Is Taxi Sharing Bad for the Environment?

Uber Pool, Lyft Line and Sidecar Shared Rides are peer-to-peer taxi sharing options available in a growing number of cities. These services were announced back in August of 2014, (not) coincidentally by all three companies at the same time. Initially I found that requesting these services just meant I got a much cheaper price on my Uber/Lyft/Sidecar but the exact same solo ride. This is because they need a critical mass of users to find matches for riders in real time. If you have to wait 30 minutes to find someone else requesting a ride on a route similar to yours, you’re probably not going to use the service. The companies were subsidizing the cost of these “shared” rides to generate more users.

Lyft Line

A Lyft taxi across town that would have cost $16.69 is capped at $6 for a shared ride

But now, a year later, more often than not my request for a shared ride yields another passenger going somewhere not far off from my own route, and within just a minute of my request. And it’s usually a significant savings over the standard taxi fee. Of course that’s in San Francisco where these services all started. According to a recent article in Forbes, 50% of Uber rides 60% of Lyft rides are shared in San Francisco.

Is this a good thing?

Well I like to see people carpooling, saving money and gas on transportation. But in most cities there is already a pretty efficient system of shared transit called public transportation. And it relies on a critical mass of users to pay for services and subsidize expansion. San Francisco’s public transit is far from ideal, especially throughout most of the city where we lack underground or dedicated lane systems and so busses run slowly on busy city streets. But it’s still much more efficient to put 50 people on a bus than 2 or 3 people in a car.

SF muni

I have to wonder if the taxi carpooling feature is hurting public transportation rather than taking cars off the road.

I rarely use taxis of any sort (the old school yellow cabs or the new tech-based peer-to-peer services). I’m cheap, and I like to walk. But when Uber and Lyft dropped their prices by half for using a shared ride I found myself much more likely to pull up these apps when I’m in a hurry to get across the city. (Sidecar’s shared ride service only runs during specific hours which don’t match times I’m usually out and about). In truth, I’m using this service when I might otherwise take a bus.

And that was the goal of these taxi carpool services: generate new users by reaching those not willing to pay the higher private taxi prices.

In the end I certainly benefit from the comfort and speed of cheap shared taxis, but I feel guilty about using these instead of public transit. No studies have been done on where all these riders are coming from, but I’m betting there are as many people like me as there are people who switched from private to shared car services. And I’m not sure this is a net win for the environment or public transit.

2 Comments

  1. Public transportation can adapt its offer, either up or down. More buses/metros, nicer drivers, more comfort…And over time, cars will be more and more environmentally friendly, thus not polluting. There are yet no electric buses in Paris France where I live. If these car-sharing services are working, there is indeed a market. I heard Uber was developing a service in San Francisco for shared rides on a fixed schedule. Why would I then take the bus? Not on time, no guaranteed seat, poor driver, unfriendly fellow travellers at times…Don’t we want a nice ride to work and back? It’s quicker too. So I thank these startups for shaking the tree. Let’s see where the apples fall, but I’m in for the ride. Thanks

    • dawnzerly

      October 27, 2015 at 8:54 am

      Thanks for the comment Johnny! I agree with you about technology (hopefully) becoming more and more environmentally friendly. It will be interesting to see where all this lands. I do hope that some day soon this debate becomes moot and we have driverless cars that are as efficient as public transit and a lot safer than anything we have on the roads right now. Though from an energy use standpoint I don’t think we’ll hit zero (or even near zero) impact any time soon, so public transit will be more efficient for the foreseeable future.

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