By Hipsta.space [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
According to a University of Toronto paper published in June, the growth of Uber has increased transit ridership in cities across the United States, with some caveats.

The conclusions of the paper support the premise behind last-mile pilot projects on Mercer Island and in Pierce County, and backs up Lyft’s strategy to integrate ride hailing with public transit. It also validates certain parts of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s controversial proposal to reappropriate Seattle Transportation Benefit District funds towards last mile service at Rainier Valley Link stations.

The paper posits that “Uber reduces transit ridership in smaller MSAs [Metropolitan Statistical Areas] while increasing ridership in larger cities.” The paper also finds that Uber has a greater ridership effect on rail lines and in wealthier areas.

In cities with a robust transit network, Uber is more likely to become a viable last-mile option. In that context, Uber can and does amplify the marginal value of reserving exclusive right of way for transit, as “results suggest that Uber reduced commute times for public transit users while increasing congestion.”

The authors also suggest that autonomous vehicles aren’t likely to replace transit, as the Elon Musks of the world would have you believe:

While there is much speculation about how autonomous vehicles may change cities, no empirical estimates exist to date because the technology is so new. However, if autonomous vehicles make transportation more convenient, accessible and affordable relative to existing services, Uber may serve as an appropriate proxy for the estimation of such effects. Thus our results provide suggestive evidence that autonomous vehicles may complement public transit, and that this effect will likely vary across cities.

The paper isn’t completely rosy for Uber, however. It concludes that Uber can increase congestion, since it can increase the number of car trips in a metro area. The authors speculate that, since ride share drivers will sometimes cruise looking for fares, congestion similar to cruising for parking can ensue.

The study’s ambiguity puts it in the same company as other research on ride sharing’s transit impacts. While ride sharing and its car sharing cousin can reduce car ownership, they don’t necessarily reduce vehicle miles. It aligns with a U.C. Davis study that found, while long trips on transit might increase where ride sharing is present, travelers are more likely to move from transit to ridehailing for short trips, when the marginal benefit of direct, point to point travel is much greater.

Though ride sharing may present itself as the future of transportation, the reality is much less grandiose. It’s just one imperfect mode choice among many.

25 Replies to “Study: Uber Can Boost Transit Ridership, But It Increases Congestion”

  1. Anecdotally, there’s a bit of a nuance, at least in my personal experience. While the majority of my *Lyft/Uber* trips has replaced transit trips, it’s still a small number of overall trips compared to the number of transit trips I make each month. These trips are usually during off-peak hours to/from locations where transit is very sparse, so have minimal impact on overall road congestion.

    Yet, when I fill out a survey that says “Has Uber resulted in you taking more or less transit trips”, I have to check “less”, even though the amount “less” is very tiny. Assuming that these surveys comprise the raw data for these studies, I have to take them with a grain of salt. Unfortunately, the real data we need to see whether Uber is complementing or replacing transit on a mass scale is locked up behind Uber’s corporate firewall.

    In general, I try to decide between Uber/Lyft vs. public transit by using the metric of $ spent per minutes saved (taking into account both wait time and fares for both transit and Uber). I generally start to consider Uber when the cost per minute saved drops below $0.50 (*), but when transit is halfway decent, this tends to not happen. In many cases, the transit even runs frequently enough that the bus or train is likely to show up before the Lyft/Uber car does.

    (*) Of course, one’s time sensitivity varies depending on the situation depending on the opportunity cost of the time and what happens if you are late. For example, my willingness to pay increases significantly if Lyft/Uber means more sleep, if other people are involved (either traveling with me or waiting for me at the destination), or if being late has financial consequences. For example, once (before U-link opened), I took the 70 bus downtown to transfer to Link to go to the airport, only to have the bus take so long (it spent forever stopping at every bus stop along the way) that I was forced to take Uber from downtown to the airport to avoid the risk of missing my flight. Taking Uber downtown from the beginning and switching to Link would have been 1/3 the price. Penny-wise, pound foolish.

    1. I agree with everything you said. Unfortunately, unless you’re going downtown it’s almost always worth it to take Lyft Line, especially if you’re in a group of 2 or more people. It shouldn’t take an hour on transit to go from Ballard to Capitol Hill but it frequently does while a Lyft can take a quarter the time.

      I live in NYC now and I take Lyft more often than not to get around Brooklyn for many of the same reasons. I’d never take a car into Manhattan but if I’m going from Greenpoint to Ridgewood I’m probably not wasting my time on the subway.

