Delve podcast: How Cities Can Make Ride-Hailing Services Environmentally Sustainable, with Animesh Animesh

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Delve podcast, September 22, 2022: How Cities Can Make Ride-Hailing Services Environmentally Sustainable, with Animesh Animesh
Robyn Fadden – host: Could people who use ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft actually help decrease a city’s carbon emissions? In conjunction with public transit use and municipal policy change, that’s beginning to happen, but the bigger, less understood question is what motivates people to choose their cars over the bus, or Uber over walking to work. New data-driven research shows the impact of ride-hailing and how comprehensive urban planning policies could make the skies a lot clearer. Welcome to the Delve podcast. I’m your host for this episode, Robyn Fadden.
Robyn Fadden – host: Today, road transportation in Canada is responsible for 84% of transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions and 21% of total Canadian greenhouse gas emissions. When ride sharing’s data-driven innovative technology changed the transportation game, it inevitably affected everything else it touched, from worker exploitation and fair wage concerns to increased road congestion.
Robyn Fadden – host: Professor Animesh Animesh at the Desautels Faculty of Management and his co-authors embarked on a project to gather and analyze data that bring together the environmental effects of ride sharing and public transit. They gained a comprehensive view of how different people in different places use ride sharing services in conjunction with public transit. In their research paper, Impact of Ride-Hailing Services on Transportation Mode Choices: Evidence from Traffic and Transit Ridership, Animesh and his co-authors look at how to determine the most sustainable options in terms of traffic congestion and the demand for public transit. He and his co-authors use data to answer the question: How do technology-enabled ride-hailing platforms impact the travel choices of three segments of people: walkers, transit riders, and private vehicle drivers?
Robyn Fadden – host: The policy implications of this research could change the way that cities and other municipalities tackle not only ride sharing regulations and public transit funding in light of their environmental impact, but issues of equity and accessibility around transportation and sustainability. Welcome to the Delve podcast, Professor Animesh. I’d like to start by asking you why you, as a management and information studies scholar, chose to look at how people use ride sharing and public transit?
Animesh Animesh: Technologies are enabling completely radically, changing the way we work, the way we purchase things, the way we live, socialize, communicate. One of the recent developments is in terms of ride sharing platforms like Uber and Lyft. And researchers have been looking at different aspects related to this ride sharing. A group of researchers have started looking at how it impacts the taxi services, how it impacts the labor market, the individuals who are driving these taxis, you know, or these rides. Are they better off? Or are the worse off? There’s lots of interesting research questions that have emerged because of the emergence of this ride sharing. And again, not only that, but there’s some interesting stuff like research that has looked at the impact of ride sharing like Uber, on deaths or accidents due to drunk driving. There’s loads of interesting angles to this. Some pieces such as, I’ve looked at the impact of the ride sharing economy on entrepreneurship. So again, you might not see the connection but there are some interesting, indirect routes through which these new platforms can affect our life.
Robyn Fadden – host: It’s management studies primarily, but clearly your research is interdisciplinary, it’s social, it’s cultural.
Animesh Animesh: It’s social, exactly. It touches upon different aspects of society. We got motivated for this particular research question, by the fact that there are different researchers who are saying that Uber or companies like Uber, can have a negative impact on sustainability by affecting traffic congestion, right, so a lot more people are taking Ubers because of which there is more traffic on the road, people would be substituting public transit with Uber and which is going to mean, you know, which means more traffic on the road, more pollution, and so on. So that’s one group of researchers and practitioners. But on the other hand, there is another group of researchers who says that well, one can act as a last mile solution, which means if you have public transit, but you know from your home to your metro station, you don’t have a convenient way to reach there. Earlier, you would not be taking this public transit because of the inconvenience.
Robyn Fadden – host: Ride hailing services have been around for a while now but the research around them seems to have really ramped up in the past few years. Where did you see a gap in the research and in the policies and regulations around ride sharing?
Animesh Animesh: Ride hailing services have been emerging in for the last couple of years and researchers have been looking at different aspects. How does it affect the economy? How does it affect society? We got interested in the sustainability impact of ride sharing. Specifically, we are looking at how ride sharing affects the demand for public transportation, and how does it affect the traffic congestion? Because indirectly, traffic is going to impact the environment and so on. So there was a debate, there is some researchers who say that, no, it’s good for the environment, because people are going to switch their cars and take Uber in conjunction with public transit. So that in that sense, they are saying that Uber can help as a complement to the public transportation by solving the last mile problem, right, because it’s always the last mile, which stops people from taking public transit, because they move from home to the metro station, and from metro station to the office, that’s the last mile problem. So Uber, by solving that problem, by making it cheaper and easier to take public transit, it can improve the load on the traffic. On the other hand, another group of researchers suggest that well, because it’s so convenient and cheaper, therefore the people who used to take public transit might substitute the public transit with Uber, [though transit] has the lowest impact on environment. Because we are leaving public transit, which is more efficient and less impactful on the environment. So this is what was the debate – it was not clear what’s the impact. So we decided to look more deeply into this problem.
