When they were first introduced, many hailed ridesharing as a solution for improving cities by decreasing the number of cars a household owns and reducing traffic on our roads. However, research out this week shows the opposite is true and companies such as Uber and Lyft actually seem to be worsening the traffic, bringing our cities to a standstill.
Five years ago if you needed a ride you would call up a taxi firm and wonder how long it would take to get to you. Once it arrived you would wonder how much the journey would cost and whether you were taking the quickest route based on the traffic. This was especially stressful in foreign countries where you nervously hoped you had enough local currency to cover the bill.
Today, thanks to rideshare companies such as Uber, Lyft, Ola and Didi, Kiwis can now jump in a vehicle for the same journey, usually at a lower cost, with prior knowledge of arrival time, fare and no transaction fees or foreign currency needed when overseas.
This convenience and transparency has helped the rideshare market surge and in 2016 the number of rideshare trips in major cities was 12 times the number of taxi trips.
Rideshare companies stated their vision as "reducing congestion in major cities" so researchers decided to study traffic patterns from 2010 to 2016 in San Francisco – the city where ridesharing was born.
First they created a model to predict changes in traffic congestion from 2010 to 2016 due to population growth, employment rates, new roadway construction and changes in public transport if rideshare hadn't been invented. They then compared this predicted data to the actual data collected on the roads over that period and found the increase was much higher than anticipated.
The rideshare companies are sitting on a treasure trove of data, but they kept it all private so the researchers collected data from a computer program that had been built to query the API or programming interface of the mobile app for both Uber and Lyft.
The program was able to detect and report the location of the 10 closest rideshare vehicles every 2 seconds. Researchers set up a grid of detection locations across San Francisco and collected 17 terabytes worth of rideshare location and availability information over a six-month period in 2016.
They then took all of this data and determined how much of the traffic increase was caused by the introduction of rideshare vehicles.
Publishing in the journal Science Advances, the researchers found that in San Francisco, ride-sharing services made traffic delays 62 per cent worse. These delays were predicted to have become only 22 per cent worse if ridesharing hadn't been introduced.
The researchers found that rather than walk, cycle or take the bus, travellers with access to rideshare vehicles chose to take the more convenient option of a door-to-door pick-up and drop-off instead. Rather than taking drivers out of cars, ridesharing is taking passengers off buses and bikes and back into cars. The convenience of the service also resulted in more vehicles stopping outside offices, reducing inner city traffic flow and increasing congestion.
While the data for New Zealand cities has not yet been published, studies on other cities with rideshare facilities also found they increased traffic volumes. Perhaps it's time for our city planners to think about ways to help our public transport options compete with the convenience of ridesharing to help encourage New Zealanders to use transport more efficiently and bring flow back to our cities.