Are Uber and Lyft Rides Bad for the Climate?

Published Mar 3, 2020

Transportation expert Don Anair discusses why ride-hailing is a problem for the climate, and what we can do about it.

In this episode
  • Colleen and Don take a closer look at ride hailing. How green is it?
  • Don breaks down the emissions differences between different modes of travel
  • We find out the most environmentally friendly way to take an Uber or Lyft
Timing and cues
  • Opener (0:00-0:35)
  • Intro (0:35-2:22)
  • Interview part 1(2:22-12:54)
  • Break (12:54-14:01)
  • Interview part 2 (14:01-24:29)
  • This Week in Science History throw (24:29-24:34)
  • This Week in Science History (24:34-27:30)
  • Outro (27:30-28:30)
Related content
Show credits

This Week in Science History: Katy Love
Editing: Omari Spears
Music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Jiayu Liang and Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald

Full transcript

Even if you’ve never taken one yourself, you’ve probably heard of Uber and Lyft. They’re two of the most popular options for ride-hailing, and provide a fast and easy option for getting around cities if you don’t have a car, or maybe just don’t want to drive. I usually use them when I’m traveling.

I’ve realized that, because ride-hailing services are so easy to use, I’ve started using Lyft when I might’ve taken the train or a bus in the past.

As ride-hailing continues to grow in popularity and makes up more and more of the miles traveled in cities, it’s important to understand how that affects air pollution and emissions. That’s why my colleagues in the clean transportation program here at the Union of Concerned Scientists decided to crunch the numbers. After studying several cities, they found that ride-hailing trips increase carbon emissions by a lot.

As someone who cares about the environment but appreciates the convenience of ride-hailing, this alarmed me. Obviously, I wanted to know what could be done about this.

So I spoke to Don Anair, research director of the Clean Transportation program, and co-author of the report “Ride-Hailing’s Climate Risks.” He explains why ride-hailing trips today have such a big environmental impact, from the vehicles themselves to the design of the ride-hailing apps to city policies.

But where there are challenges, there are also opportunities for positive change. So it was a relief for me to learn that Don does see a place for ride-hailing in a clean transportation future. After all, if companies like Uber and Lyft can completely change the way we move around cities... it only seems right that they turn that leadership into responsibility and guide us to a future of clean transportation.

Colleen: Don, welcome to the podcast.

Don: Thank you, Colleen.

Colleen: You recently completed an analysis looking at the growth of ride hailing companies, so that would primarily be like Uber and Lyft, and how they're contributing to global warming emissions and also the congestion in sort of inner-city areas. I wanted to start with one of the main findings that I thought was really surprising, and that is that the emissions impact of a ride-hailing trip is about 50% higher than if I drove my car or other ways of getting from point A to point B. That seemed really high. So, can you tell me a little bit about the analysis and, like, what's up with that?

Don: Yeah. So we looked at the climate emissions from a ride-hailing trip compared to other modes of travel. And obviously, a lot of travel in the United States is in a private vehicle or personal car. So that's one of the comparisons we did is what's the climate missions from ride-hailing versus a private vehicle. And on average, we found that a ride-hailing trip is about 50% more emissions than a private vehicle trip. And there's a couple of reasons for that. One of the main reasons is that ride-hailing trips like taxis, for example, are driving around waiting for passengers. And so there are a lot of miles that those vehicles drive where there's no passenger actually in the vehicle. So, we've seen data from various cities and on average, we see somewhere between 35% and 45% of the miles that ride-hailing vehicles are traveling with no one in them, but they're creating pollution while they're doing that. So that's one of the big reasons that ride-hailing trips often will have higher emissions than a private vehicle trip. One interesting thing we did find which was more positive was that ride-hailing vehicles on average are more fuel-efficient than the average private vehicle in the United States. And you can imagine why. A lot of these drivers are driving a lot of miles and so they're paying for gasoline, and so the more efficient vehicle that they have, the less money they're gonna be paying for fuel.

Colleen: What's the difference between ride-hailing and a taxi service?