    2. The problem of Ballard to Capitol Hill or Ballard to anywhere is a specific hole in the transit network, not a general condition. Ballard to Capitol Hill is not in a grid or a high-volume corridor, and Ballard is in an isolated corner of the network. That’s why it has always had substandard service and why we fought so hard for the 45th corridor. I don’t know where Greenpoint and Ridgewood are but I know all Brooklyn’s subways except the G go toward Manhattan, and that’s a sore point for some. But New York stopped building subways decades ago when there was less reason to go anywhere other than Manhattan where all the shops and jobs and cultural activities were and Brooklyn was a smaller more residential community.

      1. Yes, that’s pretty much my point. I disagree that Ballard to Capitol Hill isn’t a high-volume corridor though, Ballard Link can’t come fast enough. Unfortunately a single stop at 45th and Market will be woefully inadequate to serve most of the neighborhood.

      2. Mike, I’ve always been with you about the need for rapid transit between Ballard and transit east, including University District and lines connected with that. But delay isn’t over subarea politics.

        It’s that there’s never been any way to get the line through above ground, and not enough people in between to cover the expense of a tunnel. In New York City, I suspect that density between comparable neighborhoods would have stayed street-car ’til those went away.

        Now, whole corridor between Downtown Ballard and the U-District is gaining building-stories as we write. No disrespect to the memories of the thousands of workers who literally died with shovels in their hands under New York and its rivers. Whose chief engineer had to personally illustrate his directions, because his men couldn’t read.

        https://www.flickr.com/photos/43315334@N07/28499691697/in/dateposted-public/

        https://www.flickr.com/photos/43315334@N07/42464761045/in/dateposted-public/

        https://www.flickr.com/photos/43315334@N07/28499681277/in/dateposted-public/

        -Washington Roebling, Brooklyn Bridge

        I think the line we want is going to be a straight, easy dig. With machines thirty years advanced over what we had for DSTT. I see elevated from Ballard to station at bottom of Phinney Ridge. Then one underground station in Wallingford, and U-District connection wherever it’s easiest.

        Meantime, repetitive as necessary, I think advocates of this line should be getting technical considerations out where future passengers can see it. Much interested in the soils. And whether it’s possible to mine the Wallingford Station so we don’t need to Cut-and- Coverize a narrow busy intersection.

        And what I-5 elevated bridge over or tunnel under I-5 will look like. Especially for those politically interested, I think your most persuasive public testimony will come from an engineer at your microphone or somebody with one in family. Should beat Powerpoint every time.

        Mark

  2. Has Uber CAUSED the increase in transit ridership? Or are they merely CORRELATED, given the shift away from car usage, and towards all other transport methods?

    1. this is the first I’ve head that ridership has increased with Uber because usually I hear the opposite, that Uber replaces short-distance transit trips more than it replaces walking or bike trips. I suspect what we’re seeing is more the environment that Uber was introduced in: a time of population increase, job increase, and tech-job increase. This led to greater transit use, and tech workers have a greater willingness to use transit than workers in other industries or previous eras do or did, at least since the 1950s when workers abandoned transit. In other words, they can’t distinguish Uber’s impact from other changes in the industry. I suspect Uber’s biggest impact has been to taxis, because I’ve never heard of anybody summon a taxi in the past few years and how would you even do it without a smartphone app? You used to call a taxi company but how many people even know their phone numbers or can find them on a list somewhere? I’ve been in places like San Diego where a friend-of-a-friend was a for-hire driver and gave us a ride and his business card, but that assumes you know a driver in the first place. And nowadays taxi companies require specific addresses, you can’t just say “the corner of 1st and 35th”, so you have to invent an address. (“This looks like 1500 1st Street, and the restaurant must be near 1300 35th”.) I wonder what they’d say if you ask for the Greyhound station or Lynnwood transit center. (“You don’t know where the Greyhound station is? I’m asking you because I’m a visitor and you’re supposed to know where these are.”)

      1. I thought the requirement for an address was to keep bad people from making dubious trips.

      2. I don’t know if there is such a thing as a Taxi driver that knows the ‘lay of the land’ anymore, nor the local history, so no advantage over Uber/Lyft.

        Uber/Lyft are amateurs anyway.

        They all rely on GPS, so plugging in the exact address is the requirement now.

        and around and around the block we go !!!