Animesh Animesh: We argued that is the aggregate level of analysis that prior research has done, which has led to this inconsistent result. So therefore, we decided to have a more granular theorization. So what he said is that, well, ultimately, it’s the people who are taking these transits. So let’s think about different types of people, right? So what we did is we classified riders into three groups, drivers, riders and walkers. So predominantly, the people who drive for most of their trips, we classify them as drivers. Those who take public transit mostly are called riders. And the ones who are mostly walking, you know, they live nearby near their office, they’re near their work. So they are the walkers. So we looked at the impact of Uber on each of these three segments. And what we found is that its riders are indeed substituting public transit with Uber. And the drivers are complementing – so they are taking public transit, in conjunction with Uber. And the net effect would depend on how big is each segment? But what is not clear that how is the walker segment right being affected? So is it affecting the walker segment at all or not?
Robyn Fadden – host: Dividing people into segments of transit and Uber users seems simple on the surface, but really understanding how users combine the transport they choose, and when and where they do that is where things get more complex. What did you find out about these segments of people?
Animesh Animesh: What we found is that there is a significant increase in the number of walkers who are taking Uber for those trips for which they otherwise would have taken a non-motorized mode of transportation. Either they would have walked or they would have biked. So that’s what we found. So on an average, it depends. And then the next question is, how does the policymaker decide? What should we do? Our suggestion to the policymakers is that you should look at the distribution of riders, drivers and walkers in your community. And accordingly, you will be able to figure out the impact of Uber on the traffic and environment in general.
Robyn Fadden – host: What data did you look at to determine these findings and their implications?
Animesh Animesh: Once we had the research question – that we have to analyze the impact of companies like Uber on congestion and public transit, and so on – we first looked at which cities were entered into. So we looked at US market because that’s the most dominant market. We looked at 42 different metropolitan areas in which Uber entered in a staggered way. And so we use econometric techniques to analyze the cause and effect right so when Uber entered into a city, how did it impact the traffic congestion and the poor? Public Transportation uses in those areas to get the public transportation data, I think, you know, we have data from National Highway Transportation Service, we have data from Federal Highway Administration from us, which provided data about the demand for public transit, you know, metros, buses, and so on. We also collected data about the condition from Federal Highway Administration. In addition to this high-level aggregate data, we also collected data, we use data about the individuals, the number of individuals in a particular metropolitan area, who are mostly taking, you know, buses car, or they’re walking. So that is that data is available from a national household travel survey. So we use all these different diverse set of data sets, combine them together to be able to answer this question.
Robyn Fadden – host: What is this research answering in terms of policy and the gap you’re filling? Is it answering questions for policymakers or giving them a stronger structure for making decisions about ridesharing and public transit?
Animesh Animesh: From the policy makers perspective, they have to decide, right, whether Uber is good for the, for the population, in general, the citizens as well as the environment, right, because sometimes they might not be… the objectives might be conflicting with each other. So what we have found is, and again based on the prior research. it’s not clear whether Uber is having a positive impact on the environment or negative impact. So what our research suggests is that if you look at our framework, policymakers can use our framework, our methodology to come up with a way to identify what is the impact of Uber and similar services in their city, in their region. And one of the factors that they can use is, a measure that we use called urban compactness. So urban compactness is a measure, as long as there is a score that we can attribute to a particular city based on the spatial infrastructure, or spatial location or, the spatial structure of the area. For example, how close everything is. If in a city, everything is close to everything else, school colleges, everything is… the infrastructure is densely concentrated, right, so if the infrastructure is densely concentrated in a smaller area, that city would have high compactness. So what we find is that the cities which have high compactness, are more likely to have more walkers and riders compared to the driver segment. And therefore, the impact of Uber like services is going to have more negative, right for the environment. Because the walkers instead of walking, they would be taking Uber, so these are the people who are in a higher proportion in the cities which have high compactness. So that’s where city planners can look at their current city compactness score, and then based on that, they can decide whether they should create policies to encourage services like Uber or discourage services like Uber.
Robyn Fadden – host: In that case, even more researchers and policymakers can use your research to look at other factors, such as psychological or societal factors, that would encourage riders to use or not use these sharing services or transit.
Animesh Animesh: In fact, I just recently looked at in the Laurentiens, in St. Jerome, and the nearby neighborhoods, the city or the Transportation Authority has created these kind of partnerships, where you have on demand, you know, taxi or, you know, taxi bus services, where they make it easier for people to take the public transportation. So that’s, I think, you know, what Uber has done, and probably many other cities are also trying to partner with companies like Uber to make this kind of to make that last mile problem to solve that or resolve that last mile problem.
