Ride-sharing apps had this surprising effect on cities

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Thanks to ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft, it’s never been easier to get from point A to point B. It isn’t a stretch to say that these apps have fundamentally changed how people travel over the past decade or so, which is why the findings of a new study are so surprising. Researchers report that when Uber and Lyft first enter a new urban area, car ownership actually ends up increasing.

Considering how convenient ride-sharing is for people without access to their own car, one would think such apps would likely lead to a downturn in car ownership. But, the numbers don’t lie. 

Study authors analyzed data from numerous major US cities between 2011 and 2017. More specifically, they compared car ownership trends and statistics between cities that saw Uber and Lyft entering the local market and urban areas where they didn’t. That process ultimately led researchers to the conclusion that vehicle registrations per capita increase by 0.7% on average whenever ride-sharing apps arrive on the scene. In many cases, more car-dependent cities saw an even greater influx of new car owners.

“I would have expected people to own fewer vehicles once they gain access to this alternative transportation mode,” says study co-author Jeremy Michalek, a professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. “But that’s not what we see in the data.”

So, what exactly is going on here? Why do ride-sharing apps lead to more cars on the road? The research team theorizes it may have something to do with more people looking to cash in on the popularity of these apps by becoming drivers themselves.

“One possible explanation could be that there’s an effect on the other side, where somebody who was on the verge of being able to afford a vehicle now has an incentive to buy one and earn some money with it. So vehicle adoption by Uber and Lyft drivers may outweigh the effect of riders getting rid of their personal vehicles,” professor Michalek explains.

Besides these main findings, researchers also investigated the impact of Uber and Lyft on the use of local public transit. They note that cities with a higher average income and fewer children tend to see a bigger drop off in public transit use once Uber and Lyft launch operations.

“What this suggests to me is that in a city where people have disposable income and fewer children, they don’t mind paying more for a more convenient mode of transportation, and they don’t have to worry about logistics like bringing a car seat,” Michalek hypothesizes.

It’s important to note that the COVID-19 pandemic almost certainly changed these trends considerably over the past year or so. Everyone has been staying home much more regularly, and ride-sharing apps have seen a big decline in users.

“Of course, the pandemic has caused enormous changes in ridesourcing, public transit, and transportation trends in general. With many employees working from home, and many others opting to use personal vehicles for travel, ridesourcing services have seen a drop in riders,” Michalek concludes. “The question is, once the pandemic is behind us, do we return to the kinds of travel patterns and choices we saw before the pandemic, or are there systemic changes that won’t go back to normal because people have permanently changed their behavior? We won’t know for sure until it happens.”

The full study can be found here, published in iScience.