What if using a ride-hailing app like Uber or Lyft could help decrease a city’s carbon emissions? Combined with public transit use and municipal policy changes, that’s beginning to happen. However, 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 environmental impact of ride-hailing and how comprehensive urban planning policies could make the skies a lot clearer.
Desautels Professor Animesh Animesh embarked on a project to gather and analyze data that bring together the environmental effects of ride sharing and public transit. In research paper Impact of Ride-Hailing Services on Transportation Mode Choices: Evidence from Traffic and Transit Ridership, Animesh and his co-authors discuss how to determine the most sustainable options in terms of traffic congestion and the demand for public transit, using data analysis 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?”
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.
“Our suggestion to city policymakers is that you should look at the distribution of riders, drivers, and walkers in your community,” says Animesh. “Accordingly, you will be able to figure out the impact of Uber on the traffic and environment in general.”
The policy implications of Animesh’s research could change the way that cities and other municipalities tackle not only ride-hailing regulations and public transit funding in light of sustainability, but issues of equity and accessibility around transportation and the environment.
Using ride-hailing technologies sustainably
“Technologies change the way we work, the way we purchase things, the way we live, socialize, communicate—one of these recent developments is ride sharing platforms like Uber and Lyft,” says Animesh. “This technology itself, just like any other technology, is not good or bad—it’s how people use it.”
Animesh’s research shows that 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 data from all sides.
This technology itself, just like any other technology, is not good or bad—it’s how people use it.
“We were motivated by the fact that there are different researchers saying that companies like Uber can have a negative impact on sustainability by affecting traffic congestion,” says Animesh. “Specifically, we are looking at how ride hailing affects the demand for public transportation, and how it affects traffic congestion, because indirectly traffic is going to impact the environment. The impact was not clear, so we decided to look more deeply into this problem.”
The logic goes that when more people take Uber, especially when they substitute public transit or walking with Uber, there is more traffic on the road and more pollution. On the other hand, some researchers see ride-hailing services as a last-mile solution, allowing people who live farther from public transit to use ride-hailing services to get to transit hubs from home and back, or to the grocery store, to pick up their kids at school, among other reasons. For them, Uber makes public transit more convenient.
While Animesh’s research divides users into walkers, riders, and drivers, his analysis goes beyond individual behaviour and consumption of technology-enabled services: “We are going above and beyond the individual level analysis and looking at how changes to consumer behaviour impact on society and environment, because that’s becoming more much more important for future generations.”
Following the data trail
The definitive environmental impact of ride-hailing services is complex and depends on the characteristics and policies of a city or municipality. Animesh and his co-authors looked at 42 different metropolitan areas in the U.S. market, the most dominant market for ride-hailing services. They used econometric techniques to analyze the cause and effect of when Uber entered into a city and how it affected traffic congestion, combining this with public transportation data and national household survey transportation data on individuals in particular metropolitan areas.
“What we found is that riders are indeed substituting public transit with Uber, and the drivers are complementing that by taking public transit in conjunction with Uber,” says Animesh. “So the net effect would depend on how big each segment of walkers, riders, and drivers is. Right now, what is not clear is how the walker segment being affected.”
In some cities, they found that there has been a significant increase in the number of walkers who have turned to Uber for trips they’d typically walk or use non-motorized modes of transportation. They’re choosing ride-hailing instead, but why? The next question is, how do urban policymaker decide what services to regulate and what to fund in terms of sustainability outcomes?
City policy and planning with research
Policy makers are faced with deciding whether ride-hailing services are good for the population in general as well as the environment. These objectives might conflict.
“What we have found is it’s not clear whether Uber is having a positive impact on the environment or a negative impact,” Animesh begins. “What our research suggests is that policymakers look at our framework, our methodology, to come up with a way to identify the impact of Uber and similar services in their city or region.”
Cities with high urban compactness are more likely to have more walkers and riders.
One of the factors that they can use is a measure called urban compactness, a score attributed to a particular city based on its spatial infrastructure, such as how close everything is. Animesh found that the cities with high urban compactness are more likely to have more walkers and riders compared to the driver segment—meaning that with more walkers, you’ll have more people choosing Uber more often over walking. Therefore, ride-hailing services will have a more negative effect on the environment.
“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,” says Animesh.
A question of access and equality
Adding to the complexity of the research question is inequality. Ride-hailing is in fact a positive in disadvantaged areas, including transit deserts, food deserts, and health deserts, where grocery stores, clinics, and transit are few and far between given the large populations. Ride-sharing and ride-hailing platforms often provide a more level playing field that allows people in disadvantaged and impoverished neighborhoods to travel to other neighborhoods that have the services they need.
Using micro-level data from Chicago, Animesh and his co-researchers are seeing that the pattern of Uber rides is very different than taxi rides: taxi rides are very concentrated, whereas Uber rides connect people from areas which have less infrastructure in terms of food and health, and so on. “They are connecting people from in and out of the low-access areas to high-access areas,” says Animesh.
Ultimately, when Uber comes into an urban market, people tend to think about their own convenience. With a click of a button—and the ability to pay—people can use these services. “But we don’t realize that if everyone starts doing that, it can have a huge impact,” says Animesh.
In some cities, ride-hailing services replace a more environmentally sustainable option, while in other regions, ride-hailing fills a gap without affecting carbon emissions.
“Looking at aggregate data might not give us a clear picture, so therefore you need to have a holistic framework,” Animesh explains. “A more detailed kind of data analysis to be able to tease out the effect of ride-hailing technologies on consumers and on society in general.”
For more insights, listen to the podcast with Professor Animesh Animesh.
This episode of the Delve podcast is produced by Delve and Robyn Fadden. Original music by Saku Mantere.
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