Don: Initially ride-hailing really are companies that are creating an app for your phone and it allows you to request a ride, which was a big innovation in the for-hire industry, taxis, ride-hailing, etc. And the second big difference is that the ride-hailing model is that individuals who own their vehicles can become drivers for ride-hailing apps and use their own vehicle rather than say using a taxi, a traditional taxi where the vehicle itself was purchased by either the driver or the taxi company and had drivers. So those are a couple of the differences. In terms of why we're doing this report and why we're looking at pollution from ride-hailing, is that ride-hailing has actually become much bigger than taxis in the United States. Ride-hailing has only been around for about 10 years and it's far surpassed the number of rides in taxis now.

Colleen: It’s incredibly convenient. So, how can we keep having that freedom to get our ride when we need it, but somehow not contribute so much to global warming emissions?

Don: Ride-hailing is clearly a convenient option for many people, which is why it's grown in popularity so much. And it's filling a need for mobility for a lot of people. So, for example, ride-hailing can provide a first and last mile option for getting to and from transit if your prior option was driving to work, for example, but now that you have easy access to ride-hailing to get you to the train station, you may be more likely to take the train. It can also obviously create additional mobility options for people who can't drive their own car. The key question that you just asked is, how do we continue to increase mobility for people and especially for people in communities who have lacked options for mobility, and at the same time, reduce emissions? And so there are some good highlights from our analysis that indicate that ride-hailing can be part of a low-carbon transportation system. One of the findings was pooled ride-hailing trips, those are trips where an individual is traveling and chooses a ride-hailing vehicle, but chooses the option to share it with another person who's traveling to a similar location. Basically, carpooling. For those trips, we found that the emissions were basically the same as a private vehicle trip. So, choosing a pooled trip and being matched with another rider can eliminate the disadvantage of a ride-hailing trip compared to a private vehicle trip. So that's one thing. The second piece of information in our analysis that we found from a positive solutions perspective was the ability for electric vehicles to significantly reduce the emissions from ride-hailing trips. So we can have ride-hailing and increased mobility in our transportation system and have lower emissions, but we need to take actions and ride-hailing companies need to take actions to move in that direction.

Colleen: Can you... I know you can choose a pooled ride. Can you choose electric vehicle?

Don: So, there have been efforts by ride-hailing companies to explore various options related to both increased pooling of trips as well as electric vehicles. So, in many cities now you can choose to pool or share a trip, not everywhere, but it is expanding and becoming an option in more places. And in some cities now, Lyft is providing an option to choose an electric ride. So, there's a start to look at how can we advance electrification in some of these ride-hailing services. And the question is, what else can we do and how fast can we do it?

Colleen: So do you know if these services... do they have guidelines on how nice or new the car has to be?

Don: Yes, they do. So, to bring your car onto a ride-hailing app, you do have to meet the requirements of the companies. And one of them is to have a relatively newer vehicle. And so as I mentioned earlier, ride-hailing vehicles tend to be more efficient than the average vehicle on the road today, in part because they're newer and newer vehicles have been improving in fuel efficiency. Typically, drivers will have newer model vehicles.

One of the other challenges ride-hailing services have had is there's a lot of drivers out there, but not all of them have vehicles that will meet their requirements. And so they've been looking at ways to how do they get cars for these drivers so that they can drive for their platform? And this is an opportunity for electrification. So one of the models that they've been using is short-term leases. So, if you wanted to drive for Uber or Lyft and your car doesn't meet the requirements, you can purchase or lease a vehicle through a leasing partner that the companies have. And you can do it on a weekly basis, so you don't have to purchase the car. You can lease the car on a weekly basis and you can drive and earn income from delivering those rides. There are some barriers to buying electric vehicle, obviously. Currently today the price of electric vehicle is higher than a gasoline vehicle, the upfront cost. There are some incentives which help reduce that cost but not everyone is in a position to buy a new vehicle. So, by providing a lease option for these vehicles and making it attractive to drivers, ride-hailing companies could make electric vehicles more attractive to some of their drivers.

Colleen: How has it affected public transportation?

Don: This is one of the other sort of pretty alarming and interesting findings from our analyses is that just comparing ride-hailing trips to private vehicle trips doesn't really tell you the whole story about what the impact on emissions and pollution is. In fact, many riders in ride-hailing vehicles when surveyed said they would have taken transit or would have walked or would have biked or would have not taken a trip at all if it wasn't for the ride-hailing vehicle. So you really have to look at what are the types of trips being displaced by the ride-hailing trips.

Colleen: So how do you find that information? Is that a survey?

