This post was originally published by Matt in July 2018

One of the promises of ridesharing applications like Uber and Lyft has been that they will help increase vehicle occupancy levels and reduce congestion. However, it seems like the opposite is happening and they are actually making traffic worse. This from the Boston Globe:

One promise of ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft was fewer cars clogging city streets. But studies suggest the opposite: that ride-hailing companies are pulling riders off buses, subways, bicycles and their own feet and putting them in cars instead.

And in what could be a new wrinkle, a service by Uber called Express Pool now is seen as directly competing with mass transit…

…And the impact of all those cars is becoming clear, said Christo Wilson, a professor of computer science at Boston’s Northeastern University, who has looked at Uber’s practice of surge pricing during heavy volume.

‘‘The emerging consensus is that ride-sharing [is] increasing congestion,’’ Wilson said.

One study included surveys of 944 ride-hailing users over four weeks in late 2017 in the Boston area. Nearly six in 10 said they would have used public transportation, walked, biked or skipped the trip if the ride-hailing apps weren’t available.

The report also found many riders aren’t using hailed rides to connect to a subway or bus line, but instead as a separate mode of transit, said Alison Felix, one of the report’s authors.

‘‘Ride sharing is pulling from and not complementing public transportation,’’ she said.

It’s not really surprising to see these results. After all, ridesharing applications are just another form of taxis, which have to travel a distance to pick you up, then transport you, and then reposition themselves for the next trip. While technically there’s more than one person in the car, potentially you might need many more vehicle kilometres for every actual kilometre the passenger needs to travel. In essence this is a vehicle occupancy rate of below 1.

And the Boston study is not alone:

A study released in December found that large increases in the number of taxis and ride-sharing vehicles are contributing to slow traffic in Manhattan’s central business district. It recommended policies to prevent further increases in ‘‘the number of vacant vehicles occupied only by drivers waiting for their next trip request.’’

In San Francisco, a study released in June found that on a typical weekday, ride-hailing drivers make more than 170,000 vehicle trips, about 12 times the number of taxi trips, and that the trips are concentrated in the densest and most congested parts of the city.

And a survey released in October of more than 4,000 adults in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle and Washington, D.C., also concluded that 49 to 61 percent of ride-hailing trips would have not been made at all — or instead by walking, biking or public transit — if the option didn’t exist.

Across most of the USA transit ridership is falling, with ridesharing often cited as one of the main reasons for this trend.


So far it seems that Auckland is avoiding this trend, with ridership continuing to grow. I do see more and more Uber vehicles driving around, so they must be having some impact on vehicle volumes and therefore congestion.

It makes me wonder whether a first step towards road pricing might be to have variable pricing for these types of trips, justified by the fact that they do require extra vehicle kilometres to shift each person. This type of pricing system may also encourage ridesharing to be focused in areas where traditional public transport struggled (e.g. low density outer urban areas) rather than in the more congested inner city where streetspace is at such a premium.

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  1. SOLUTION. Introduce a GPS tracked “kerb tax” for Uber vehicles. Each time the vehicle stops at a kerbside it gets dinged with a $5.00 kerb usage tax. This money is then wasted by giving it to the local Transport Agencies, to conduct more “innovation workshops” or to hire more consultants and junior social media advisors.

    1. Not bad, but then they have a penalty for doing the good thing, picking up and dropping passengers. Waiting in one spot for yonks or circling an area gets no hit.

      Penalize empty seat kilometers. That ups the price of single user rides and encourages the use of right-sized vehicles like a Smart-4-2 to get those consultants around town.

      Or, you know, ban private/hire motor vehicles from the city centre…

  2. SOLUTION. Put in place a “kerb tax” for Uber cars that is calculated using their location. A kerb usage fee of $5.00 will be assessed each time the vehicle is parked on a kerb. If given to local transportation agencies, it will likely be frittered away on pointless activities such as “innovation workshops,” senior consultant salaries, and junior social media advisor salaries.

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