      3. I used to absolutely hate calling a cab in Seattle. It was such a pain in the ass. Not only would they require an exact address (Really? I can’t just give you the intersection I’m at?) they’d usually give a ~45 minute wait time. Scheduled rides rarely showed up on-time.

        If any industry deserved to be disrupted by technology it’s the Puget Sound taxi industry.

      4. I’ll just add my friend and I used to call three or four different cab companies and just take whoever showed up first, because they’d all give insane arrival windows (we’ll be there sometime between now and next week).

      5. On top of THAT the credit card readers conveniently never worked. Until I’d tell them ok, I guess the ride is free? Then it would magically work again.

        Can you tell I hate Seattle cabs?

      6. I’ve had success w/ Yellow Cab in getting an ontime pickup from home to go to the airport, but I guess since it’s such a common destination, the cabbies don’t have a problem with it.

      7. Any chance that Uber, Lyfft, and transit are all experiencing changes from same cause, namely energetic population growth, rather than just from each other?

        Mark

  3. Thanks for a good piece of common sense, Peter. Because for this area, pretty much sums up the relationship between taxicabs- which, let’s face it, uber and lyfft really are- and line-haul transit for a city that only got a rail subway ten years ago.

    Or the general density that finally generates subways. When the first modern subway (wish we could get the giant fans and the rolling barrels with sofas and a lamp back) opened in New York City in 1904, you couldn’t even walk up Broadway at rush hour for shoes-related congestion.

    So no matter how many cars the subway added, any runs where anybody ever got a seat got canceled for lack of ridership.

    The two modes quickly find their “fit” with each other, as people get used to both. Though every year more bicycles got wheels the same size. Also to the law of physics that says you can’t put two things in the same exact space at one time. But if we don’t enforce excessive beeping laws, jack-hammer workers won’t need ear protection at work because they’ll be deaf before they go on duty.

    Autonomous cars? Nature has a cure that fits every religious belief on Earth. Make events available where advocates support their cause by assembling at, say, where SR101 and I-5 down-hill from the State Capitol at rush hour. Other people using the highway will be given a week’s free vacation wherever they want. Though huge number will be on the miles of bleachers.

    When the starting gun goes off, thousands of autonomous cars packed with advocates- with Elon Musk completely surrounded making escape impossible- will floor their own pedals and head for Seattle at six am. In worst weather possible.

    Darwin- who probably fled to the Galapagos due to horse-drawn carriage traffic- called it Natural Selection. But every Scripture in the world explains how The Creator thanks humans who volunteer to feed the pious and industrious vultures.

    Mark Dublin

  4. Jim, it’s worse than that. Year or so back, I was in Auburn first time in awhile and looking for, I think, SR161. When I stopped for gas, asked a truck driver at the pump next to me. I knew the highway couldn’t have been more than a half mile away.

    “Wait a minute…” Out came the Smart Phone. Three and a half blocks. But I really think situation is getting a lot darker than funny. What’s somebody going to do if it’s life or death to find something and the server or anything in between blinks out?

    Like the power for a whole quarter of the United States about a decade back. Computers fail quiet and the fail at literally the speed of light. Our memory banks go ‘way back beyond the growth of our second cell, and not the “phone” one. They’re more important for survival than sight. And they get flabbier than any other part without exercise.

    Any driver working for me, I wouldn’t let leave the yard without a paper map, and an hour’s worth of tests on the road to prove they can read it. Meaning my whole fleet in the hands of former kids who learned to read maps because it was fun.

    Who’ll someday save all of us from the rest of the ruinous financial and other addiction to a hundred thousand dollar tool that we could replace with a yellow-painted, green lettered piece of cedar and graphite with a pink eraser. That, unlike computers existentially, smells goos too.

    Mark Dublin

    1. I actually love GPS for one reason…

      two actually….

      One to see how late I am to get to work, and how close I have to ride the rear bumper of the Prius in front of me…

      Second, I use it to explore. Take a new route, using my visual cues, and if I get in a real bind, I can always rely on it to get me back to a known working route. (on my days off)
      That way I can build a better mental map. GPS can tell you where the road and route are, it doesn’t know which one is the more efficient, relaxing, scenic… or any other reason that any map can’t show.

      These things aren’t infallible. Trust me. I deal with computer ‘logic’ daily. (now as a user)

      1. Jim, in Thurson, Mason, and Kitsap County, there are roads that seem to be designed for driving. Not sure if this is same as “rally” driving, but skill I’m trying to develop is to find, and memorize, roads that seem designed to let me handle my car so every adjustment of speed, steering, and gradient is close as possible to perfectly smooth.

