Experts: Ride-Hailing Has an Environmental Problem to Fix

A new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists calls attention to the climate impacts of ride-hailing, since a portion of many ride-hailing trips involve an empty car, while the car is en route to pick up a passenger.

by / March 19, 2020
A new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists calls attention to the climate impacts of ride-hailing. Shutterstock

Not only is ride-hailing contributing to increased traffic congestion, it’s also a more polluting form of transportation than the single-occupancy trips it often replaces.

A portion of many ride-hailing trips involve an empty car, save for the driver, during the period when the car is enroute to picking up a passenger. In transportation parlance, it’s what’s known as “dead-heading” — the miles traveled between hires with no passengers. This practice is part of why the ride-hailing transportation sector contributes 69 percent more air pollution than the trips they displace, according to a new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The study aimed to “connect the dots” to get a clearer understanding of the actual impact of ride-hailing not only on congestion, but also what impact this emerging part of the transportation ecosystem is having on the environment, said Jeremy Martin, director of fuels policy with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“As I think about the future of our transportation system, these sorts of hired rides are becoming a more and more important part of that story,” said Martin.

To help combat this trend, the reports calls for policies and other approaches to encourage the pooling of rides and increasing the use of electric vehicles.

“These vehicles drive a lot so they’re attractive targets for electrification,” Martin said.

However, even in a state like California, where the EV market is strongest, electric cars facilitate less than about 1 percent of ride-hailing rides, according to a 2018 report by the California Air Resources Board.

A non-pooled ride-hailing trip in an electric car can cut emissions by about 53 percent, while if that trip is shared, the savings can reach 68 percent, compared to a trip in a conventional private vehicle, according to the report.

Today, only about 10 to 20 percent of ride-hailing trips are pooled.

Further complicating the issue are the trips ride-hailing may be syphoning from longtime sustainable forms of transportation like public transit or walking. It’s estimated that 60 percent of ride-hailing trips “are diverted from non-vehicle modes,” reads a 2019 research report in the Journal of the American Planning Association. This phenomenon could be contributing significantly to traffic congestion.   

“The evidence so far is that few people are taking advantage of the option of pooled rides in the ride-hailing market,” said Louis Merlin, author of the report. “Encouraging people to take pooled rides is essential if the ride-hailing industry is to make a significant contribution to sustainability.”

A 2019 California survey found that 24 percent of non-pooled ride-hailing trips would have been taken via transit, bike or walking if a service like Uber or Lyft were not available, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists report. 

Ride-Hailing by the Numbers:

  • Ride-hailing accounts for 2 to 13 percent of downtown vehicle miles.
  • Nearly 4 billion ride-hailing and taxi trips were taken in the United States in 2018.
  • A non-pooled ride-hailing trip is 47 percent more polluting than a trip in a personal car.
  • Ride-hailing adds 2.6 miles for each mile of personal driving it takes the place of.
    Source: Union of Concerned Scientists

IA number of transit agencies in cities like Seattle, Los Angeles and Sacramento, Calif. have partnered with providers of shared, on-demand transit to function somewhat like transportation network companies.

Measures should also be taken to increase the availability of sustainable low-impact mobility options, said Merlin.

“The places that are doing the best in shifting people to lower impact modes are those that are dedicating infrastructure to such modes, such as dedicated bus lanes in Seattle or dedicated bicycle lanes in Washington, D.C.,” said Merlin. “The key to getting people to shift to lower-impact modes is to repurpose roadway space for the dedicated use of transit, biking and shared mobility.”

If shared, electric rides are still an anomaly, at least one company is trying to change this trend. The startup Go360 recently launched in Sacramento, providing a subscription-based ride-hailing service using electric vehicles, with many of the rides being shared. Part of the idea is to connect riders of the region’s light-rail system with their downtown offices, and vice versa.

“We want to enable the light-rail solutions,” said Sravan Puttagunta, CEO of Go360, in the company’s Sacramento launch earlier this month. “Because that’s the most efficient way for getting people from city to city. And then we want to introduce a very reliable convenience for getting from the train station to your destination.”

Skip Descant Staff Writer

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.

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