Air Quality uber

Published on January 14th, 2016 | by Michael Barnard

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Uber Not So Climate Friendly?

January 14th, 2016 by  

uberOne of the questions that gets left out of press about Uber and other ridesharing companies is whether they are increasing or decreasing carbon and pollution emissions. It turns out that they seem to be bad for the environment. Luckily, there are a couple of obvious policies which can deal with this.

While the data is sketchy at present, there seem to be three factors where ridesharing has negative impacts on overall transportation emissions:

  • More vehicles being idled and with ‘dead’ mileage
  • Vehicles with poorer emissions displacing lower emission fleets
  • Displacement of public transit and cycling

Let’s look at these factors one-by-one to see how they impact emissions:

Dead Mileage

Cars driven professionally run more with only the drivers and idle a lot more than cars driven by individuals for conveyance.

“According to recent statistics, up to 30–40% of the time a taxi is on the road is dead mileage.”

In theory, this will be lower for ridesharing, as UberX is focused dominantly on busy periods with lower numbers of vehicles on the streets at other times. It’s also, in theory, balanced by smoothed finding and paying for a car, so individual vehicles are more efficient. The flip side, however, is that UberX vehicles are not professionally driven, so there will be some loss of percentages. And there are always the trips between passengers that won’t go away just because the technological approach to getting the car is different. Someone living in the suburbs who needs a ride home leads to no guarantees of a trip back to denser hunting grounds.

While ridesharing decreases somewhat actual car ownership, there are more miles driven per trip overall regardless. As lifecycle emissions from internal combustion vehicles are heavily weighted to the amount they are driven, this means that ridesharing is most likely increasing overall emissions on this factor alone.

Replacing Lower Emission Fleets

Uber and other ridesharing companies displace taxi trips. That’s just the reality, and the reason why cab companies in cities like Toronto are on strike trying to keep Uber out.

“A new report (PDF) presented to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency by taxi officials on Tuesday says that cab use has tumbled by 65 percent in the last 15 months. In March 2012 an average San Francisco taxi gave about 1,400 rides per month; and, as of this past July, that number fell to around 500 rides, according to the report.”

2211049095_25277c6b19Taxi emissions standards in advanced cities such as San Francisco and Vancouver have driven significant increases in hybrid taxis, which significantly reduce idling emissions for overall fleet reductions. There are poorer overall emissions in the Uber/Lyft fleet in many cities than passenger vehicle averages, especially when considering the Black Car segment.

Displacing Transit

This point is a mixed bag. There is anecdotal evidence already that people are choosing ridesharing over transit and biking, and it’s unclear if this is actually resulting in reduced car ownership. Amanda Eaken of the NRDC is running a year-long study of this with Berkeley to try to find out.

“We don’t yet understand what impact Uber and Lyft are having on our transportation system,” she told The Verge. “Some people speculate that they are enabling people to live in cities without owning a car, which both saves them money — average cost to own a car is $9,000 a year — but also we know when people don’t own cars they drive less. No big surprise.”

She added, “There could certainly be environmental benefits from these companies. On the other hand, some speculate that people are using Uber and Lyft instead of walking, biking, or transit. So there could be a detrimental effect.”

S2010027There’s no real model where ridesharing displacing transit or cycling is going to be beneficial for overall transit emissions. The study will assess the overall pros and cons at least for a couple of urban areas and will reportedly have access to ridesharing corporate data, something which has been closely held until now.

The combination suggests that ridesharing could be responsible for 30% to 50% higher emissions for the same passenger miles, on average. If true, as organizations such as Uber and Lyft achieve high penetrations in markets, carbon and pollution emission targets could be severely impacted.

There is some research which suggests that, in hypothetical future situations where there are no resource constraints on availability of vehicles for passenger trip choices, ridesharing could reduce fleet emissions overall as part of a suite of strategies.

“The SMART 2020 report estimates that employing information and communications technology (ICT) to optimize the logistics of individual road transport could abate 70 to 190 million metric tons (MMT) of carbon dioxide emissions (Global e-Sustainability Initiative, 2008).”

But now we are in the future, or a variant of it. At present, the tea leaves appear to be suggesting more road miles per trip and displacement of lower emission options. We can hold out hope that the NRDC/Berkeley study shows that they are neutral or even positive, but it doesn’t seem likely.

The answer to this, in my opinion, are policies which hasten the inevitable shift to fully electric passenger transportation and dominantly renewable generation. After all, the Uber Black Car drivers driving Teslas are not creating more emissions than the taxis and personal car trips that they displace, but radically less, and if they are fuelled with wind and solar electricity, there is no comparison at all. When the Chevy Bolt and Tesla Model III are out, they will be in a reasonable price point for UberX.

