The experience of moving through San Francisco in a car has gone from slow to crawl.
Congestion in the Bay Area flagship city has grown increasingly worse, and a new report by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority placed a sizable portion of that blame on ride-hailing services like Lyft or Uber.
“It appears that TNCs (transportation network companies) contributed approximately 50 percent of the overall increases in congestion in San Francisco between 2010 and 2016,” the report reads.
To be clear, TNCs are not the only factor contributing to clogged streets. This city — which measures roughly 7 miles by 7 miles — has grown in both population and jobs. San Francisco grew from about 805,000 residents in 2010 to 876,000 residents in 2016, an 8.8 percent increase, according to the county report. Meanwhile, the city supported about 700,000 jobs in 2016, a 28.4 percent jump from 2010, which means more commuters funneling into the city.
Morning and afternoon travel speeds along key arterial streets have declined by 26 percent to 27 percent from 2009 to 2017, according to the study. Meanwhile, the “vehicle miles traveled” (VMT) — another metric measuring how intensely a transportation network is being used — climbed from about 4.9 million miles in 2010 to about 5.6 million miles in 2016 on a typical weekday, a 13 percent increase. San Francisco transportation officials believe TNCs account for 47 percent of this increase in VMT.
For its part, Uber contested the findings of the SFCTA study, saying it did not adequately take into consideration the effects that increased tourism and delivery vehicles might have on congestion.
SFCTA’s congestion study concludes that visitors account for less than 5 percent of travel in San Francisco, and many tourists tend to use public transportation. Ridership on the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency system, which includes the city’s network of subways, streetcars and buses, grew 6.8 percent from 2010 to 2016, according to American Public Transportation Association statistics. And ridership on the regional Bay Area Rapid Transit system grew 25.9 percent during the same period, an era of significant job growth across the Bay Area as the region emerged from the Great Recession.
A recent report by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission — the planning organization for the nine-county San Francisco region — concluded Bay Area freeway congestion seemed to level off in 2017 following four years of worsening commutes.
“The good news here is that the average Bay Area commute hasn’t gotten any worse,” said MTC Chair and Rohnert Park, Calif., City Councilmember Jake Mackenzie in a statement. “The bad news is that it hasn’t gotten any better either.”
Whether TNCs are taking would-be transit riders out of buses and subways and placing them inside cars, which then add to street congestion, is an open question. An October 2017 study by the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University California, Davis found TNCs contributed to a 6 percent drop in public transit use. Other research has indicated commuters and others still use mass transit to travel from residential areas to major job centers or downtown business districts.
And once travelers get to those downtown districts, a number of cities — San Francisco included — are hoping new, emerging mobility options like shared bikes and scooters will come into broader use as a means of reducing vehicular congestion.
“Bikes and scooters may help ease congestion in San Francisco in two ways,” explained Eric Young, senior communications officer for the San Francisco County Transportation Authority. “First, as an improved first-last mile access option to transit, thereby encouraging and spurring transit use. Second, they help ease congestion if they replace private vehicle trips.”
This “mode shift” needs to be carefully examined, warned Young, as he noted trips via e-bikes and e-scooters could be replacing more sustainable modes of getting around, such as conventional bikes and walking.
The area with the highest concentration of traffic congestion in San Francisco is clearly the northeast corner, a location known largely as the key downtown business and financial district, home to large office buildings like the 61-story Salesforce Tower. The study found that TNCs contributed to more than 80 percent of the speed reductions in the area north of Market Street, while job and population growth contributed to more than 50 percent of speed reductions in the area just to the south of this region, the report concluded.
Further complicating the question of whether Uber and Lyft are contributing to the city’s congestion, researchers say the report focused on the effects of “increased roadway congestion,” rather than total congestion, said Joseph P. Schwieterman, director for the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University.
“I'm not sure it accounts for the probable increase in personal-car driving trips that would occur if TNCs were not available,” said Schwieterman, who has led research projects in Chicago exploring how TNC pricing, travel times and availability all contribute to the decision-making process related to choosing ride-hailing or public transit.
“I don't doubt that TNCs add to congestion, but a more holistic picture requires looking at tradeoffs between the mobility benefits of TNCs and the costs,” Schwieterman added.
To be sure, traffic congestion was a fact of life for San Franciscans long before the active arrival of TNCs about eight years ago, said Young from the transportation authority.
“And the significant growth in employment and population between 2010 and 2016 would have resulted in increased congestion even without TNCs,” he added. “We estimate that there would have been significantly less increase in congestion without TNCs.”
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Sacramento.