Piece by piece, the mythology around ridesharing is falling apart. Uber and Lyft promised ubiquitous self-driving cars as soon as this year. They promised an end to private car ownership. They promised to reduce congestion in the largest cities.
They promised consistently affordable rides. They promised to boost public transit use. They promised profitable business models. They promised a surfeit of well-paying jobs. Heck, they even promised flying cars.
Well, none of that has gone as promised (but more about that later). Now a new study is punching a hole in another of Uber and Lyft’s promised benefits: curtailing pollution.
The companies have long insisted their services are a boon to the environment in part because they reduce the need for short trips, can pool riders heading in roughly the same direction and cut unnecessary miles by, for instance, eliminating the need to look for street parking.
It turns out that Uber rides do spare the air from the high amount of pollutants emitted from starting up a cold vehicle when it is operating less efficiently, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University found. But that gain is wiped out by the need for drivers to circle around waiting for or fetching their next passenger, known as deadheading.
Deadheading, Lyft and Uber estimated in 2019, is equal to about 40 per cent of rideshare miles driven in six American cities. The researchers at Carnegie Mellon estimated that driving without a passenger leads to a roughly 20 percent overall increase in fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions compared to trips made by personal vehicles.
The researchers also found that switching from a private car to on-demand rides, like an Uber or Lyft, increased the external costs of a typical trip by 30 to 35 percent, or roughly 35 cents on average, because of the added congestion, collisions and noise from ridesharing services.
“This burden is not carried by the individual user, but rather impacts the surrounding community,” reads a summary of the research conducted by Jacob Ward, Jeremy Michalek and Constantine Samaras.
“Society as a whole currently shoulders these external costs in the form of increased mortality risks, damage to vehicles and infrastructure, climate impacts and increased traffic congestion.” But as Lyft would have it, “By using Lyft to share rides, passengers are helping to reduce the carbon footprint left by our country’s dominant mode of transportation — driving alone.” That’s what the friendly Uber alternative claimed way back in 2016.
So what about all those other pledges? They’ve proved to be just as illusory.
Take urban congestion. Uber and Lyft envisioned a future in which software algorithms would push each car to host three or more passengers, easing traffic and providing a complement to public transit options. Instead, passengers have largely eschewed pooled rides and public transit in favour of private trips, leading to downtown bottlenecks in cities like San Francisco.
The duration of traffic jams increased by nearly 5 percent in urban areas since Uber and Lyft moved in.