Robyn Fadden – host: Right, to create a true multimodal transportation system – because if you live a 45 minute drive from the train station it’s more unlikely that you’re going to take the train, especially in winter. But if you had an option of an on-demand service, whether it’s a bus or Uber, that might become a good choice. I’m also interested in how this research is rooted in information systems research, rather than organizational behaviour or sociology or something similar, but it’s still about societal impact and environmental impact. How does this project and its findings link to other information systems projects you’ve been working on?
Animesh Animesh: As you mentioned, I am a professor in the Information Systems area, and I look at the impact of technologies, you know, platforms, which are enabled by technology, and its impact on markets and its impact on sellers and consumers. This project is more looking at the impact on consumers. Because the commuters, people who are taking transportation services are consumers of technology-enabled service. And I’m looking at the impact not directly on these users, but indirectly on the environment. So we are going above and beyond the individual level analysis, and looking at its impact on society or environment, because that’s becoming more much more important for future generations. So that’s what we decided: to not just look at the consumer behavior, but the implication or the impact of that change in the consumer behavior, and how it’s going to affect the environment.
Robyn Fadden – host: You can ask how Uber or other ridesharing services are affecting the environment, but if you don’t look at people, at consumers and their behaviour, you really don’t have the full picture. And a lot of rhetoric around environmental sustainability puts pressure on consumers and less on the corporations and the bigger entities that control these services and the technologies behind them. Your project looks at the bigger picture and ties these together with municipal policy to acknowledge the effects of corporations, technologies and municipal decision making on consumers. I’d like to get deeper into that and ask how the project addresses equity and accessibility as part of the conversation about sustainability.
Animesh Animesh: The segue is that after we are done with this, when you’re done with this project, we decided to look at more, you know, related issues, and one of the things that we decided to focus on was equity. We read a lot of reports which show that in US, in one of the most developed countries, there are food deserts, which means that there are areas in US where people do not have access to fresh food, you know, grocery food, so they have to rely on fast food and so on. There are places which are health deserts, right. So there are no hospitals or primary care nearby, they have transit deserts. So there is no public transportation that they can take and unfortunately, these are the same regions which don’t have high income. So people that are there, the demographics are such that the income is low, racially, there are more African Americans and so on. So these are mostly disadvantaged areas, which can be considered as a transit desert, food desert, health desert. So what we’re looking at is, does these ride sharing platforms, do these services provide a level playing field so that the people who are in the poor neighborhoods can they, if they need, go and take services in other neighborhoods, given that they don’t have those services.
Animesh Animesh: We got some data from Chicago, there is a very detailed micro level data about the taxis and Uber where people take it from, where do they go. So we are analyzing this data and the initial results are very promising – we find that, indeed, the pattern of Uber rides is very different than taxi rides – taxi rides are very concentrated, whereas Uber rights are kind of connecting people from areas which are which have less infrastructure in terms of food and health, and so on. And they are connecting, you know, people are going from in and out of the low access area to high access area, and so on. So that’s very interesting. So as you bring up this very interesting question of what is the impact on equality or equity, and I think that’s what we see, there’s some positive effect, maybe. Obviously, it’s not going to help everyone who people who can’t even afford Uber, but there was definitely a latent need. And they’re kind of services by making it affordable and easy, conveniently accessible, they are at least helping a significant amount of segment of users in these disadvantaged reasons to avail the services, which are very basic services.
Robyn Fadden – host: The last mile isn’t only the last mile from work to home, it can be from work to transit to the grocery store. These are the elements that we forget, partly because there are all these assumptions about how people shop and use your car, whereas when you use transit or walk, you need to plan things out differently. So with regard to sustainability, we also have to factor in that if people have better access to grocery stores, they’re eating less fast food and how does that affect fast food restaurants and waste and so on. There’s a lot of data to be uncovered in that too.
Animesh Animesh: From a research perspective, you know, what we found is that, looking at aggregate data might not give us a clear picture. And so therefore, you need to have a holistic framework, and a more detailed kind of data analysis to be able to tease out the effect of Uber or any such kind of technology, on consumers, or on society in general. So you have to tease that out by, and that’s what we do. In this paper, we look at the urban compactness.
Robyn Fadden – host: Outside of policy implications and catching the attention of policy makers with this research, your research offers a unique perspective on ride sharing and public transit that gives us more food for thought about the complexities of ride sharing in light of urban policy and consumer behaviour.
