Ride-Hailing Isn’t Really Green


Uber and Lyft have consumed a vast amount of attention since they arrived a decade ago. But in many ways, we’re just beginning to understand what ride-hailing is doing. A growing cache of research by academics and policymakers points to a host of negative impacts associated with the explosive popularity of on-demand rides, including increased traffic congestion, declines in public transit ridership and upticks in traffic fatalities.

A new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists evaluates another, less-examined ramification of the ride-hailing sector: its environmental toll. The study estimates that the average U.S. ride-hailing trip results in 69% more pollution than the transportation choices it displaces, based on federal vehicle efficiency statistics, data collected by state and local transportation regulators and previous survey-based academic research. The effects are likely even worse in downtown areas, where riders are more likely to choose on-demand rides in lieu of cleaner modes of mobility.

“Not every ride-hailing trip is displacing what would have been a car trip,” said Don Anair, the deputy director and research director of the UCS Clean Transportation Program and the lead author of the paper.

Anair and his colleagues first compare the pollution associated with the average, non-pooled ride-hailing trip to the pollution from the same trip in an average passenger vehicle, and finds that the on-demand rides generate 47% more carbon emissions. Although ride-hailing vehicles tend to be more gasoline-efficient than America’s fleet of individually owned cars — for-hire drivers often buy these cars for the express purpose of towing people around — Anair and his colleagues found that the fuel savings was not enough to make up for the many miles that ride-hail drivers log without anyone in the back seat (“deadheading,” in taxi-driver talk). As many as 40 percent of all miles driven by Uber and Lyft across six major U.S. cities were without passengers, according to a joint study released by the companies last summer, reported on first by CityLab.

Next, UCS researchers estimated how ride-hailing compare to the transportation options riders would have otherwise chosen. Assuming on-demand trips are pooled an average of 15 percent of the time, Uber and Lyft rides deadhead so much and so often displace lower-emitting options such as public transit, walking, and biking that they turn out to be 69 percent more polluting, the study estimates. The researchers uses data from California, where air-quality regulators have crunched numbers directly from ride-hailing companies.  

The findings run counter to the eco-friendly messaging that the companies have promoted over the years. Lyft pledged to go carbon-neutral in 2018 via an offset investment program, and both companies have touted their carpooling options and their value as “first and last mile” connections to transit. But shared-ride services are still far less popular than solo passenger rides—at least based on data from California and New York City regulators—and ride-hailing’s complementary relationship to transit has so far proven limited.

Campbell Matthews, a spokesperson for Lyft, called the new study “misleading,” because ride-hailing makes up only a small portion of overall emissions from the transportation sector. The report also does not account for the environmental benefits associated with people who have sold their cars or foregone new vehicle purchases because of ride-hailing’s availability, she said. “Lyft encourages the use of shared rides, was the first rideshare company to put public transit information into our app, and last year, made one of the largest single deployments of electric vehicles in the nation,” said Matthews. “We are eager to continue this work in partnership with cities, to advance shared, sustainable transportation.”

Xavier Van Chau, an Uber spokesperson, echoed that sentiment. “We want Uber to be a part of the solution to address climate change by working with cities to help create a low-carbon transportation future,” he said. “To unlock the opportunities we have to reduce emissions, we will continue to invest in products and advocate for policies that reduce car ownership, promote more pooled trips and support greater adoption of bikes, scooters, green vehicles and the use of public transit.”

The report also lists a number of ways that companies, rides, and regulators can ease the climate impacts of ride-hailing, including expanding the deployment of plug-in electric and hybrid vehicles, collecting trip fees in congested downtown areas and supporting carpooling and public transit. It notes that Uber and Lyft have boosted mobility in neighborhoods previously underserved by transit and for riders with disabilities.

“Policies that promote pooling, vehicle electrification and better connections to public transit can facilitate a reduced environmental impact from TNCs, while building on their mobility and accessibility benefits,” said Susan Shaheen, the co-director of the UC Berkeley Transportation Sustainability Research Center, which was not involved in the report.

Among the recommendations from UCS researchers: encouraging ride-hailing companies to share more data with government regulators. The industry’s reluctance to make trip data available has limited the ability of policymakers and academics to understand and rein in the impacts of the new mode, including pollution.

“It’s helpful both for consumers and policymakers to understand  what the climate emissions are and to understand what the solutions might be,” said Anair. “There are opportunities for ride-hailing to be part of a low-carbon transportation future, with some concerted effort among ride-railing companies, policymakers, and consumers alike.”