More ride services, more congestion?
When Portland city officials rolled out the red carpet to let Uber and Lyft operate here in 2015, "we thought that it would actually reduce the number of car trips," recalls Steve Novick, then the city's transportation commissioner.
But they were wrong, Novick says.
Now some wonder how much of Portland's growing traffic congestion can be traced to Uber and Lyft, which created huge fleets of do-it-yourself taxi drivers "hailed" by passengers using smartphones.
"Our roads are just clogged with Uber and Lyft vehicles," says city Commissioner Nick Fish, who lives downtown. "There's clearly an impact of having all these cars on the road."
Uber and Lyft are notoriously secretive corporations, and the Portland Bureau of Transportation says it can't divulge much about their operations because of confidentiality agreements the companies pressed the city to sign.
But the bureau, known as PBOT, enlisted the City Council last month to authorize an $80,000 to $130,000 consultants' study of how Uber, Lyft and taxis are affecting Portland's traffic congestion.
The study should provide some hard data to back up anecdotal observations of Fish and others, and could prove essential if PBOT or the City Council choose to do anything about the problem.
The addition of up to 10,000 new Uber and Lyft drivers on Portland streets suggests they are contributing to growing congestion here.
Within weeks of their legalization in the city, the two app-based ride services came to dominate the local market. Local taxi companies have since been beset by financial turmoil and the loss of drivers and cars. Radio Cab, one of the city's two big taxi companies, is "surviving" but its drivers are "going broke," general manager Steve Entler testified before the City Council last month. "They are leaving the industry."
There's a growing body of evidence locally and nationally of Uber and Lyft's impact.
"They're reducing the demand for parking, but they're increasing traffic" and lowering the use of public transit, says Jarrett Walker, a Portland transportation consultant who specializes in public transit. "We've seen it wherever we've looked."
PBOT says there are more than 10,000 Uber, Lyft and taxi drivers combined, but it won't break down the numbers beyond that.
Uber's regional general manager Alejandro Chou told city commissioners in May that the company has more than 7,000 drivers operating in the city. Lyft is smaller, but its driver fleet is in the thousands. Many drivers work for both companies.
The city has issued some 700 total taxi permits, but not all of them are being used now because the financial returns have plummeted.
Many Uber and Lyft drivers work only part-time, and their peak use is in the evenings. But the number of total rides provided is exploding, at a time when the taxi industry is shrinking.
In 2016, PBOT says, the industry provided 6.5 million rides in Portland, the bulk of it from Uber and Lyft. Last year, that grew to almost 10 million rides.
Parking lid eased congestion
In past years, the city of Portland used a lid on downtown parking spaces to reduce congestion downtown. But Uber and Lyft don't need to park to drop off or pick up passengers.
"That blew the lid off and it's likely to generate congestion," says Joe Cortright, a Portland economist and director of City Observatory, an urban studies think tank and online journal.
In early observations and studies of the app-based ride services, it wasn't as apparent they would have a great impact on traffic, Cortright says. "Oh, boy, now we can see it."
Cortright doesn't want to pin too much blame for congestion here on Uber and Lyft without more data. For one, a lot of private drivers spend time circling around trying to find parking, and Uber and Lyft drivers, and taxis, don't need to do that.
But common sense suggests a typical Uber or Lyft trip requires more miles driven than a private vehicle. Someone driving their own car goes straight from their house, while Uber and Lyft must drive to pick them up and then take them to their destination
Another factor is "deadheading," the time for-hire vehicles spend driving around without a passenger inside. Studies show that Uber and Lyft drivers spend a greater share of their work time driving around with no passengers than taxi drivers, who are more prone to park at designated spots waiting to be dispatched.
Studies have shown 20 percent to 50 percent of the miles driven by Uber, Lyft and other ride service drivers are spent deadheading.
Hurting transit use
Initially, Novick and some environmentalists figured Uber and Lyft could reduce overall driving by providing the so-called "last mile" in conjunction with public transit. The idea is that people would hire an Uber or Lyft to get to or from a MAX station, for instance, making it easier to use transit.
"I haven't seen any convincing evidence that it's a supplement to transit," Cortright says.
The most comprehensive study so far, released last year by the University of California at Davis Institute of Transportation Studies, surveyed 5,000 riders in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.
The researchers found that Uber, Lyft and similar services have reduced use of buses by 6 percent and light rail by 3 percent.
TriMet has been losing ridership in recent years, and "one of the questions we have is, is that having a big impact on us," says Roberta Altstadt, the transit agency's public information officer.
Gentrification and the resulting scattering of some residents far from the urban core are believed to have a bigger impact. But logic suggests some of those Uber and Lyft riders would use transit if they didn't have those services, Altstadt says.
