Uber and Lyft concede they play role in traffic congestion in DC, other urban areas
About 1 in every 15 miles driven in the District of Columbia are in an Uber or Lyft, according to a new study that offers long-sought details of the services' impact on traffic in urban areas.
Supporters of the ride-hail apps have long billed them as a way to ease traffic woes by encouraging people to give up their personal vehicles or leave them parked. But company data released this week demonstrate how the firms represent a significant part of the traffic mix.
Company officials emphasized that their operations still represent just a fraction of overall driving in the Washington region and the other cities that were part of the study, which was conducted by the transportation firm Fehr & Peers and funded by Uber and Lyft. The study also looked at Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle.
Uber and Lyft "are likely contributing to an increase in congestion," Chris Pangilinan, Uber's head of global policy for public transportation, conceded in a statement. But, Pangilinan added, "its scale is dwarfed by that of private cars and commercial traffic."
The new data show that about 7 percent of the "vehicle miles traveled" in the District are in Ubers and Lyfts, and the other 93 percent are other cars and trucks. That 7 percent includes time the company drivers spend circling while they wait for a fare or driving to pick up passengers. The companies' share of the vehicle miles traveled for the entire Washington region was about 2 percent, according to the study.
"I'm delighted to finally see these numbers. They're something we've been trying to get our hands on," said Paul Lewis, vice president of policy at the Washington-based Eno Center for Transportation.
Lewis noted that the figures are for the month of September 2018, and do not include data on when trips occurred, which can obscure critical parts of the picture. "D.C. streets aren't always congested, right?" Lewis said, adding that data showing the amount of miles driven by Ubers and Lyfts "during the peak hour is almost more important."
The study used data from September 2018, which was selection, researchers said, because September is a representative non-summer month with little holiday activity.
Still, the numbers raise important policy questions, Lewis said, about how the firms are drawing riders from transit and about the efficiency of the services, which are posting massive losses as they subsidize rides to compete with each other.
"People are leaving the bus and train networks not only because" Uber and Lyft "are cheap but because the transit service they're providing is not that great," Lewis said, adding that levies on the services can be directed at improving traffic flow for other drivers through initiatives such as express bus lanes.
The administration of District Mayor Muriel Bowser, a Democrat, has taken steps to create dedicated pickup and drop-off areas for ride-hailing vehicles, embraced micro-mobility options and begun exploring new approaches to food and commercial deliveries to help ease congestion and free up curb space.
Jeff Marootian, director of the District Department of Transportation, said the study "highlights the importance of our efforts to innovate using data and technology to reduce congestion and improve safety at the curbside." The city has taken steps to "create dedicated pickup and drop off areas for ride-hailing vehicles," he said, and embraced scooter and bike-share efforts, among other initiatives.
The data show that of the Uber and Lyft miles driven in the District, 19 percent are downtown and 81 percent are in the rest of the city.