Uber and Lyft changed how Philly gets around. What does that mean for the city?

My first experience with ride hailing came as I was with a friend and grumbling about finding a cab home from a party on Boathouse Row.

She mentioned “Uber,” which at the time meant nothing to me, and pulled out her smart phone. Not long after, a SUV pulled up looking for us. I was stunned by this high-tech, super-convenient service.

About three years later, what was a novelty has become routine, but cities and transportation agencies are still trying to grasp what this new industry means for travel. The University of California-Davis Institute of Transportation Studies last month offered one of the most comprehensive studies to date on how people are using ride hailing services, with information gathered in 2014 through 2016 from people in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, the San Francisco Bay area, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.

Among the findings:

  • Ride-hailing users skew younger, better educated, and richer, and the service is more widely used in cities than the ‘burbs.
  • Ride hailing causes a 6 percent reduction in bus ridership, and a 3 percent reduction in light rail ridership. On the other hand, the study found ride sharing was associated with a 3 percent increase in commuter rail ridership. Ride-hailing users walked more, too, the study reported.
  • Ride-hailing users have about the same rate of car ownership as people who don’t use transit. Most ride-hailing users didn’t get rid of their car but those who did — about 9 percent — reported using ride hailing vehicles when they would have used a private vehicle.
  • 49% to 61% of ride hailing trips would have been taken by walking, bike, or transit, or not taken at all, if ride hailing wasn’t available.
  • The study’s authors found “ride-hailing is currently likely to contribute to growth in vehicle miles traveled in
    the major cities represented in this study.”

We asked four Philadelphia transportation experts for their thoughts on how ride sharing is reshaping how people in this region get around. Here are excerpts from their responses.

Christopher Puchalsky, director of policy and strategic initiatives for the Philadelphia Office of Transportation and Infrastructure Services

The recent study out of UC Davis and previous work in New York City illustrate both the benefits and problems created by ride sharing.  Curbside management, growth in auto-traffic, and a decline in transit ridership have been observed in both studies. While we do not have the same data available in Philadelphia, we can reasonably assume that the effects seen in these studies are being repeated here. The UC Davis study found that half of trips are either diverted from transit, walking, and biking, or would not have happened at all. This points to the congestion-causing potential of Uber, Lyft, and other ride-hailing services, with implications for the efficiency, safety, and environmental footprint of our transportation system. Philadelphia is growing. Seattle and New York City were able to accommodate their recent growth almost entirely through efficient transit, walking, and biking. My office is committed to working with SEPTA to ensure the efficiency of bus service in Philadelphia so that it is a viable alternative to ride hailing.

Erick Guerra, assistant professor of city and regional planning, University of Pennsylvania

I see services like those provided by Uber and Lyft as an early sign of what could be a substantial entry of the private sector back into the business of providing mass transit. Before World War II, the private sector provided most public transit in this country. It has also always existed — think shuttles running from Flushing to New York’s Chinatown, airport shuttles, dollars vans in Brooklyn, and even Google buses.

When I lived and traveled in Central and West Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer, I had a wealth of transit options at my disposal. Generally, this would involve getting in a privately owned minibus running a fixed route and competing or cooperating with other minibus operators. In Mexico City, where I work frequently and whose 225-kilometer high-capacity metro system would be the envy of any transit-using Philadelphian, most transit trips take place on privately owned and operated minibuses and minivans. These services simply provide much more convenient service to and from more destinations than the metro does.

Despite a transit-friendly core and a large and competent transit operator in SEPTA, transit is an option of last resort in most of the Philadelphia region. Buses run infrequently and are often empty or close to it. It is no surprise that the number one reason respondents to the UC Davis report switched from public transit to services like Uber and Lyft was that public transit services are too slow.

The need for transit and transit agencies is not going away anytime soon, and hopefully never will. Moreover, taxis — shared or otherwise — are not going to support the kinds of job centers in Center City and University City that are driving local and regional economic growth. Instead of ringing our collective urbanist hands, I suggest looking to the places in Latin America and Europe that have decades of recent and successful experience managing private transit providers.