Animesh Animesh: This is interesting, because, you know, again, when you take Uber, when Uber comes into your market, you are only thinking about your convenience, right? So well, I could walk but now, you know, I say, well, it’s not that expensive. And again, with a click of a button, I can avail that of a service, we don’t realize that if everyone starts doing that, it can have a huge impact. And so that was something which can strike and hopefully, we will see that, you know, that is just not you. But lot of people in especially crowded city if they start taking Uber for and then replace it with their non motorized kind of modes of transit, transportation, like bikes, walking, and so on, or even replacing public transit like Metro, it might have a huge impact on the environment. And so each of us should be aware of that and hopefully, we can minimize and then take it only when it’s necessary.
Animesh Animesh: And one more thing is that even the drivers we know that there are drivers who are a taking advantage of Uber to solve that last mile problem, and then they are now combining Uber with long distance rail. And you know, coming back again to Uber, but maybe there are many more such people who have not tried it out who have not thought about it. So maybe they should get inspired by this group of people who have switched to public transit, by combining it with some other modes of transportation. I think that will be great if we can get more and more people to take the positive behavior, and minimize the number of people who are doing this negative thing. So basically, this technology, again, just like any other technology, the technology itself is not going to be good or bad — it’s how people use it. So there is a rider segment and the walker segment, which is by their users, they can have a negative impact, whereas the drivers are bringing the positive effect. So as long as we have more drivers, and then less walkers and riders who are switching to Uber, we should have a net positive effect.
Robyn Fadden – host: I also noticed that the last few Ubers I’ve taken have been electric, which doesn’t do anything for the urban congestion problem, but may have an impact on fossil fuel emissions at least in cities, as more drivers opt for electric vehicles.
Animesh Animesh: That’s another interesting thing, right? So as the cars that we’re all of us are using is because going to become more electric, it’s going to be less problematic for the environment less I would say because even electricity is being you know, produced unless it is produced by clean energy, like, you know, hydro and so on. It also has its own issues. The batteries that come and you know, where do they come from? Where do they go, so, so again, like city itself is not so we need to minimize the transit, we need to plan the cities such that we don’t need to travel a lot, which is not only going to save the environment, but it’s also going to give us more quality time with our family.
Robyn Fadden – host: And a higher quality of life in general. As we look for and apply solutions to the climate crisis, we’re also having to rethink cities – and this is one of the many ways to do that.
Animesh Animesh: And not only that, no, because of COVID we have remote – people thought that they could not do many things remotely, but we realized that when we are forced with this constraint, people learned how to do things remotely and a lot of employees a lot of employers are you know, are allowing this hybrid world now. So that all those things together will reduce the load on the public transit on the roads on the environment.
Robyn Fadden – host: My last question is, since we’ve been talking about the environment and sustainable policies and business practices, have you worked on any other projects recently that look at this intersection of technology and data with sustainability?
Animesh Animesh: Another project that we are working on, in the domain of sustainability is a project which is led by Dror Etzion at the Desautels Faculty of management, and Katherine Potvin in the biology department. And there we have built a platform, a technology platform, to create a movement where small and medium enterprises, entrepreneurs can come together, they can inspire others, to take climate-positive actions, they can get inspired, they can ask questions, they can build a network, a community of practice. So we have built the platform, and we are trying to get more and more entrepreneurs to join the platform and be more active. And so that’s just the beginning. So it’s an action project where we are not only doing research, but we actually want to make change in the society. So we look forward to the next couple of years where we will get more and more entrepreneurs on board. And we hope that this will have a significant impact on the behavior of the small and medium enterprises. And ultimately, it should have a positive impact on the environment.
Animesh Animesh: We are working with National Film Board of Canada, we built a website, which was mostly for inspiring – the NFB is really good at creating stories and disseminating those. We interviewed a lot of entrepreneurs who did an excellent job in terms of environment, reducing climate, or carbon footprint. And then we’re trying to promote those stories. But now we have created a platform where there’s a social network of likeminded people who can ask questions, who can follow each other, see what others are doing that’s more active dynamic community. So again, we have done our job. Now, the second part which is much tougher, is to get people to be part of the community and keep doing things on their own. So they have to take it forward. We can just provide the platform ultimately, the ball is in the court of the SMEs to take advantage of this.
Robyn Fadden – host: As Professor Animesh’s research shows, solving the problem of climate change and achieving sustainability is about much more than consumer choices—it’s about community influence, business decisions, policy making, and, of course, understanding and analyzing all that data.
Robyn Fadden – host: Our guest today on the Delve podcast was Desautels Faculty of Management Professor Animesh Animesh, discussing his research on ride sharing, public transportation, and climate change. You can find out more about that research in an article at
Robyn Fadden – host: Thank you for listening to the Delve podcast, produced by Delve, the thought leadership platform of the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University. You can follow DelveMcGill on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram. And subscribe to the DelveMcGill podcast on your favourite podcasting app.