Although rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft were initially hailed as a way to reduce road congestion, that notion’s been thoroughly debunked in the past few years. However, a new MIT study found that not only do rideshares increase congestion, but they also made traffic jams longer, led to a significant decline in people taking public transit, and haven’t really impacted car ownership.
The study, titled “Impacts of transportation networks on urban mobility”, was a joint effort conducted by researchers from Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), MIT, and Tongji University. It looks at monthly congestion data from metropolitan areas in the U.S. that had Uber and/or Lyft since 2016, as well as regular public transit ridership reports. Uber accounts for about 69% of the rideshare market, while Lyft accounts for 29%.
For road congestion, the study found that in 44 cities with relevant data, rideshares resulted in a 0.9% increase in traffic, and that congestion duration increased by 4.5%. Of the 174 cities with regular public transit data, rideshares led to an average 8.9% decrease in ridership. According to the researchers, the “magnitude of this effect” was most dramatic in the first three years after a rideshare company entered a market, before evening out. If a second rideshare company began offering services, the study found that public transit ridership decreased by an additional 2.1 percentage points. Meanwhile, while it would seem intuitive that city dwellers might give up their cars thanks to rideshares, the study found only 1% of the top ten transit cities did so.
The researchers found that easy access to rideshares actually discourages commuters from walking, public transit, or cycling. Roughly half of the ridesharing trips basically replaced those that would’ve been taken via greener alternatives, or not at all. As for the increase in congestion, the researchers say that a contributing factor may be that 40.8% of rideshare miles are “deadheading”—or miles in which a driver has no passengers.
“While public transportation provides high-efficiency shared services, it can only accommodate a small portion of commuters, as their coverage is limited in most places,” Jinhua Zhao, an associate professor at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning, said in a press release. “While mathematical models in prior studies showed that the potential benefit of on-demand shared mobility could be tremendous, our study suggests that translating this potential into actual gains is much more complicated in the real world.”
To be fair, while Uber and Lyft have gotten a lot of flack for exploiting drivers out of fair working conditions and pay, rideshares themselves are not, necessarily, inherently evil. They do provide additional options for people in areas underserved by public transit, or those with disabilities.
Or, put simply, instead of solving transport issues in the U.S., rideshares have only complicated them further. Cool. That said, it’s not as if big cities weren’t already aware of some of these issues. New York City famously capped the number of rideshare cars available on the roads in 2019 in a bid to reduce congestion. Likewise, California is mulling requiring both Uber and Lyft to go electric by 2030 to reduce emissions.