Brett Fusco, manager, long-range planning, Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission

Car sharing, bike sharing, ride hailing, and other services are all part of efforts to reduce costs and make travel greener, safer, and more efficient. Sharing allows cars to be used more intensively and decreases the need to manufacture them — a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Equity is a significant concern as ride-hailing users skew to those with higher education and income levels. Ride hailing is complementary to some transit services, such as providing better last-mile access to suburban commuter rail stations, but ride hailing use may be decreasing transit ridership and reducing transit agencies’ fare box revenue.

Increased options and lower-cost transportation create a rebound effect that generally leads to more travel, not a bad thing if it is done in a sustainable fashion. It means more social outings, more experiencing the community, and more economic activity. However, more travel can put additional strain on our already crowded roads. Though the experience so far could change as transportation innovation continues to unfold—particularly if more symbiotic relationships between transit, walking, biking, and ride sharing develop and become preferable to auto ownership.

On-demand and sharing services can reduce the need for parking. Ubiquitous free parking is a considerable hidden cost in our communities that makes everything we buy more expensive. However, on-street pick up and drop off for ride hailing can slow speeds for all vehicles, including buses, increasing the need to manage curb space.

DVRPC’s recently adopted Connections 2045: Long-Range Plan for Greater Philadelphia recognizes that having more transportation options enables more flexibility and adaptability to future uncertainty. The plan advocates for focusing growth in 125 mixed-use development centers around the region. This can shorten the distance needed to complete desired trips and enhance the feasibility of walking, biking, and transit. It recommends making transit more competitive within the changing marketplace through transit-first policies such as transit signal priority, off-board fare payment, and dedicated bus lanes. Connections 2045 estimates that we will need twice the projected available funding to maintain and improve our transportation network over the next 28 years. Different forms of road pricing — such as congestion pricing, mileage-based user fees, or other options — can generate needed revenues to improve the network, while also allowing it to be managed more effectively.

Jonas Maciunas, principal of JVM Studio, Philadelphia urban design consulting firm

As Philadelphia has been adding residents, jobs, hotel nights, and strolling shoppers in recent years, the transportation paradigm has shifted: by 2012, SEPTA ridership grew to the highest since the 1980s; by 2013, bicycling rose to as high as 12 percent in Southwest Center City, 21 percent in East Passyunk, and 23 percent in Spruce Hill. On the other hand, citywide vehicle miles traveled fell 11 percent from 2009 to 2013, and DVRPC data have shown consistently (even if unevenly) declining volume on city streets over the past 20 years, including east Market Street, Frankford Avenue, South Street Bridge, and Chestnut Street. That’s good for the environment, road safety, and keeping money in the local economy.

However, transportation innovations always disrupt inertia. In the case of ride hailing, all signs point to an era in which motorists are liberated from the frustration of parking, but if unabated, vehicle volume on our 18th and 19th century streets may well begin to rise again. Imagine if half the people riding each bus on Walnut Street switched to Lyft? The communities we work with all tell us that more motorists in the street will result in diminished quality of life and business. And if transit ridership falls, Philadelphia risks a vicious cycle of inequality and congestion in which those with choice choose Uber, and those without are stuck with declining service.

Ride hailing can fill gaps in the transportation system that are inefficient for transit or impractical for walking or bicycling. But as our most bustling districts continue to grow, only walking, bicycling, and transit can prevent gridlock-by-ride hailing. Let’s not sleepwalk into a reversal of the progress we’ve made. Transportation choices are not a matter of wishes or unavoidable fate, but the result of rational people picking among options available to them. We need proactive policy, design, and management solutions that make buses and bicycles people’s first choice after walking. That means the Streets Department providing commercial loading space, separated bike lanes, and uncongested lanes for transit. That means SEPTA making frequency and fare policy decisions designed to grow ridership.

This is a window to revolutionize urban mobility; let’s make the most of it.