Don: So this is one of the challenges. And we have a range of results on this because you basically have to ask people what they would have done. And so it's not. And so there's a lot of variability in these surveys, but there are trends that are pretty clear. It's clear that not all ride-hailing trips are displacing car trips. And it's also pretty clear that a significant percentage of those particularly in areas where there are options for mass transit, they are pulling riders off of transit. And there's been evidence of this in a couple of different ways. One has been surveys of riders basically saying, "What would you have done if you didn't take this ride-hailing trip?" And there's also been analysis looking at, okay, let's look at transit ridership in cities before and after Lyft and Uber had been introduced. And so those are also showing that correcting for trends on overall economics and other factors that there is a correlation between Uber and Lyft being in a city and declining transit ridership. So there's definitely evidence pointing to the fact that if you're in an area where you have multiple options for getting around, walking, biking, transit, which tend to be in the more densely populated areas, that once Uber and Lyft are entering those areas that they're going to be pulling some of the... Some of the riders are gonna be coming off of those other modes which have two impacts. One is, those other modes tend to reduce vehicle miles being traveled, so reducing congestion. If you take transit, if you're walking and biking, you're not putting another private car on the road. The second is those modes also tend to be lower carbon. So the bus, riding the train, walking, biking are all lower emission than taking a vehicle whether it be a private vehicle or a ride-hailing vehicle.


Colleen: Let's come up with some good incentives for people to do pooled riding because I think that is going to be really challenging. Getting people to share rides just feels really difficult. Do you have any thoughts about what sorts of incentives might make people more willing to share rides?

Don: Yeah. Our conclusion was that pooling of rides, electrifying vehicles, and really supporting...using ride-hailing to support more mass transit, quality mass transit use, are the key strategies for reducing emissions. The good news is that there's evidence that people are choosing pooled rides. In fact, about 20% of ride requests in California, for the whole state of California are pooled ride requests, so people who are willing to share a ride with a stranger, in most cases, in order to save a few bucks. So that's good sign that there's a large amount of people out there who are interested in doing that. And so I think the starting point is good. And then the question is, how do you increase that? How do you both increase the number of people who are requesting those rides and then also matching the actual ride? So, roughly 75% of the pooled ride requests are actually matched. So, say 25% of the time, you might request a pooled ride and you don't get anybody else in the car.

Colleen: I see.

Don: But the more people who request pooled rides, the higher likelihood that you'll get a match.

Colleen: Right. I do remember when I was in Baltimore visiting my stepdaughter, it seemed like something that college students were apt to do for the cost reason. It's just cheaper to get a pooled ride and...

Don: Right. I will say, as I was doing this analysis and coming up with some of the results for this which were surprising to me. So, I think in terms of increasing pooled rides, one, educating folks on the impact of ride-hailing which is what we're trying to do, I think will help. Part of it is the companies prioritizing this. They are in a position to be pricing the rides in a way that is most attractive to riders. So the more that they can price pooled trips to be more affordable than non-pooled trips that will increase the amount of folks who are gonna choose those. And then the third piece, which we haven't talked about yet much is what's the role of policy and encouraging pooled electric rides. On the pooling side and for electric as well, we're starting to see cities who are struggling with some of the congestion impacts in their cities and ride-hailing is contributing to that. So, in some cities, we're starting to see fees be introduced on ride-hailing trips, for example. And one way to encourage the better behavior is to structure those fees in ways that is going to make the pooled electric ride cheaper than the non-pooled, non-electric ride. There's a policy role here too to help encourage the...put pressure on the prices so that the more beneficial...both beneficial from a climate perspective, beneficial from a congestion perspective, which is therefore beneficial to everyone using the roads and the transportation system to achieve that.

Colleen: Let's say you're now a Lyft driver, Don, and you have an electric vehicle, how frequently do you think you're gonna have to stop and charge? And how long are you gonna have to sit and charge? Because while you're sitting there charging, you're not making money.

Don: That's right. That's right. So, there's good news on that front as well in terms of the capability of electric vehicles has been getting better and better since electric vehicles were introduced about a decade ago around the same time as ride-hailing. And the initial vehicles were...had limited range before they had to recharge. So, it might be 80 miles of range before you could recharge. Now more commonly the models that are coming to market are 200, 250-mile range electric vehicles where once you're on a fully-charged vehicle, you can drive 200, 250 miles before you need to recharge. And that actually when you look at how many miles full-time ride-hailing drivers are driving on a daily basis, most of their driving is going to be captured by a 250-mile range electric vehicle.

