Berkeley researchers will get unprecedented access to data from both companies and riders to analyze if on-demand ride services are climate friends or foes
Are on-demand ride services like Uber and Lyft good or bad for the environment? It’s an increasingly urgent question as the services proliferate, but the answer is currently unclear.
The companies have held their data close and are only now beginning to share, making it hard to assess critical questions like how people would have gotten to their destinations if Uber and Lyft did not exist.
A few researchers are making headway. A team at the University of California, Berkeley, is looking into the climate impacts of Uber and Lyft, with results due out in the fall. Unusually, the researchers will get access to data from both companies and, just as importantly, from their members (AKA riders).
Susan Shaheen, a Berkeley adjunct professor whose team is working on the project in partnership with the Natural Resources Defense Council, says: “With the companies, one of the most important things is to gain access to those members.”
Key questions for the Berkeley study include how long the trips are (as well as the time driving to pick up a passenger); whether the rider would otherwise have driven alone, taken public transportation or not have taken the trip at all; and the fuel efficiency of the vehicles involved.
The researchers will not look at congestion or at conventional air pollutants (such as nitrogen oxides or fine particles) generated by the vehicles. “There’s a lot of different angles that we could be studying here,” Shaheen says.
Everyone has an opinion on Uber and Lyft, but research results can be surprising. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration feared that Uber was worsening traffic congestion in New York. But a report released by the city this month found that on-demand ride services like Uber and Lyft “did not drive the recent increase in congestion” in parts of Manhattan. The displacement of taxis was an important effect of the services.
In terms of the environment, early research suggests that companies like Lyft and Uber may have a positive impact, according to Juan Matute, a transportation expert at the University of California, Los Angeles. That’s partly because people may take public transit more often if they are certain they can later use a ride service. For example, someone might take a commuter train to work rather than drive because they know they can get home even if they miss the last train.
Some people also use Uber and Lyft to get to or from public transportation. “In some cases 25% of trips in a region (or more) start or end near transit, including such places as New York City, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Philadelphia,” an Uber spokesperson said in an emailed comment.
However, some people take trips with Uber or Lyft when they might have stayed home, which is bad for the environment. In 2014, Shaheen and other Berkeley researchers found that 8% of 380 passengers surveyed in San Francisco used on-demand ride services to take trips they would not have taken otherwise. On the other hand, half of all ride-service trips in the survey carried more than one passenger – that’s a far higher rate than for taxis. (However, the 2014 Berkeley survey was carried out before carpooling services like UberPool and Lyft Line launched in San Francisco. Those services, which bring together strangers in a shared ride, may be the services’ most effective tool for cutting emissions.)
The environmental calculus could change in the future, according to Matute. Currently, he said, it’s more expensive to use Uber or Lyft than to drive one’s own car. If the ride services became dramatically cheaper – which could happen if the vehicles contained advertising or eventually became self-driving – trips with the ride companies would become even more popular than they otherwise would have been.
Right now, “it’s still very expensive for somebody to exclusively rely on these services in any market”, Matute said.
Another factor is the type of car used by Uber and Lyft drivers. Some people hypothesize that since Lyft and Uber require cars to be relatively new – with the oldest models being from 2004 or 2005 – they may be less polluting than the vehicles owned by the general population, since cars in the United States are more than 11 years old on average. (The owners of Uber and Lyft cars also have an incentive for fuel-efficiency, since they must pay for gas.)
The car companies, unsurprisingly, are bullish on their environmental impact. “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,” said Tommy Hayes, the transportation policy manager at Lyft, in an emailed statement. Lyft will also help accelerate the uptake of green technologies like electrification and vehicle automation, he said.
Uber emphasizes that it is helping to reduce the need for personal car ownership. “Uber helps use today’s existing infrastructure more efficiently at no extra cost by getting more butts into the backseats of fewer cars,” a company spokesperson says.
What is clear is that the on-demand ride market is evolving so rapidly that studies will become outdated almost as soon as they are produced. When Uber or Lyft first comes to a city, riders use those services differently from how they use them in the second or third year, says Shaheen of Berkeley. With the advent of UberPool and Lyft Line, as well as the eventual potential of self-driving cars, the future is anyone’s guess.