Uber goes public today. Private investors will count their millions. Or billions. It’s time, therefore, to look at its public promises.
When the ride-sharing companies made their debut—Uber in the US in 2009 and Ola in India in 2010—a common belief was they’d reduce congestion, private vehicle use, and commute time. Not only is there no evidence to these changes—the average commute time in Indian cities continues to get longer—it’s now clear that before things get better, they’d get worse.
Things did get worse in San Francisco. In one of the most comprehensive scientific studies on the impact of ride-sharing on transportation, a team of academics reported on Thursday that Uber and Lyft, the two largest ride-sharing companies in the US, were the biggest contributors to increased traffic congestion in San Francisco from 2010 to 2016. Gathering data on Uber and Lyft volumes, pick-ups and drop-offs, researchers modelled their effects on travel times and roadway conditions. The result is not a fence-sitting observation: congestion is growing more than expected, specifically during peak hours and in areas where ride-sharing is high.
And if you are reading this in an Indian metro, think about multiple cancellations by cab drivers, a norm these days. The study has found that ride-sharing worsens travel time reliability. In other words, people have to buffer their travel times if they wish to arrive on time, and not be embarrassingly late. The adverse impact of ride-sharing therefore, the researchers conclude, exceeds the combined effects of population growth, employment growth and infrastructure network changes.
That’s quite a shift from not so long ago when ride-sharing was hailed as a solution to transportation inadequacies. It has been quite a phenomenon. Across geographies. If ridership doubled in New York between 2014 and 2016, cab services grew 89% in Bengaluru between 2015 and 2018, to nearly 160,000 registered taxis. In Mumbai, the traditional kaali-peeli (black-yellow) taxis are down by 70%, whereas app-based aggregator cabs have risen in number.
In all seriousness, ride-sharing has begun to represent a popular alternative to operating private vehicles. In fact, a persistent slump in auto sales and the entry of more types of ride-sharing platforms—think bike/rental scooters—have added to the buzz around “shared” mobility. What cost it comes at, though, is what University of Kentucky’s Gregory Erhardt and his colleagues at San Francisco County Transportation Authority show in this study in Science.
The timing couldn’t be better.
Uber and Lyft both have gone public, though on sobered expectations. Lyft shares have now fallen by nearly 27% from their IPO price in March. Drivers of both the companies have mounted protests. And now academics are adding their might to fathoming these wunder-companies, which, for all impractical purposes, do not share data.