2017 was a good year for Lyft. The company got a $1 billion cash infusion from Alphabet, Google’s parent company. It embarked upon new partnerships on the research-and-development front. And its main competitor Uber suffered a year of sexual harassment allegations, lawsuits, and executive turnover. Coincidentally, Lyft had its biggest year yet. Its vehicles made 375.5 million total rides, a 130 percent increase from 2016, and it served 23 million passengers (a 92 percent year-over-year increase) with more than 1.4 million drivers (double that of 2016).
The company also says it made major headway on one of its primary goals: reducing vehicle ownership. According to its report, 250,000 Lyft users abandoned vehicle ownership in favor of ride-sharing, and half of its users reported driving less frequently now. “Lyft wants to make a point: Its services help lessen traffic and boost community mobility,” TechCrunch said of the news.
While the latter may be true, it’s unclear whether ride-hailing services like Lyft are actually reducing traffic congestion. In fact, many available statistics seem to point to the opposite. According to data from the County of San Francisco’s Transportation Authority, Uber and Lyft account for 20 percent of the traffic on San Francisco city streets. In New York City’s congested Manhattan borough, the average driving speed has dropped 12 percent, to 8.1 miles per hour, since 2010. A former NYC Department of Transportation official released a report detailing how the astronomical growth of ride-share usage is “not a sustainable way for the city to grow.”
In New York, subway ridership also recently saw a dip for the first time in decades. A study conducted by the University of California–Davis Institute of Transportation Studies found that rather than reducing roadway congestion, ride-share services result in a net 6 percent decline in public transit use. However, according to Lyft’s 2017 Economic Impact Report, 21 percent of its users report using public transportation more now, because they can use ride-sharing to connect to more distant public transit hubs. In San Francisco, for example, the company’s most popular shuttle route connects to the 4th and King Caltrain station. Lyft says one of its primary goals is to replace private car ownership—but not to replace alternatives such as biking, walking, or public transit. “We see ourselves as a complement to public transit, working together to reduce the number of single-occupancy vehicles on the road,” a Lyft representative told Slate.
Still, by Lyft’s own stats, it’s putting a lot of cars on the road. While users report owning 250,000 fewer cars, the company put 520,000 additional drivers on the streets last year. As opposed to a car parked in a garage or along a thoroughfare, these Lyft vehicles are often driven multiple hours per day, wandering or circling until their next fare opportunity crops up—what some refer to as deadheading. To combat the threat of worsening traffic and increase the attractiveness of public transit, some cities like Chicago are considering tacking additional fees on each ride-share trip.
That’s not to say that there isn’t promise that Lyft and other ride-sharing services could eventually improve traffic in our cities. If we carpooled with every hailed ride, MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory found that we could replace New York City’s 13,000 taxis with only 3,000 ride-share vehicles—with an average wait time under three minutes. “A system like this could allow drivers to work shorter shifts, while also creating less traffic, cleaner air and shorter, less stressful commutes,” MIT CSAIL professor Daniela Rus said. Lyft Line, the company’s shared-ride option, currently only accounts for 40 percent of all rides in markets where it’s available.
Perhaps ride-sharing’s true positive impact on traffic will only arrive when autonomous cars replace human drivers. Rus said that MIT CSAIL’s algorithm was “particularly suited” to autonomous cars because it could continuously reroute vehicles in real time and proactively direct vehicles to relieve congested areas. Ride-share companies are well aware of the value proposition here, both to their bottom line and to consumers. Both Uber and Lyft are currently working on self-driving car projects. Lyft recently began a pilot in Boston and offered CES attendees an opportunity to ride in Las Vegas, while Uber, which recently signed a deal to buy 24,000 autonomous vehicles from Volvo, has pilots in Tempe, Arizona, and Pittsburgh.
Not every city is New York or San Francisco, but unless we commit to sharing all of our rides with strangers and neighbors traveling a similar direction, even autonomous cars won’t fix congestion. If ride-hailing companies truly want to make a positive impact on urban traffic, they’re going to need to better promote shared riding and work with municipal agencies to ensure that riders are also taking public transit when it makes more sense. If reducing car ownership truly is a goal of companies like Lyft, this sort of cooperation would benefit riders on the fence about ditching their vehicle as well as cities looking to improve traffic infrastructure and public transit. It’s not just about owning fewer cars—it’s about using the cars that are on our roadways in smarter ways, too.