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Uber, Lyft Can ‘Cannibalize’ More Efficient Transport Modes

On-demand taxi services like Uber and Lyft are touted as low-carbon alternatives to private car ownership, but a new PhD study at the University of Colorado suggests they succeed in large part by cannibalizing more efficient modes like transit, biking, and walking.

Unfortunately, the U.S. does not have enough mass transit, certainly not enough integrated and convenient mass transit,” CleanTechnica notes. With on-demand services on the rise, “the question remains: are Lyft and Uber doing away with journeys that might be biked, walked, or taken on public transportation.

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That question was the focus of a dissertation by PhD candidate Alejandro Henao. “The main goal was to understand how people are using Uber and Lyft—what modes they were replacing,” he told Streetsblog. “And also, looking at it as a transportation engineer, I wanted to see how efficient this service is, compared to other services.”

The two companies “famously hide their trip data from cities, so Henao went and got the data himself,” Streetsblog reports. “He became a driver for both companies and surveyed 311 passengers over about four months in Denver, Boulder, and various suburbs. Each passenger answered 28 questions—things like where they were going, how they would’ve travelled otherwise, and demographic information.”

He found out that 34% of respondents would have used transit, biked, or walked if an on-demand service hadn’t been available. And the project showed that the travel distance attributable to each customer wasn’t limited to their part of the trip.

“The mileage ticker starts when Henao is hailed by the app, continues through the pick-up, and ends with the drop-off,” Streetsblog explains. “So if he drives two miles to pick up a passenger, then takes the passenger three miles away, the person in his back seat actually accounts for five miles worth of car traffic.

By comparison, “a bus going that same three miles on a fixed route carries a lot more people in a smaller amount of space, and doesn’t add excess mileage to the streets. But bad transit is also a culprit, according to Henao’s research. If the bus doesn’t come frequently or takes too long to get to its destination, people will pay more for the immediacy of a personal car.

Using other modes, Henao concluded, the passengers in the study could have travelled 112 “person-miles” per 100 miles on the system, compared to 60.8 using Lyft or Uber. But that observation points to an obligation for transit agencies as well as an opportunity.

“One of the main reasons that these people stated that they’re using Uber and Lyft is because public transportation is unavailable or is poor,” he told Streetsblog. Which means it may be a mistake for agencies to cancel routes and subsidize ride-sharing, as they’ve been doing in different parts of the U.S. (h/t to CleanTechnica for first pointing us to this story)