Does Uber Actually Make Traffic Worse?

Plus: Uber Introduces Express Pool – Will That Make Any Difference?

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You hate it. I hate it. One of the few things in life that everyone can agree on is that traffic is the worst. (On average, it eats up 42 hours of your life each year.) One big benefit rideshare services including Uber and Lyft brought into our lives was making time spent sitting behind the wheel in traffic optional (for a price). But while a move from the driver’s seat to the backseat takes some of the pain of time spent in traffic away, several studies are now debating the question: does Uber make traffic worse? If you hail a ride, are you part of the problem?

One New Study Says Uber Makes Traffic Worse…

One of the most recent rideshare-related studies to make headlines surveyed 2,000 people in seven of the country’s biggest cities to learn about their transportation habits. The people were asked what transportation options they’d be most likely to use other than ridesharing apps if those weren’t an option and only 22% said they’d drive or take a taxi. Most people said they’d choose an option that would mean fewer cars on the road, whether that meant just staying home, carpooling, taking public transit, or choosing to walk or bike.

uber lyft make traffic worse
Source: Institute of Transportation Studies, UC-Davis

The results of the survey convinced the researchers that apps like Uber and Lyft not only fail to reduce traffic, but even make it worse. And many people on the roads share that conclusion. Some have even taken to Twitter to complain about Uber and Lyft making traffic in their cities worse.

Rideshare companies give more than 150,000 rides per day in San Francisco alone. If the researchers are right that most of those rides are for people who otherwise wouldn’t be in a car at all, that would mean huge changes to the number of cars on the road.

busy highway

…But Another Says Uber Makes Traffic Better

The aforementioned study drew conclusions about Uber and Lyft’s influence on traffic based on how people answered survey questions. Another study from Arizona State University (ASU) looked at the same question, but by analyzing traffic congestion trends in different cities. Researchers looked at data from the Urban Mobility Report which tracks congestion trends in cities going back to 1982. They noted the date Uber launched in each of the cities they had data for and looked for trends in how traffic patterns changed based on the the service beginning to be offered there. This study also drew conclusions solely for Uber, though they did look at data related to Lyft as part of their research.

The ASU study found that the net result was positive: the congestion in cities decreased after Uber entered the scene. Now, correlation does not equal causation, but researchers also dug into data that might point to other reasons that may have caused the reduced traffic, like gas prices, but still came away convinced that Uber was the main cause of a drop in traffic in the cities it operates in. Based on their research the case seems open and shut: Uber offers a social good that makes our commutes faster and better.

So, does Uber make traffic worse?

We’ve all seen this before. Different research with different methodologies coming to seemingly opposite results. Often these studies are designed to measure something that’s really difficult to gauge and finding clear answers is therefore elusive. Traffic conditions in cities are influenced by a lot of factors – trying to figure out the exact effect of one of those factors is just about impossible.

We probably can’t get a definitive answer on this question, but we can recognize some of the main factors that influence the effect Uber has on traffic patterns.

uber pool in city

Traffic Factors (Besides Uber, etc.)

Typical Transportation Patterns in an Area

In New York City, people have plenty of non-car options for getting around. If you’re familiar with traveling around the city, it makes sense that Uber would largely be seen as an alternative to public transportation or walking. Austin, Texas, though, is largely a “driving city” and has more limited public transportation options. When Uber and Lyft pulled out of the city in May 2016, former riders who regularly used the service were asked what they did instead:

  • 3% switched to public transportation
  • 41% went back to driving a car they already owned
  • 9% actually bought a car

In a city where most people are dependent on cars to get anywhere, Uber and Lyft might not make much of a difference in traffic. In areas with great alternative options to cars, though, the ease of hailing an Uber likely adds cars to the road that wouldn’t be there otherwise.

In cities with great public transportation, the ease of hailing an Uber likely adds cars to the road that wouldn’t be there otherwise.

The Popularity of Carpool Options

Earlier this year, MIT used a simulation model to show that the use of carpool options on ridesharing apps could reduce traffic by up to 75%. They crafted an algorithm that measured how many cars it would take to get everyone in New York City where they needed to go during a commute and determined that 2,000 four-person cars would do the trick. Their results were based on a best-case scenario model; the algorithm measured what would happen if everyone in the city chose to carpool and the apps managed to perfectly direct all cars to the most efficient rides and routes.

While that 75% drop in traffic figure is a pretty pie-in-the-sky estimate, rideshare companies already offer carpool options.

Introducing Uber Express Pool – Will it cut the traffic?

Uber says that millions of customers have chosen their carpool option, and they’re working to make carpooling more attractive to users and more efficient overall with their new Express Pool program. With this option, when several riders look for a ride from a similar location, the app automatically figures out a “smart spot” for riders to walk to which is close enough to all of them. The driver only has to drive to that single pick-up spot, and riders spend up to 25% less if they’re willing to do that little bit of walking.

So far Express Pool is just a pilot program in Boston and San Francisco, but if the savings inspire substantial use and the experiment is successful with early riders, it could spread to other cities.

Even with these innovations in the app, the promise of less traffic may not be enough to make carpooling take off as a big rideshare trend. Sharing your ride with a stranger is a hard sell. According to Jason Koebbler of Motherboard, “Both riders and drivers can’t stand UberPool.”  Drivers complain about having to do more work for the money they make and riders worry about extra passengers adding too much time to their drive or being obnoxious.

While in theory, carpooling options could make a big difference in traffic, in practice, riding with a bunch of strangers may feel a little too much like public transportation..

If you want to do your part to reduce traffic in your city, opting for carless transportation options whenever possible is your best choice. Choosing the carpool option in Uber or Lyft comes in second. If like most people though, you just want to choose the option that’s most comfortable and efficient for you, then just know you might be contributing to making the traffic problem a little bit worse.