Automotive

Uber and Lyft are grinding traffic to a halt in San Francisco

Ride-sharing services have been found to be a major cause of congestion in San Francisco
Ride-sharing services have been found to be a major cause of congestion in San Francisco
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Ride-sharing services have been found to be a major cause of congestion in San Francisco
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Ride-sharing services have been found to be a major cause of congestion in San Francisco

Weekday travel times in the Golden Gate city increased a shocking 62 percent between 2010 and 2016, and a growing number of studies are finding that ride sharing services are chiefly to blame. The latest study ran simulated traffic models with and without ride shares to determine how much impact they make.

San Francisco is by no means an enormous city, with a population approaching 900,000 it's only around the 13th largest in America, but it's by far the most future-forward spot in the United States, and the birthplace of Uber, Lyft and any number of other ride-share companies looking to disrupt the status quo.

With some 45,000 ride-sharing cars on the road making 170,000 trips per day (2017 figures), it's also an excellent test bed to see the effect that such services have on traffic flow. Ride sharing advocates would point to the numbers of single-occupant cars on the road, and claim that ride sharing – and Uber Pool-style multi-passenger ride splitting – makes more efficient use of a vehicle.

On the other hand, you're also radically lowering the bar to get into the taxi business, and flooding the roads with tens of thousands of vehicles purchased mainly to be used as ride share services, who spend as much as 20 percent (in SF) to 50 percent (in New York City) rolling about waiting for a job with no passenger on board.

And according to a growing number of studies, including one recently published in Science Advances, that's having a huge effect on traffic. The study tracked traffic congestion in San Francisco, finding that weekday hours of delay have grown by 62 percent between 2010, when there was negligible ride-sharing traffic, and 2016, by which time ride share services had exploded to 12 times the popularity of taxi services and represented an enormous 15 percent of all intra-San Francisco trips.

The study uses the SF-CHAMP travel demand model, which is described as "a regional travel demand model that is used to assess the impacts of land use, socioeconomic, and transportation system changes on the performance of the local transportation system." The model is used in all kinds of applications, particularly where transit decisions need to be made, and it's a complex model that takes all modes of transport into account, as well as things like multi-modal transport, demographics and land usage.

A University of Kentucky Team took actual transport data and ran it through the system using two calibration settings – one to simulate the transport mix as it was back in 2010 with no ride sharing, and one to represent the way things are with Uber, Lyft and co playing its part. It also used data from the ride share companies themselves, showing the activity of their car fleets both during and between ride shares, as well as a bunch of archived speed data from a company called Inrix.

As part of the data analysis, the team looked at the effect of pickup/drop off areas where foot traffic meets road traffic, and lanes may be blocked for a short time as passengers jump in and out of their ride shares. It also looked at major roadworks projects around the city and attempted to remove their effects from the results.

The study found that higher levels of ride sharing raise a bunch of different congestion factors. Vehicle miles traveled rose by 13 percent with ride sharing as opposed to by 7 percent without. Vehicle hours traveled rose by 30 percent with ride sharing, but would only have risen by 12 percent without it. Vehicle hours delayed was up 62 percent with ride sharing, but would only have been up by 22 percent without it. And the average speed across a journey went down by 13 percent with ride sharing, but would only have dropped 4 percent without.

It goes without saying, ride sharing has been one of the most disruptive transport technologies of the last several decades, rising from obscurity to near ubiquity in a matter of a couple of years and consigning traditional taxi services to the dustbin with generally better pricing, better availability, better fleet management and what's often a better customer experience.

"There's a clear benefit for the person in the car," said Greg Erhardt, assistant professor of civil engineering at the University of Kentucky and lead author of the study. "They're getting a better experience, or they wouldn't do it. But there is a negative impact on everyone else: on the road system, other drivers and the people on the bus who also have to wait in traffic."

One proposal to help bring these suffocating congestion markers down is to simply slap a congestion pricing model on urban transport, charging people more for driving in heavy traffic areas or during peak periods. Indeed, says Erhardt, companies like Uber tend to be in favor of such measures, betting that the cars that congestion taxes take off the road can lead to more ride shares.

With most folk predicting a future where tens of thousands more autonomous robocabs begin to hit the streets offering even cheaper rides without any drivers at all, there's a good chance traffic might get a lot worse before it starts to get better. At least you'll have both hands free to play with your phone while you wait.

Source: University of Kentucky

14 comments
aki009
If I read the article correctly, it seems that the models don't consider increased economic activity. Are they proposing that year 2010 and 2016 were similar in that respect? Anyway, they seem to have baked in so many adjustments and estimates that they could justify pretty much anything they'd want. Perhaps one area requiring further study is how ride sharing during commute hours displaces the ride share fleets, requiring a counter flow, perhaps reducing the effectiveness of high way lanes that switch direction based on major flows in/out of the area.
Bob Stuart
This is supposed to be ride sharing, not ride selling. Drivers should only be allowed new fares after time for own errands, or on proof of another delivery job. We should have safe, convenient hitchiking, with multiple riders encouraged and easy transfers.
piperTom
Points made by "aki009" are spot on. The studies seem based on the idea the people in general would not want to go places, if there were not a convenient means to do that. Maybe not, but that means that any targeted restrictions on ride sharing are directly hurting the customers, as well as the drivers. I could support congestion pricing as long as it's neutral to the purpose that people choose to travel. The role of Price, in any economy, is as communication: "if you don't want to go This Much, then find alternatives".
fb36
IMHO, there is a huge difference between, disrupting an industry via innovation vs disrupting an industry via unfair competition! IMHO, Uber & Lyft are nothing but illegitimate Taxi services destroying all legitimate Taxi businesses in the world via unfair competition! IMHO, their unfair competition means, they would kill all legitimate Taxi businesses in the world, sooner or later, if they are not shutdown! IMHO, the hugest question is, do we really want a future world, where/when, our only options for Taxi are Uber & Lfyt! (& so everybody will be forced to use Taxis driven by lowest of low wage drivers!)
guzmanchinky
I see thousands of people on electric scooters there. Have they reduced traffic?
VincentWolf
Laughable some of the Green Freaks on GreenCar Reports that said Uber and Lyft would DECREASE traffic by more than 50%. I argued no the won't part and just circle the block endlessly awaiting a rider. I was right. Again.
CAVUMark
I recently serviced my 2017 Mazda at the dealer. The service writer was telling me about another 2017 CX-5 owner who has 130K miles on their 2 year old car and how well the car holds up having performed 7500 mile interval oil changes every 2-3 weeks. The owner is a Uber/Lyft driver. Surely those miles weren't on a dynamometer.
guzmanchinky
Uber is the best thing to happen to transportation in a long time. I love using them, compared to a taxi, which is difficult to call to your location, dirty and uncomfortable, usually a beat up old police car, and more expensive. Sorry, but they are here to stay. Maybe not with human drivers but people will ALWAYS prefer to have a vehicle pick them up right where they need it using a smartphone app, pay through the same app (another reason taxis are terrible) and deliver you directly where you need to go based on the address you entered into the app (not the address you need to tell the taxi to enter into their google maps, another reason they are terrible). Not to mention the way taxis love to gouge tourists by taking the scenic route. Nope, sorry, Uber and Lyft are the best.
Wolf0579
If all ride services were required to remain at their last location, or close to it, while awaiting new passenger pick-up requests, that might alleviate the problem.
Dave P.
To guzmanchinky: The best, eh? Relying on sat nav with no knowledge of the area, using dubious drivers who seem to have a pre-disposition to rape, assault and even murder and (in the case of Uber) an all-round culture of bending the rules.
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