May 2018

Have you heard the one about how Uber and the PTCs are building better cities?

by Mike Beggs

The prospect of reducing gridlock and greenhouse gases, and helping to build better cities has been a fundamental tenet of ridesharing industry leaders Uber and Lyft.

Along with the PTCs’ much-touted app technology, it appears consumers, politicians, and regulators around the world have, largely, bought into these claims.

But a lot of critics are quick to point out that while voicing their feel-good prognostications for a better world, Uber and Lyft have been busily building multi-billion-dollar empires.

And indeed, several recent studies indicate that rather than reducing urban problems like congestion and pollution, the PTCs are actually poaching people away from public transit and exacerbating the issues.

An October 2017 report by the University of California-Davis Institute of Transportation Studies determined that at least 50 percent of the trips analyzed either would not have been taken without ride-hailing, or would have been made by biking, walking or taking public transit.

“People are traveling in cars more there is induced demand,” says Dr. Regina Clewlow,” a former research assistant at UCD. “If you make things cheaper and easier, there’s more of it.”

“The emerging consensus is that ridesharing is increasing congestion,” agreed Christo Wilson, a professor of computer science at Boston’s Northeastern University who has studied Uber’s surge pricing practices, in the Associated Press.

Toronto taxi operators could have told you that. They’ve seen their business systematically undermined, with these PTC’s granted unlimited access and a range of other concessions, as in countless other big cities.

“It really is a smokescreen to build business,” alleges Independent Toronto Taxi Inc. president Mike Tranquada of such think tank talk from Uber and Lyft.

“How do you improve traffic congestion by putting 50,000 or 60,000 extra cars on the road in Toronto, cruising the downtown for fares? We’ve already got 5,000 taxis and 2,000 limos out there.”

“(The Uber guys are) trying to fit on to taxi stands. We have to kick them off all the time.”

He claims the downtown is clogged up from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily, and that traffic problems are further compounded because PTC drivers are untrained and many don’t even know where they’re going.

iTaxiworkers Association president Sajid Mughal agrees, “The way they’re operating, they’re creating more congestion, and pollution.”

“I work right in the downtown. Every day it’s worse and worse,” he says. “You can’t get around. It takes forever. A ride that should cost $10 is now $29, because the driver can’t move. The customer is upset. Sometimes they (cancel the ride).”

From Mississauga, where a PTC pilot project is in full swing, All-Star Taxi marketing manager Mark Sexsmith, similarly, reports that, “The traffic around the big malls is horrible.”

In his research, consultant Bruce Schaller (a former senior official in the New York City Department of Transportation) found that Uber and Lyft have added 976 million miles of new vehicle travel a year in The Big Apple.

“(Ride-sharing travel) is not a sustainable way to grow the city,” he told The Christian Science Monitor. “But there are ways (PTC’s) can add to mobility, and not have so many negative effects.”

Uber and Lyft company leaders say we must drastically reduce the number of privately owned vehicles in our cities. Consider that: more than three-quarters of adult Americans drive alone to their workplace. Or that in 2007 figures, there was a car for every single person in the U.S., costing $160 billion per year in productivity, and wasting seven billion hours a year sitting in traffic.

While acknowledging North Americans’ deep-rooted love affair with their cars, Lyft co-founders Logan Green and John Zimmer suggest by people selling off their second cars, congestion could be ended and $1 trillion saved in car ownership costs.

Valued at some $40 billion, Uber claims it is focused on “championing smart technology for smart cities”, with the ultimate goal of making it easier to live without owning a personal car, and improving urban life by reducing congestion, pollution, and the need for parking spaces.

CEO Dara Khosrowshahi was in Washington, DC last month to unveil plans to integrate a variety of new transportation options to its app, including bikes, car-sharing vehicles, and public transit. (The Verge alleges that after a year from Hell, “For Uber, finding new revenue streams outside of its core business of ride-hailing is growing increasingly urgent”.)

“I want to run a bus system for a city,” Khosrowshahi stated. “I want you to be able to take an Uber and get on to the subway, then get off and have an Uber waiting for you.”

In fact, Uber is already doing the former in the town of Innisfil, Ont., which struck up a partnership with Uber last May to provide flat rate rides, as opposed to the Town funding the setup of a traditional bus system. Staff estimates it has saved the Town $9 million per year through this partnership with 3,400 residents taking about 27,000 rides in the first eight months. And it has signed a deal for Uber to service two additional flat rate destinations.

However, Sexsmith claims this setup wouldn’t work in large cities.

“It’s a unique situation that’s viable for rural areas, and that’s about it. It would probably work in Bracebridge, and Gravenhurst. It sure as hell isn’t going to work in Toronto, where you get two people into a vehicle, as opposed to 50 or 60 into a bus,” he comments.

To break the chain of gridlock, experts say it will take innovative measures like a cap on the number of PTC’s, congestion pricing, high occupancy vehicle lanes, improved public transit working in tandem with ridesharing apps, and perhaps down the road a critical mass of autonomous vehicles.

In unsuccessfully pushing for a cap on Uber vehicles in 2015, New York Mayor Bill De Blasio noted that 2,000 new for-hire cars were being added to the city streets every month!

And with a whopping 103,000 vehicles now playing in Manhattan , and the average traffic speed slowed down from 6.5 to 4.7 miles per hour, in early April New York Council approved a hefty surcharge of $3.75 per Uber and Lyft ride, and $2.50 for taxis. These fees have upset drivers, and passengers alike.

Surcharges for PTC’s were previously implemented in Seattle (24 cents per trip), and Portland, Oregon (50 cents per trip).

“This is rather interesting,” says Toronto owner/operator Gerry Manley, “as I wondered quite a while ago if Toronto would get into something like this, to address vehicle congestion in our downtown core.”

Schaller says there’s a lot to be learned from Stockholm, and London.

Stockholm has seen a 20 percent decrease in traffic through its downtown, and a 5 to 15 per cent reduction in the city’s air pollution since a congestion tax was introduced in 2007. Under a similar surcharge, Central London witnessed a 21 percent decrease in traffic between 2000 and 2015.

In chronically congested Los Angeles, the UberPool carpool for-hire service has prevented 1.4 thousand metric tonnes of CO2 from entering the atmosphere, while the rival Lyft Line is also now operative. But again, critics say these inexpensive carpooling services are tempting riders away from public transit.

In 2016, the U.S. Federal Transit Administration awarded $8 million to a series of private-public initiatives, including a partnership between Los Angeles County and Lyft to encourage ride-hailing trips that start or end at transit stops.

“I don’t think that works,” Sexsmith comments. “Downtown Toronto is mostly people who live close enough to walk, or bike to get to transit. And nobody is going to drive people around for a few bucks.”

“Most of the cities’ downtowns are so congested, all (ridesharing) is doing is just moving people from one vehicle into another. It might be reducing the requests for parking in the city.”

He notes that during the first quarter of 2018, the Toronto Transit Commission was down over 1 billion fares from Q1 2017.

“This is going in the wrong direction,” he says.


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