How should cities respond to Uber and Lyft? The Philadelphia Inquirer asks JVM Studio to weigh in

Researchers from the University of California-Davis Institute of Transportation Studies just completed one of the most comprehensive studies to date on how people use ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft. The Philadelphia Inquirer asked four local experts - Chris Puchalsky from the City of Philadelphia, Erick Guerra from the University of Pennsylvania, Brett Fusco from the Delaware Vally Regional Planning Commission, and JVM Studio's Jonas Maciunas - what the study's findings mean for Philadelphia. 

Key Findings from the Cal-Davis Study

  • 29% of those who live in more urban neighborhoods of cities have adopted ride-hailing and use them more regularly, while only 7% of suburban Americans in major cities use them to travel in and around their home region.

  • "Parking represents the top reason that urban ride-hailing users substitute a ride-hailing service in place of driving themselves"

  • Adoption of ride-hailing is associated with increased walking (9%) and heavy rail ridership (3%)

  • Adoption of ride-hailing is associated with decreased bicycling (2%), bus ridership (6%), and light rail ridership (3%)

  • "Ride-hailing is currently likely to contribute to growth in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in the major cities"

Our Take

Our commentary for the Inquirer is re-posted below in italics, with supplemental text in plain type.

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 (down 37% eastbound between 8th and 5th Streets, 1999-2015), Frankford Avenue (down 38% in Fishtown, 2000-2010), South Street Bridge (down 16%, 1997-2015), and Chestnut Street (down 38% between 17th and 19th Streets, 2006-2017). That’s good for the environment, road safety, and keeping money in the local economy.

However, transportation innovations always disrupt inertia. Trolleys, bicycles, and cars put proverbial horsewhip companies out of business; bridges like the Ben Franklin across the Delaware River all but ended ferry travel in many cities; federally funded interstate highways drove private railroads into bankruptcy. 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? There's a downward spiral at play when people trade public transit for ride-hailing and generate congestion that slows down transit, further undermining its appeal and reinforcing the tendency toward ride-hailing. 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. With ride-hailing and other car-sharing services in play, transit providers have the opportunity to focus less on what Jarrett Walker calls "coverage" routes that gobble up precious resources to infrequently meander far distances to pick up few passengers. 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.  In fact, the most important reasons citied by the Cal-Davis study for replacing transit trips with ride-hailing include "services are too slow;" "I travel at times when transit is unavailable;" "services are unreliable;" and "services don't come frequently enough." 

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 in a network of key corridors. Perhaps that even means partnering with Uber or Lyft to provide "coverage" for fares comparable to transit in those further flung areas. 

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