Atlantic Cities

No, Ride-Sharing Is Not the Death of Public Transportation

No, Ride-Sharing Is Not the Death of Public Transportation
Reuters

One of the most notable outcomes of the recent BART strike was a surge of interest in ride-sharing services. Sidecar lifted its cut of transactions to encourage wider use, and Lyft (uh) lyfted theirs, too. Both emerged as winners, according to Bloomberg, with Sidecar showing a 40 percent spike in business. Uber, meanwhile, reportedly put 50 percent more cars on the road to meet demand.

That's great for those companies, but even before the strike ended, the situation left some observers wondering how great it was for public transit writ large. Kevin Roose worried in New York Magazine that "when policy-makers begin to see these services as legitimate replacements for public infrastructure, their incentives to make public services better will disappear." Denny Zane, the director of transit advocate Move LA, also reportedly feared that ride-sharing could starve transit's customer base.

These gut reactions aren't entirely misguided, and the BART situation certainly exposes some serious questions about transport equity and funding. But concerns that private transit options will undermine public transportation aren't always supported by studies of the matter. On the contrary, as we've pointed out in the past, there's reason to believe that taxi networks — and, no doubt by extension, car- and ride-sharing networks — can act as a complement to city transit rather than a competitor.

A quick rehash of some of that evidence for those who missed it last time around. In one study from years back, Bruce Schaller, a former policy director for the Taxi and Limousine Commission of New York City, modeled cab use in 118 U.S. cities and found that two of the most significant predicators of taxi demand were subway commuting and being car-less. In other words, taxis made it easier, not harder, to live in a city without driving a car.

Work from Columbia University scholar David King and others has supported the role of taxis as part of a multi-modal travel network that does not involve a private automobile. Their data of taxi movement in Manhattan neighborhoods found that a majority of these trips were late-night origins — meaning riders must have arrived there by some other mode earlier in the day, with this mode obviously not being a single-occupancy car. King and colleagues write:

In many cases taxi trips are part of journeys that began with transit trips, yet planning and expanding taxi service as an extension of transit networks is rarely undertaken in practice.

One way planners might take this finding into practice is by implementing multi-modal integrated fares. In Tokyo, for instance, you can charge your cab ride with the swipe of a Pasmo card then go use that same card to board the metro. Indeed, new research on bus rapid transit and light rail shows that integrated ticketing is a clear predictor of ridership increases.

The logical outcome of a network in which public transit is extended by private options is that city residents won't have to own as many cars. That point was emphasized in a nicely measured mid-BART-strike post from Tomio Geron at Forbes. Paraphrasing comments from UC-Berkeley transport scholar Susan Shaheen, Geron wrote that people use car- and ride-sharing as "part of a range of options that tend to decrease car ownership, not necessarily public transit."

Shaheen's work has focused on carsharing — with ride-sharing still a bit too new for academic inquiry — but so far the findings are encouraging. In one recent study, Shaheen and colleagues surveyed more than 6,000 carsharing members and found that the average vehicle ownership in this population had dropped from half a car per household to a quarter of one. In everyday terms, that meant most people got rid of their cars:

An aggregate analysis suggests that carsharing has taken between 90,000 and 130,000 vehicles off the road. This equates to 9 to 13 vehicles (including shed autos and postponed auto purchases) taken off the road for each carsharing vehicle.

So with all this research in mind, it becomes easier to see how private transit options like ridesharing could increase transit ridership rather than decrease it. For sure, there's a lot left to learn about the broader impact of collaborative transport on urban mobility. But from what we know now, at worst these services would seem to discourage single-occupancy drivers even as they encouraged car use, and at best they're taking a lot of cars off crowded city roads while perhaps inspiring transit agencies to improve service. And that's better for everyone.

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

Join the Discussion