City Hall’s last estimate said that Lyft and Uber accounted for 6.5% of all San Francisco traffic. The companies’ own data shows it’s actually twice that much.
The ever-ongoing debate over how much extra traffic Uber and Lyft create has been raging for years, but has always been missing one very critical component — actual data from Uber and Lyft, who surely have reams of granular information on every aspect of their impacts. The latest data we had on the subject was a 2017 San Francisco County Transportation Authority report which said that rideshare vehicles were responsible for “50% of the rise in congestion in San Francisco between 2010 and 2016,” and that “local ride-hail trips account for an estimated 6.5 percent of total weekday vehicle miles traveled.” But that data is clearly outdated, as evidenced by the “between 2010 and 2016” part of the statement.
But now we have real data from the rideshares themselves, and the San Francisco Examiner reports that the rideshare companies’ congestion impacts are double what we’d previously thought, constituting 13% of all vehicle miles driven here in the city. This finding comes from a far broader 21-page joint analysis from Lyft and Uber (here’s your one-pager) that assesses rideshare impacts in six major U.S. cities, San Francisco among them.
In true money-losing tech firm fashion, Uber and Lyft are spinning these findings as total validation of their outstanding and visionary efforts. Uber’s head of global policy for public transportation Chris Pangilinan took to Medium to declare that “although TNCs [Transportation Network Companies] are likely contributing to an increase in congestion, its scale is dwarfed by that of private cars and commercial traffic.” This is essentially Uber and Lyft claiming it’s a victory that fewer than half of all cars on the road Ubers and Lyfts. The report was prepared by transportation consultants Fehr and Peers, who admit in the report that the rideshare companies hired them to “form appropriate narratives,” or in other words, put lipstick on 30-50 feral hogs.
You can see whether appropriate narratives are being formed by the Engadget headline Uber and Lyft admit they're making city traffic worse.
CityLab has one of the best critical analyses of the report, pointing out that Lyft and Uber’s ascendance has correlated with higher rates of pedestrian deaths and rising carbon emissions. While that’s not a provable causation, CityLab does note that Lyft and Uber’s “vehicles are responsible for significant portions of VMT (Vehicle miles traveled) in six major urban centers”
Admittedly, the percentage of Uber and Lyft vehicles is far lower in the five other major cities assessed (Boston, Chicago, L.A., Seattle, and Washington, D.C.). And when you spread the net across the entire Bay Area, the percentage falls from 13% in San Francisco to just 2.7% regionwide.
There are unique reasons why San Francisco is so uniquely full of rideshare vehicles.
“San Francisco has a lower rate of car ownership compared to the rest of the Bay Area, as well as a robust internal transit system, and the lowest (Vehicle miles traveled) per Capita in the region,” the study says. “As such, the higher share of (Vehicle miles traveled) potentially associated with Lyft and Uber may reflect lower overall rates of driving and higher transit rates.”
And San Francisco is certainly taking efforts to mitigate these unique effects. SFO airport pickups have been moved to the facility’s garage to limit traffic jams, and of course, we may see a rideshare tax on the November ballot. Lawmakers are trying to figure out how to deal with “disruptive” companies that can have massive societal impacts, and are bizarrely afforded the freedom of losing gargantuan amounts of money on a scale that other forms of transit can’t. The rideshares also manipulate the political process of legislators trying to regulate them, so managing the effects of increased ridesharing will likely continue to prove difficult.
Image: Minneapolis Public Works Streets via Flickr