Colleen: So that's good news.

Don: It is. So, in many cases, a driver could, if they have access to home charging, could charge the vehicle overnight, drive a full shift and then return home and charge their vehicle for the next day. In reality, there's know, not every day is the same. You might drive more miles one day than the next. So, you do need to have access to public charging. And generally, in this application, as you said, time is money, so you need fast-charging.

Colleen: So most likely in a shift though, in your Lyft daily shift, you probably would... You might have to charge once.

Don: Right.

Colleen: You're not going to have to charge more than once. And roughly on average, how long would you have to sit and charge, a half an hour, an hour? How...

Don: Yeah. So, it depends, again, on the scenario. If you're gonna charge at home later, you might only need 50 miles of range added to finish off your day, in which case it might take, you know, 15, 20 minutes at a fast charger.

Colleen: So that's not bad. You get a coffee, a snack.

Don: One of the challenges for fast charging infrastructure are the economics. It costs quite a bit of money to install fast charging station for an electric vehicle. And the more utilization you can get out of that, the more people who can charge per day at that station, the more likely you're gonna be able to turn a profit on that. And ride-hailing provides an opportunity. There are a lot of ride-hailing vehicles out there. They're being used heavily on a daily basis.

Colleen: So if they were electric, they would need to use those charging stations.

Don: Right. So there's an opportunity for charging companies to work with ride-hailing companies to build out a charging infrastructure that can support ride-hailing vehicles that will be beneficial both to the investments in the charging infrastructure providers as well as the ride-hailing companies who really have, you know, responsibility for moving towards lower carbon emissions and lower carbon vehicles.

Ride-hailing companies, obviously, have the responsibility to do more to address this problem. Policymakers can support that transition. We talked about policies like pricing policies or fees that the cities are putting on, you know, differentiating those, so it's encouraging the solutions. California is moving ahead with a pollution standard for ride-hailing companies to compel them and really set a standard so that these companies can work towards that and reduce emissions. There's a role for incentives for helping drivers get into these electric vehicles. So, the third piece is consumers, right? People can demand more options and cleaner options from ride-hailing companies and I think directly asking the companies to do more on this is important. And then as you're choosing ride-hailing yourself, don't make that your first choice. If there are other options that can work for you in your area, if you have options for taking transit, think about those first, and reduce the amount you're driving, generally. If you do choose ride-hailing, try to use a pooled trip if it's available. And ideally, you'd have the option of choosing an electric vehicle ride-hailing trip. And in some cities, we're starting to see that as an option, but that really needs to be expanded. So, everyone's got a role to play, but I think really, it's... Consumers don't really have the option unless the companies make it available. And the drivers in particular need to be supported by the companies to enable that transition, so it's not just falling on the drivers to be and for them to be responsible for this, but really the companies that are helping support that transition.

Colleen: Well, Don, when we started this conversation, I was thinking that it was a little bit of a bummer that the ride-hailing services...but it feels like there are some pretty doable solutions here. I feel like electrifying the fleet is something that feels really tangible and that that could happen and should happen.

Don: Absolutely. I think I'm feeling positive about it too. I think it's gonna take some concerted effort. It's not gonna be easy. We talked a little bit about charging and the challenges of owning and driving an electric vehicle in ride-hailing. And I think for those drivers who can charge at home and who'd only need access to fast charging a little bit, now is a good time to be thinking about that. If you leverage incentives from the state and the federal government for electric vehicles, that can be the cheapest option compared to even an efficient hybrid gasoline vehicle for ride handling. For a lot of other drivers who don't have access to those incentives or don't have the capital to invest in a new vehicle, I think those are areas where we need to have more efforts by the companies to look at ways to make those vehicles available. And some drivers aren't gonna have access to home charging, so they're gonna rely mostly on public charging. And that's an opportunity, again, for the charging companies and the ride-hailing companies to work together to figure out, can we work together to support this infrastructure and make it worthwhile for all parties involved to be able to transition to electric ride-hailing vehicles?

Colleen: I'm optimistic that we're gonna move in the right direction on this.

Don: Me too.

Colleen: Great. Well, thanks, Don.

Don: Thank you.

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