Alleged shenanigans involving Uber are hitting the front page in Toronto. I’m always less interested in these types of scandals, and more in the big picture. What’s happening right now gives us the chance to take a good look at whether ride-sharing services are a healthy part of the urban transportation mix.
Much of what I have to say here comes from data and observations from an NBC article that notes that ride-hailing apps are “wreaking havoc on cities”. The article was published in 2019, but its observations still have relevance today. So let’s ask, what does ride-sharing do for a city?
Does it reduce car traffic? Well, one review found that around half (or more) of ride-hailing trips either would not have been made or replaced transit, walking and cycling – not the private automobile – which means that it took people off bikes or foot and into cars.
Does ride-sharing have a meaningful impact on car ownership or driving miles? A San Francisco study found that ride-hailing services made 12 times the number of taxi trips, most concentrated in the densest and most congested parts of the city (which also happen to be the most walkable, bikeable and transit serviced areas) . Meanwhile, the ride-share drivers themselves can seldom afford to live within Toronto, so we can add to those total miles the daily grind from and to Mississauga, Brampton or Barrie that ride-share drivers have told me they endure.
Does ride-share hurt or help transit? Some argue that ride-share relieves overburdened transit systems. Yet the problems of cost, overcrowding or reliability that lead people to desert transit should be addressed at the source, rather than dumping more cars onto already gridlocked streets. And the desertion of transit that ride-share services can cause contributes to a vicious circle of service cuts as ridership declines – bad news for the remaining transit users who can’t afford to hop in a vehicle at a whim.
Is Uber good for employment? There’s no question that there are plenty of people who are working for Uber or Lyft, and it does offer a readily available job for those with limited employment options. But there is plenty of criticism from the drivers themselves over their pay and working conditions. And, since in the past Uber had hoped to replace all their drivers with self driving cars, we know that employment of drivers is not necessarily in the business model of these companies.
As these companies – who want to “shape the rules” in our cities, consider new business models, like becoming digital platforms with something close to a monopoly, enabling them to charge rent to the transportation providers that use them, we would do well to note the impact on the city when Rogers went down. Could it be that a public platform as Berlin has would be a better option? Or do we want to avoid a centralized option altogether?
If ride-sharing apps increase congestion, don’t provide a living wage, don’t impact car ownership or miles driven, why have them? Well, there is one big benefit – people like them. That’s why they are so successful. So we won’t be getting rid of them anytime soon (and if you do use them, make sure you know what it’s like for the drivers giving you that easy ride). But do we need to exempt the companies from taxes? Or give them sweet deals? Or turn a blind eye to their unethical or even self professed “f*&$ing illegal” actions?
With the city set to consider ride-hailing regulations in 2023, it’s worth revisiting our relationship with these providers, to make sure they are truly serving our city, rather than our city serving them.