Study Says Uber and Lyft Worse for the Environment Than Taking Your Own Car

A study says the use of ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft actually leads to higher, not lower, levels of greenhouse gas emissions and traffic congestion than do individuals driving personal cars.
Uber and Lyft deadheading 6 photos
Photo: Uber
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The study, completed by scientists from Carnegie Mellon University and published by the American Chemical Society, says the issues arise from the fact that ride-share drivers spend lots of time riding around without carrying passengers - known as ‘deadheading’ in trucking and commercial parlance. In fact, a report from Uber and Lyft themselves in 2019 found that drivers were deadheading around 40% of the time they were on duty in six cities across the United States.

And that deadhead mileage not only increased fuel consumption and added to greenhouse gas emissions by about 20%, it also ramped up costs linked to traffic congestion, crashes, and noise pollution by approximately 60% as well.

While the study found that ride-hailing did manage to lower emissions by cutting back the amount of time spent by vehicles cold-starting, those savings weren’t enough to balance out the additional emissions from all those extra miles traveled.

On-demand ride-sharing operated by transportation network companies (TNCs), such as Uber and Lyft, have reshaped urban travel, and the study simulated replacing private vehicle travel with TNCs in six U.S. cities. On average, the study found that the 50–60% decline in air pollutant emission externalities from NOx, PM2.5, and VOCs due to avoided “cold starts” and relatively newer, lower-emitting TNC vehicles was a net positive.

But it seems increased vehicle travel from deadheading created a 20% increase in fuel consumption and associated greenhouse gas emissions and a 60% increase in external costs associated with other factors. In fact, a switchover to private travel via TNCs increases external costs by 30–35%, which also adds 32–37 cents of external costs per trip, on average.

The study also says trips that included more than one occupant could have a lower overall impact than driving personal vehicles but added that it would still be considerably less than travel undertaken using public transit.

The ‘deadhead’ miles issue also provided motivation to the state of California to mandate more electric cars be added to ride-hailing services, and they plan to push that change by incentivizing Uber and Lyft to adopt EVs.

While both Uber and Lyft have already discussed plans to go all-electric, they’ve provided little in the way of timetables or details about how they plan to accomplish that changeover.

On the other hand, Uber has announced a partnership with startup Arrival to develop an EV vehicle specifically designed for use in ride-hailing.
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