Is Ride Share the Cure?

In discussing how the future of transportation will function, and in particular the future regarding autonomous vehicles, rideshare (Uber and Lyft) is often touted as a way to improve mobility and reduce the number of cars on the road, meaning less traffic, parking and pollution.

But, rideshare hasn’t been upholding this promise. Recent research shows that the introduction of Uber and Lyft to cities has increased congestion and air pollution, the combined number of taxi, Uber, and Lyft vehicles in Manhattan has increased by 59% from 2013 to 2017. Notably important is the fact that rideshare is increasing VMT by creating rides – a study by U.C. Davis transportation researchers found that between 49-61% of trips either wouldn’t have happened or would have been accomplished by transit, bike, or on foot if rideshare hadn’t been an option.

Many think Uber and Lyft function the same way AV will be used, but simply have drivers.  Thus, the initial research on the impacts of Uber and Lyft are troubling. Both rideshare and self-driving cars promise to eliminate the need for parking, improve safety, possibly reduce the number of cars on the road, and ease environmental concerns. However, a substantial amount of rideshare vehicles are idle without passengers at any moment in time, in Manhattan the number of empty Ubers and Lyfts is approximately one-third of the rideshare fleet.  The convenience of rideshare has not yet discouraged car ownership or reduced vehicle miles traveled, and until the fleet is electric, air pollution and GHG remain an issue.

So the question remains, how can cities prevent autonomous vehicles from increasing sprawl, adding to congestion, or continuing to emit GHGs? A few ideas such as the following might work:

1) Policies such as charging a fee for “zombie cars” (AVs without passengers) to discourage AVs from driving without passengers;

2) Mandating that AVs be shared instead of private;

3) Limiting the number of AVs on the road by relying on sophisticated algorithms to optimize the number of cars on the road based on the number of passengers hailing rides; and

4) Transitioning rideshare users to the higher capacity of public transit through various economic incentives or penalties. These are some examples of policies that cities could enact to curb congestion caused by rideshare and AVs.

Jenna Whitney is a Master’s Candidate in Community and Regional Planning and an Urbanism Next Fellow at the University of Oregon.  She is examining how cities are planning for a multimodal future in the era of autonomous vehicles.

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