The UC Davis survey found that if not for app-based ride services, 49 percent to 61 percent of the trips would have been by transit, bicycle or on foot. If those seven cities' experiences are transferable to Portland, and researchers think they are, it means fewer people are using MAX, TriMet buses, bicycles and walking.
Walker says he now uses Uber or Lyft as back-ups if he's running late to catch a bus. Other transit passengers might oversleep and miss the bus or be dissuaded by rainy or cold weather to walk to a bus or MAX stop, taking an Uber or Lyft instead.
And as traffic congestion grows, buses run slower, making them less desirable.
Curbing drunk driving
Uber and Lyft tout their role in reducing drunk driving, and that's hard to dispute here, given their presence at Portland nightclubs in Old Town/Chinatown last Saturday night. The two most oft-cited reasons for taking the ride services are to avoid parking hassles and fees and to avoid drunk driving, the UC Davis study found.
Uber and Lyft also have reduced the need for some to own a car, though the UC Davis survey didn't find that to be a significant trend.
"If we get people to trade in their cars, that's probably a win," says Chris Smith, a longtime transportation activist and member of the Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission. If people are shedding cars, there's more likelihood of them using transit more,
However, the UC Davis survey found Uber and Lyft have reduced the demand for car-sharing services such as Zipcar, ReachNow and car2go.
Transportation experts say one way to reduce congestion from Uber and Lyft is expanding their shared-ride services, in which they take multiple passengers headed in the same vicinity.
Chris Hagerbaumer, a transportation specialist for the Oregon Environmental Council, says Uber and Lyft might get more takers for shared rides if they'd lower the prices.
Uber and Lyft declined interviews for this story. Lyft sent some talking points including one saying more than a third of its passengers in "markets like Portland" are for shared rides.
Chou, the regional Uber manager, told the City Council last month that the company wants to improve its role in serving the last-mile function.
Uber and Lyft are cooperating with TriMet as it works to expand its Trip Planner app, to include the availability of app-based ride services and car-sharing services, Altstadt says.
In the not-too-distant future, Uber and Lyft are expected to shift to driverless cars, and that could disrupt the transportation system even more. Those clearly will reduce the demand for parking, but other impacts are unclear.
Cortright says the average cost to operate an Uber vehicle now is roughly $1 a mile, including the driver's personal outlay for the vehicle. Labor costs are roughly 75 cents of that, he says, so it's possible that driverless cars could be provided for 25 cents to 30 cents per mile. If someone could take a driverless car for $1.50 for five miles, "why would I ever get on a bus?" Cortright wonders. "You can imagine them just simply overwhelming the street system."
To seriously address road congestion, experts say the city will need to strategically set prices to use public streets and parking, in order to shift commuting patterns. There's consensus about that among transportation professionals "across the political spectrum," Walker says.
"There was congestion before there was Uber," he says. "There will be congestion until we start pricing road space correctly."
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What studies show
A survey of 5,000 riders in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., found:
n 21% of adults use app-assisted ride services; another 9 percent use them with friends.
n 24% of users take Uber, Lyft or similar services daily or weekly.
n 37% of users say the biggest draw is to avoid parking.
n 33% say their biggest reason is to avoid driving when drinking.
n App-based ride services reduced bus use by 6 percent and light-rail use 3 percent
n App-based ride services replace non-auto transportation: on 49% to 61% of the trips, the traveler would otherwise have walked, biked, used transit or stayed at home.
n 20% to 50% of the miles driven by Uber, Lyft and similar drivers occur without passengers.
Source: "Disruptive Transportation: The Adoption, Utilization and Impacts of Ride-Hailing in the United States," by Regina R. Clewlow and Gouri Shankar Mishra, UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies, October 2017
Findings from New York, other cities
n App-based ride services increased total vehicle-miles driven 7% since 2015 in Manhattan, western Queens and western Brooklyn, enough to cause a "substantial worsening of traffic congestion."
n Uber and Lyft started offering pooled rides in New York in mid-2015, but exclusive-ride trips still predominate, causing ever-increasing traffic.
n A San Francisco survey found only 7% of those using app-assisted ride services would have driven a personal or rental car if the services weren't available; 43% would have used transit, walked or biked.
n A Denver survey of Uber riders found 31% would have driven a personal vehicle or rental car if app-based ride services weren't available; 28% would have used transit or carpooled.
n Driverless vehicles could reduce congestion and parking shortages, but the combination of lower fares and faster trips could pull riders from transit, "negating the congestion benefits."
Source: "Unsustainable?: The Growth of App-Based Ride Services and Traffic, Travel and the Future of New York City," Bruce Schaller, February 2017
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