Study Ties Rise in Car Ownership to Entrance of Ride-Hail Services in Cities

In this Feb. 12, 2020, photograph, a sign for the car sharing service Lyft stands near a pickup zone outside the Pepsi Center in downtown Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

(CN) — If people can just hail a ride from a five-star Lyft or Uber driver at a moment’s notice, will they even bother owning cars? According to research published in the journal iScience on Wednesday, the answer is yes: vehicle ownership actually increased across cities alongside the arrival of ride-hail services.

Across U.S. cities served by Uber and Lyft, car ownership increased an average of 0.7% between 2010 and 2017.

“I would have expected people to own fewer vehicles once they gain access to this alternative transportation mode, but that’s not what we see in the data,” said study co-author Jeremy Michalek in a statement. Michalek is a professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University.

From 2010 to 2017, the number of Americans hiring rides doubled. By 2016, 15% of trips across San Francisco were made via what the researchers refer to as ridesource services. Still, the use of these services only accounts for 0.5% of total passenger trips taken each day and remains concentrated in urban areas.

With increased use, the energy and environmental impact of ridesource services becomes significant as more cars on the road means more energy consumption and higher levels of vehicle emissions.

To understand whether ridesource services lived up to expectations of decreasing car ownership and reducing transportation energy costs, researchers analyzed seven years of data collected in dozens of U.S. cities, including vehicle registration data assembled by IHS Markit, the Federal Transit Administration’s annual transit ridership reports, and population demographics collected from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The emergence of ridesource services correlated with a decline in vehicle registrations in 17% of urban areas studied but correlated with an increase in 26%. While vehicle registration per capita decreased by 11% in Redding, California, with the introduction of ridesource services, the launch of the same businesses corresponded with a 15.7% increase in car registrations in Gainesville, Florida.

Major factors associated with car ownership were income and children. Urban areas with wealthier populations and fewer children tended to own fewer cars per capita.

“What this suggests to me is that in a city where people have disposable income and fewer children, they don’t mind paying more for a more convenient mode of transportation, and they don’t have to worry about logistics like bringing a car seat,” Michalek wrote.

In addition to ridesource services influencing frequent passengers to forgo car ownership, researchers postulated that the presence of transportation network companies can provide an opportunity for people with lower incomes to afford owning a car.

While ridesource services may not universally decrease dependency on individual cars, researchers say there are many other ways companies can reduce their energy costs.

“For all of the miles that Uber and Lyft put into the system, about 45% of them are without a passenger,” co-author Alejandro Henao said in an interview. Now a mobility researcher with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Henao previously drove for Uber and Lyft so he could collect primary research and better understand how the services worked for drivers and passengers alike.

“Because of those additional miles, you also incur some additional energy,” Henao said. “Then what happens if you’re taking away rides from public transit as well? That creates an even bigger energy impact.”

He added: “We need to continue increasing the amount of electric vehicles that these companies have in their fleet. Number two is we need to reduce the number of deadhead miles that you have into the system. To get there, you need to know what’s your demand, how many drivers you have, how you balance those?”

All of the data in this study was collected before the Covid-19 pandemic shook up the commuter world and it remains to be seen which habits people resume in the aftermath.

The National Science Foundation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency contributed funding to this research.

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