You don’t need us to tell you traffic is bad — and getting worse (but we did tell you). But there’s a new study examining the impact Uber and Lyft drivers are having on the roads of six U.S. cities, including Los Angeles.
The rideshare companies commissioned the study from transportation consultant firm Fehr & Peers, which compiled their trip data, along with federal, state, and local figures on vehicle miles traveled (VMT).
Researchers analyzed VMT data from September 2018 in the greater metropolitan areas of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, Seattle and Washington D.C.
The data did show that Lyft and Uber, referred to as Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) in the report, are contributing notable congestion in a few of the areas studied, particularly San Francisco and Boston, where their fleets contributed up to 13% and 8% of core region VMT, respectively.
But before you grab your pitchforks, pump the brakes, L.A. drivers. If you point your finger at rideshare companies, you have about 97 more pointing back at you.
Given our local love affair with cars, coupled with our special sort of sprawl, it isn’t surprising that the greater L.A. metro region led the pack in VMT for Uber and Lyft drivers. The report found that, in Sept. 2018, L.A. Uber and Lyft drivers spent:
50.7 million miles on average on the road waiting for a ride request (logged in to the app but without a fare)
17.66 million miles on the road on their way to pick up a passenger (without already having one)
104.1 million miles driving a passenger to their destination
But Lyft and Uber’s impact on overall traffic in L.A. hasn’t been that drastic, according to the data. On-the-clock Uber and Lyft drivers logged between 160 million and 184.9 million total miles in greater L.A. for the month studied. Compare that to the roughly 11.8 billion miles all motorists in the region drove in the same month.
“In total, approximately 2 to 3 percent of all VMT generated in Los Angeles County was generated by Lyft and Uber services in September 2018, while all other vehicle activity accounts for 97 to 98 percent of total VMT,” researchers wrote.
“If [Lyft and Uber] have confessed to slowing you down while you are in traffic, then they have confessed to sharing in the crime that you are also committing,” said Michael Manville from UCLA’s Institute of Transportation Studies. “It’s fun to search for bogeymen, but the enemy here truly is us.”
The report might confirm what many of us already assumed was happening, but for Manville, an associate professor of urban planning, it’s no barn-burner.
“These are cars. Cars cause congestion,” he told LAist recently. “I guess it’s interesting to quantify how much congestion might be caused by cars under the employee of a particular company, but I’m not sure how meaningful that is from a policy perspective.”
And if you think getting rid of ride-hailing vehicles would alleviate your traffic pain, we have bad news for you: that’s not how traffic works. Traffic, as the experts have explained, is a paradox: freeing up or adding new road space does not reduce congestion; it just leads to more driving.
“Someone who’s sitting at home right now, who doesn’t go out because the road is so congested would notice that it was less congested and go out,” Manville explained.
He added that his UCLA colleagues like to joke that the more interesting study would be to look at how much Ford and Toyota contribute to traffic congestion.
“It’s fun to blame tech companies for things — they’re really easy to dislike — but congestion is something that we all cause,” Manville said. “I would hate to see people take this as another way to avoid the very real but unpleasant truth that unless you price your roads at busy times, you don’t make a dent in congestion.”
The point of the study, according to Lyft spokeswoman Lauren Alexander, was to put the two rideshare companies’ mileage into context within the broader scope of regional congestion.
The companies are quick to point out that their impact on traffic pales in comparison to all other vehicles on the road, and the study could serve to bolster what Manville and other traffic experts say is the only proven way to reduce congestion: charging drivers to hit the road at certain times in certain places. In L.A., that could soon include charging rideshare companies a fee, which would likely be passed on to passengers (as in you).
Both Uber and Lyft have voiced their support for congestion pricing for their fleets, which is already in place in several cities, including New York, Portland and Chicago.
The L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority is currently studying congestion pricing — and a possible tax on Uber and Lyft rides to raise money for its ambitious public transit goals.