Can Local Governments Make Lyft and Uber More Sustainable?

Uber ride-hailing passenger, Toronto

Photo by BeyondDC / CC BY

Why, you ask, would I conduct 42 interviews with planners, state agency staff, and non-profits working on transportation and city planning? I am a researcher at the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis. I study the societal impacts of ridehailing services, like Uber and Lyft. Ridehailing is a hot topic, and the subject of much commentary from prominent transportation experts. It is the focus of the recent book that I co-authored with Dan Sperling, Three Revolutions: Steering Automated, Shared, and Electric Vehicles to a Better Future.

Interview highlights:

“Maybe a ride split or ride pool would be like a gateway thing [to riding transit]”

“This very organic electric energy and rapid advancement of the [ridehailing] type model, now beginning to bump up against a very rigid or old school way of transit planning,”

“A challenge is to design policy for all the things that are emerging, and not just the most problematic and attention grabbing.”

My main goal in conducting dozens of interviews was to get perspective on how to help communities maximize the benefits from all the ridehailing cars rolling around on their streets. The people I chose to interview are on the front lines during a revolutionary time in transportation, and understanding their diverse perspectives is key to developing research-based policies with real potential to win widespread support and generate positive impacts. At the end of the study I will step back and integrate the themes of these interviews, and report on trends and insights. Much like this blog, I will also share anecdotes along the way.

Interview Questions

I asked interviewees about their expectations of the impacts of ridehailing services. I asked about possible actions they could take, or are already taking to align ridehailing with their sustainable transportation goals. I also asked about who should be involved in policy development and implementation, and what they see as the biggest challenges to getting policies, programs or other actions in place.

Local Governments Want to Balance Statewide Guidance with Local Control

I am hearing that local governments want to retain control over the details of addressing the impacts of ridehailing in their jurisdictions. Many of those I spoke with value a coordinated statewide effort to set targets and provide a bird’s eye view to find best practices. But across the board, local government stakeholders want to be sure they can address ridehailing in a way that fits the needs of their unique areas. This is not surprising, and not the first time California would need to strike such a balance between local control and state coordination. For example, AB 32 and SB 375 set goals for greenhouse gas emissions reductions, but decisions about how to reach these goals are largely left to local jurisdictions. This approach makes sense; there is a huge variety among California communities.

As one interviewee pointed out, we must start thinking about dense urban areas of San Francisco as a unique case for Uber and Lyft, rather than representative of the experiences of communities across California. The challenges arising in San Francisco are relevant to other densely populated areas, but not all. Allocating right of way and curb space is a different ball game in less dense or rural parts of the state.

Stakeholder Type Interviews
City Community Development, Transportation, or Traffic Planners 12
County Transportation Commissions 4
Regional Transportation Planning Agencies and Metropolitan Planning Organizations 12
State Agencies 5
Transportation Network Companies 1
Interest Groups and Non-profits 8
Total 42

Impacts, and integration, with public transit will also look different in each region and city. Some California counties—Trinity County and Alpine County, for example—have barely more than 1,000 residents. Counties like these would embrace the increased presence of ridehailing services, as a means to expand public transportation, which often has limited coverage and hours of operation, as well as long wait times in these rural areas. Other parts of California are visited by huge numbers of tourists, with traffic patterns resulting not from commuters but from visitors to places like Lake Tahoe. Interviewees from these areas are looking for ways to alleviate challenges arising from increases in vacation home rentals like Airbnb. Ridehailing could encourage visitors to leave their cars at their vacation rentals, and serve as a collector through neighborhoods.

Policies and programs addressing ridehailing must be flexible enough to address the impacts occurring across the diversity of California communities, but specific enough to offer real guidance and targets.

Fees and Preferential Curb Access May be Effective, If Implemented Correctly

When I asked about specific policy approaches to align ridehailing with sustainable transportation goals, most interviewees were not in favor of a ridehailing tax, something recently introduced in Chicago. Additionally, a number of interviewees pointed out that policies involving pricing should target all single passenger vehicles, not just those involving ridehailing. Discussions also highlighted political and equity challenges associated with pricing strategies.

Attitudes towards policies related to the use of public curb space or right of way were more open. A number of creative approaches arose, including identifying strategic partners such as bars, night-clubs, and tourist attractions. The idea is for preferential multi-passenger – as opposed to single passenger – loading areas to prevent driving under the influence, or to allow multi-passenger travelers to avoid the trek from far away and congested parking areas in tourist destinations. Enforcement of preferential pickup/drop-off access for multi-passenger trips is the primary challenge noted by a number of interviewees.

On the surface, I heard disagreement about the potential ways ridehailing may integrate with, complement, or impact public transit. Some smaller and more rural areas embrace the potential for ridehailing services as a cost effective means to improve public transportation, though many are waiting to see the outcomes of existing pilot programs. Others cautioned that transit agencies must be flexible and willing to learn about future mobility. And a number of interviewees expressed concern about the loss of union transit jobs if ridehailing supplants public transit. Ridehailing is already blurring the lines with public transportation and policy addressing the relationship between new and existing services must enable transit agencies to modernize and take advantage of these services, while at the same time maintaining equity in service and employment practices.

Interviewees would also like to see policy development address the links between automated vehicles and ridehailing as well as information sharing and transparency about future technologies in order to be forward thinking. Again many interviews covered the need for state and federal leadership to address these issues, convene lessons learned and disseminate best practices.

Is Your City Testing the Waters or Jumping Right In?

Interviewees were split into three main groups in terms of their activities related to policy for sustainable transportation and ridehailing. A few spend very little time thinking about this topic, reporting that Uber and Lyft have not been in their area for long, do not provide a substantial level of mobility, or do not pose any challenges.

In the middle ground were stakeholders that are thinking and talking a lot about ridehailing, but taking a wait-and-see approach. Last, there were some interviewees who are already doing a lot to address these topics within their local jurisdiction— typically in larger metropolitan areas, or rural areas with a strong desire to improve public transportation.

What’s Next?

Policy making related to sustainable transportation and ridehailing is still in early stages. Pilots are testing some approaches and the policy dialogue continues. Local governments should advocate for local control but be willing to work within state level frameworks. State regulators should provide meaningful guidance and address the needs of California’s diverse stakeholders and communities.

This blog is based on current research being conducted by Susan Pike, a postdoctoral researcher at ITS-Davis. More information on the study can be found here.

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