and not a lot less for shared rides with Uber Pool or Lyft Line), ride-hailing is not a viable solution for everyday transportation for most people. Affluent people? Absolutely. Once in a while, in a pinch? Sure. A group of college students returning to a dorm on a Saturday night? Definitely. An elderly person who can no longer drive? Yes. But those examples do not cover everyone (especially not low-income folks), nor do they work for regular use in a wide range of circumstances. (Jarrett Walker’s reminder about the dangers of elite projection is helpful here.)

To be fair, this is less about ride-hailing than it is about the car. Car-reliant low-income households often spend 20% of their incomes or more on transportation. But as long as ride-hailing is based on cars (especially cars that require drivers), it will likely have this challenge with economic equity.

Is ride-hailing better for the environment? This one is tricky as well; before considering the upside, let’s be blunt about the downside. Ride-hailing is based on cars – typically low-occupancy cars, most often with just a single passenger – and that is the most energy-, infrastructure-, and carbon-intensive method of ground transportation. We’re gradually making cars better through efficiency, electrification, and a greener grid, but you simple can’t move a three-thousand-pound hunk of metal and glass without some serious impacts. And when those impacts are attributed to a single passenger, the comparison with other modes is pretty ugly.

Unfortunately, beyond that general idea, there’s no easy precise answer for ride-hailing’s carbon footprint relative to other modes involving the car. Ride-hailing could diverge from the average GHG intensity of car transportation in a variety of ways. The cars used for ride-hailing could be low-emission, high-efficiency vehicles – or not. The path of a ride-hailing car, through multiple rides, could result in fewer total miles than the equivalent rides in individually owned cars – or not (though dead-heading is a problem). If people share their Lyft and Uber rides, that lowers emissions relative to single-occupancy rides, and perhaps overall.

There are also indirect effects: wherever ride-hailing adds to congestion, it decreases the efficiency of the entire car fleet at that moment. (Conversely, this is the benefit of transit at peak times – again, Jarrett Walker has a good geometry lesson for us there.)

However, there is a scenario where ride-hailing is part of a broader urban mobility ecosystem that performs better environmentally. It’s possible that, if a person knows she can draw on ride-hailing, she may select walking, biking, car-sharing, scooters, and transit for many more trips. In other words, it isn’t about ride-hailing itself, but rather the way that ride-hailing complements other modes. We’re aren’t yet sure if this is true or how best to make it happen, but there’s preliminary evidence in San Francisco from Uber’s bikeshare acquisition, and other research on “super-sharers” who use a wide variety shared-use modes with lower environmental impact.

Given this obvious downside and the mostly-still-speculative upside, it’s hard to give ride-hailing a good environmental grade – yet. But let’s stay tuned, and (in Part 2) explore how best to make this bigger better vision come to be.

What about health? With local air pollution, the direct effect of ride-hailing vehicles will be the same as with congestion and greenhouse gas emissions, i.e., the

But again, it’s worth asking whether the presence of ride-hailing as an option changes the way people make transportation mode decisions. It’s possible that, with Lyft or Uber in one direction, or even just as a back-up option, you might choose more transit, more walking, or more biking. In that case, ride-hailing could play a role in delivering a healthier transportation system by making it easier and more convenient for us to get off our butts. More on that below.

What about safety? Lyft and Uber still use human drivers, so the most interesting prospect here – autonomous vehicles that promise huge safety improvements – hasn’t yet arrived. Automation probably won’t arrive for a while, but when it does, ride-hailing could be the gateway to AVs for many people.

Ride-hailing companies currently promote the reduction of drunk driving as a result of their services. The evidence there, while encouraging, is still quite mixed, suggesting some benefit in some circumstances. As that study makes clear, it’s a difficult question to answer, but we should keep asking it with more data and better analysis: drunk driving still claims over 10,000 lives annually in the United States, so if ride-hailing can save some of those lives, let’s figure out how best to make that happen.

If you’re keeping score, the summary for ride-hailing looks something like this:

  • Efficiency: currently not great, but lots of potential for improvement
  • Equity: not so helpful, but it could be a part of something better
  • Environment: poor performance right now, but with some promise
  • Health: no different from the car right now, but the possibility of big gains
  • Safety: maybe a little better right now, but more promise in the future

In short, ride-hailing doesn’t necessarily deliver widespread benefits across these categories. But it could, in the right circumstances, be a part of something bigger and better. That will take some vision.

The big promise: Ride-hailing in the new mobility ecosystem

Perhaps the best way to assess ride-hailing’s promise is to describe the multimodal urbanist vision more fully, and to clarify ride-hailing’s role within the vision.

As I’ve suggested, there’s a multiple-win transportation future that knits these pieces together to deliver better transportation outcomes and better lives. We could walk and bike more, enjoy better transit, be healthier, save money, and have a lower carbon footprint. Sure, lots of us will still drive, but most of us will probably do it a lot less, and be pretty happy about spending less money on and time in our cars.

This is partly about simply having these different modes present, and about having them work well, and therefore partly about enabling technologies. Beyond the vehicles and apps themselves, it’s profoundly about having the right infrastructure, so this is really a story of cities, and how we reinvent them to be safer, healthier, more efficient, and better for the planet. It looks like all of the ingredients are there, just daring us to get out the mixing bowl and make it happen.

To be clear, this vision isn’t just my idea. It’s everywhere, including at Uber and Lyft – and thank goodness. Andrew Saltzberg, head of Transportation Policy and Research for Uber, recently articulated both this broader vision and Uber’s role within it. John Zimmer, founder and president of Lyft, has stated bluntly his belief that personal car ownership will largely end – to immense economic and social benefit – and he wants his company to be a central part of the post-car world.

That transportation nirvana appears highly unlikely to emerge without some nudges and guardrails from policy, as well as some public-private partnerships. We take that up in part two.


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