        With most beautiful sights through my windshield. But most important, ways of avoiding having to put my car-handling under the control of anything else on Earth, starting with slow or motionless inescapable traffic. I’ll drive ten miles to avoid a half-mile slowdown. Let alone the split second day-long total blockage at the Nisqually River of which I-5 is capable. But I don’t “enter” these routes anyplace but a few inches back of my driving-glasses.

        Still recommend Mark Twain’s book “Life on the Mississippi”, about skill of piloting a steamboat in the 1850’s. From Minnesota to New Orleans without radio, or any light not on fire.Made no bones about the idea that the human memory can register, and divulge, many times the information anybody ever uses it for. Like, I think, all of our senses. Which I think number a lot more than five.

        But now I’ve got most important information of all: plate number of the exact car that keeps tail-gating me fifteen miles over the limit. Which makes no sense at all, since over-short maneuvering room means you have to at least slow down when you crash into my car. But in addition to the camera I’ve got aimed at plate level with a real-time feed to the State Patrol, my new car itself gives me a remedy.

        No longer do I need the little spring-loaded compartment of full of ball bearings and carpet tacks I used to bolt under my back bumper. All I have to do now is reach out my window and toss a few handfuls of freshly-warmed large sized chocolate covered Tootsie Rolls up into the air stream.

        Toyota didn’t build all those aerodynamics into a Prius just to save gas.

        Mark

  5. Hi Peter, thanks for the article! I wanted to point out that the term “rideshare” actually means two or more people who are going to the same place anyway that are sharing a ride. Uber/Lyft don’t necessarily mean that. “Ride hailing” is the accurate term for Uber /Lyft services that may entail a single rider with a paid driver, or Transportation Network Company. Otherwise, in the world of alternate transportation, understanding of the term “rideshare” becomes muddled. The Associated Press actually understands this and its guidelines say to not use “rideshare” to mean ride hailing.

    1. In reality, “ride share” is ambiguous, and no one who takes transportation policy should ever use the term for any reason.

      Every time I here ride share, I always ask if they mean carpool, taxi, or sharing a cab. Ride share can mean any of these three things, and all three of these things have old terms whose meanings are clear. So why use the confusing term?

      Uber and Lyft are not “ride hailing” services. They are “taxi” services. They took an old idea, shoved expenses from company to driver, and created an app. That’s it, it wasn’t all that innovative.

  6. https://www.flickr.com/photos/43315334@N07/42470630465/in/dateposted-public/

    https://offbeatoregon.com/1601b.jitneys-vs-streetcars.273.html

    Something for the Protransit-letariat to think about. Mode of transportation called “Jitney” could possibly be seen as first shot of a century of civil war between the streetcars we miss so much in retrospect and working people who considered this transit mode a monopoly they had to combat along with all the others.

    And from 1950 on, considered they had finally and permanently won the War of Liberation. But now, the car industries’ gift of self-generated sprawl could finally restore us in the public mind to a force for liberty. In this war of liberation, we can consider “ride-sharing” (or whatever) and taxicabs as allies in the fight to see that nobody has to use their own car in conditions that ruin its value. Which is, however, one way to pay less for car tabs.

    Mark

  7. > The paper posits that “Uber reduces transit ridership in smaller MSAs [Metropolitan Statistical Areas] while increasing ridership in larger cities.” The paper also finds that Uber has a greater ridership effect on rail lines and in wealthier areas.

    I wonder if that directly relates to the effectiveness of said smaller city’s transit system. Small American cities often have such terrible transit its not worth bothering to do anything with it but yell & vote.

  8. FWIW, most of my Uber trips (Uber-X not pool, better for the drivers) have been situations where I can take transit to get there, but getting back late into the evening would be a PITA and I’ve still got work tomorrow. Alternatives would be not to take the trip or to take a Zipcar (which would be more expensive because I’m paying equally for the parked time). So, net one transit trip and 1 car trip plus the deadhead distance. Of course, congestion is much less of a concern at those hours. I never take Uber in congested peak hour traffic.

  9. The presence of Uber/Lyft has led to me abandoning transit for family trips in the city.

    Paying $2.50 x 3 a bus or $10 for a car trip. Transit is not at all competitive in this environment.

    I have some guilt about the signal this sends to our son and we are just one of many families who have done the same math.

    Transit, especially with fare increase, is a joke for group trips within the city. The fare standardization was a step backwards.

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