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Why Uber is bad for cities

Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

App-based hire ride taxi services like Uber and Lyft have added millions of miles travelled – and therefore air pollution, congestion, and millions of tonnes extra greenhouse gas emissions – and pulled riders away from public transport in cities wherever they operate, new research shows.


Last time I used an Uber, in Edinburgh, Scotland, the driver told me he regularly picks up groups of five or six students from their accommodation block to take them to lessons just a mile or so away. Previously they would have walked – a healthy option; so their fitness may be affected by these low per-person cost trips and ease of use.

But that’s not all. We’re now becoming aware of the negative effects of their popularity, as they drive people off buses and subways and into little boxes on wheels, often with just one or two passengers that help clog up streets and dirty the atmosphere.

“Uber’s CEO tells us they ‘do the right thing, period’,” says Yoann Le Petit, a mobility expert with Transport and Environment (T&E), a European think tank. “But the reality is that Uber is part of the traffic and pollution problem, adding car trips in our cities and adding to the climate and pollution crisis.

“If it wants to become part of the solution Uber needs to stop using petrol and diesel cars and rapidly shift to 100 per cent electric rides. That’s the right thing to do, full stop.”

T&E has published new research on the impact of these services on cities in Europe, whose conclusions are probably valid everywhere they operate.

In these cities, taxi services account for between 10 per cent and 20 per cent of urban traffic. In London last year they were responsible for 12 per cent of traffic during working days, despite making up only 4 per cent of registered vehicles.

This is directly contrary to the aim of the English capital’s congestion tax – to reduce trips.

The convenience of door-to-door, app-based trip booking for individuals comes with several costs.

Cost 1: climate change

Chief among these is the boost given to climate change.

Across the UK, greenhouse gas emissions from app-based hire rides increased by 23 per cent (655 kilotonnes CO2) between 2012 and 2017 – heading in the opposite direction from the government’s targets.

In London, Paris and Brussels also, an increase in measured overall transport emissions corresponds to the increase in registered Uber-type drivers.

As if to underscore this connection, there’s no similar correlation with taxi licences – which flat-lined – and total car emissions in the UK for example actually decreased by 581 kt CO2 – a drop which would be double if there were no Uber-type services, say the researchers.

Cost 2: bad air

Uber is adding more air pollution to already car-clogged cities.

In most places the majority of private hire vehicles are diesel – in France, the figure is 90 per cent. Diesel cars are worse than petrol for creating air quality problems.

London cabs’ pollutant (NOx) emissions are substantially high – on average three times higher than those of other equivalent engine diesel cars.

This affects not just the health of children and adults on the streets taxi drivers themselves.

Only in London, where it is mandatory, is Uber making an effort to shift to cleaner electric vehicles. Elsewhere, no such effort exists.

Cost 3: congestion

Traffic volume hasn’t decreased with the advent of Uber; it’s got worse, particularly generating additional car trips to city centres, where public policy has been trying for years to limit their number and contain their impact.

The T&E study uses Paris and London as key examples of what happens when a lift service hits town, but the same result was found in other European cities: the number of private hire vehicles registered almost doubled, while traditional taxi drivers very slightly declined.

The number of taxis in European cities used to be limited due to the licencing system. Not anymore. By the end of 2018 Uber had 45,000 drivers in London.

Uber claims that it wants to see vehicle ownership decline in favour of its on-demand service. This hasn’t happened. In the US and in the EU car trips have not decreased faster since the arrival of Uber and similar services.

Previous studies in US cities, such as New York, San Francisco, Boston, and Chicago, have already shown that Uber and Lyft exacerbate congestion.

In London, Transport for London has reported an increase in traffic of 5 per cent since 2012 within its congestion zone, which it attributes to private hire vehicles.

In Paris, the average vehicle speed (going down anyway as congestion increases) has decreased more rapidly since 2011, when Uber arrived.

Greenwashing

US environmental non-governmental organisation the Sierra Club is mounting a campaign against the “greenwashing” of companies like Lyft and Uber.

Uber’s initial public offering (IPO) valued it at $49 billion in October 2019. In its accompanying documentation Uber said it wants to achieve a target of 4.7 trillion miles globally – 20 per cent more than its current distance.

The T&E researchers slam this as “an obstacle to the transition to green and sustainable cities”.

Rebekah Whilden, Sierra Club’s campaign representative, says they “aren’t fooling anyone anymore. Cities and countries around the world are beginning to see the companies for what they are: corporate players putting profit over planet.”

London has this week refused to renew Uber’s licence – but on personal safety grounds, not environmental ones.

What’s the solution?

The T&E researchers have a few recommendations.

To start with, regulators can demand that all taxis be zero-emission (electric) by 2025.

Leasing an electric vehicle (EV) that’s used as much as a taxi is (230km per day on average), and is home-charged on a cheaper tariff, makes economic sense, since an EV’s running cost is a tenth of a diesel’s.

Many cities don’t even have data for the impact of Uber and other new private hire vehicle services on their streets. They’re urged to start collecting it as a prerequisite for managing the problems they bring.

Cities should also rapidly roll out dedicated fast charging infrastructure so these and other vehicles can charge up on the go.

Licenced services should help reduce car travel in cities by offering and promoting shared/pooled rides, avoiding the single rider in a box waste of road space.

These companies should also be encouraged to share (real time) data and closely integrate their services into existing public transport networks rather than compete with them.

The researchers also warn that if one app-based lift service reaches a monopoly of the local market there’s a risk that without competition that service no longer has an incentive to be the most sustainable or cost-effective.

So next time you reach for the app to order a ride – pause to consider the price, and the other options.

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