To net it out, ridesharing could be increasing total urban transit emissions by significant percentages, but banning them isn’t the solution, electrifying all transportation is.

 
 
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About the Author

For the past several years Michael has been analyzing and publishing reports and articles on decarbonization technologies, business models and policies. His pieces on electrical generation transformation and electrification of transportation have been published in CleanTechnica, Newsweek, Slate, Forbes, Huffington Post, Quartz, RenewEconomy, RenewablesInternational and Gizmag, as well as included in textbooks. Third-party articles on his analyses and interviews with Mike have been published in dozens of news sites globally and have reached #1 on Reddit Science. Much of his work originates on Quora.com, where Mike has been a Top Writer annually since 2012. He also has published a climate-fiction novel, Guangzhou Future Tense.



  • Hans Nyberg

    Mike you calculate with 30-40% dead miles. I say it may be 50% Thats what normal taxi has and contrary to Uber they havereal stats for it as it all is in the taxameter.
    Uber may be able to get it down if the new destination option is used but according to the drivers forums they do not really have any experience with it yet.

    Many of the UberX drivers I seen who has done real stats on the dead miles also say they drive the same dead miles as paid miles.

  • Hans Nyberg

    In all Europe Uber has marketed the UberPop service as ridesharing which it absolutelly is not . The have been using annalysis about ridesharing and the bennefits of it for pollution. All is of course a lie. And we have laws which defines ridesharing most of the like in Canada says that you may only pay for what is used in petrol and oil and it may not be for profit.
    UberPop is now banned in most of Europe, with fines in France at €150.000
    Still we need to get them banned in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland.

    We have had real ridesharing for 20 years and the largest comapny BlaBlaCar has 20 million users which I belive is more than Uber has worldwide. Last stats from uber is 1 year old and said 8 million.

  • jonesey

    Controversial Headline!

    Hypothetical proposition phrased as factual statement.

    Anecdote. Data about something related. Hypothesis. Supposition. Anecdote. Conclusion based on supposition and anecdote.

    True statement unrelated to hypothesis.

  • Jim Wood

    I’m no expert and only drive for Uber occasionally, but from what my passengers have stated, MOST (as in 80-90%) of Uber drivers in Seattle are driving Prius’s and I drive a Tesla, so an Uber Prius replacing a cab Prius should pretty much be a wash and when I’m driving the Tesla, there is absolutely NO EMISSIONS, so I don’t know that your premise about pollution holds water, at least in Seattle.

    • I agree, as already stated.
      “After all, the Uber Black Car drivers driving Teslas are not creating more emissions than the taxis and personal car trips that they displace, but radically less, and if they are fuelled with wind and solar electricity, there is no comparison at all. ”

      But Uber Tesla’s are still in the minority and the anecdotes about Prius and Uber remain that while the taxi fleet emissions are well known. There are few reliable statistics, hence the importance of the study being performed.

      • Hans Nyberg

        In Copenhagen we now have 1800 illegal UberPop. Taxidrivers have registred 700 with plates and I did a stat for the first 300.
        There was 1 prius and 1 Tesla. 30% of the cars was from 2007 or older. And 52 was older than 10 years even if 10 years is the max according to Uber.

  • Malcolm McGrath

    You are right that if people simply replace driving their own cars with Uber, emissions are not going down. Still if people are going to give up their cars, then they need lots of options. I know many young people who don’t bother owning a car and even some middle aged families who are getting rid of one of their cars. If you just use Uber as a replacement it is actually slow and still fairly expensive. In all the big cities I have lived in , Toronto, London, Paris, Moscow, Cologne, the fastest cheapest, most pleasant way to get across town was the subway. Still the subway won’t take you right to your destination. If you are a business person you likely need to get their quickly. This is where a service like Uber, particularly with their smart phone tracking system can fill the gap perfectly. Ultimately this kind of shift in transportation habits, demands a cultural change, and without that change Uber won’t help the environment, but as part of that change it can be a useful.

  • Malcolm McGrath

    I use Uber to solve the “last mile” problem. I don’t think you considered this possibility. I run a contracting business and try to use my truck only when delivering materials. To meet clients, do estimates and get to and from my shop I use bikes and subways. However, sometimes I need to take the subway across town to meet a client and I do not have a bike, and there are no easy bus routes, or the bus is just a long way away (I can tell on my transit app). In these cases Uber is a great option. By using a smart phone I can plan flexible routes throughout Toronto, at the spur of the moment, using bike, subway, bus and Uber. Once you get used to it, the combination is very fast, cheap and not stressful, as at any given moment I am always following the path of least resistance. And I think it reduces emissions, because I can leave the car at home and only need to use Uber to fill in the occasional gap I can’t fill with bike and transit.

    • I love downtown Toronto’s options. I remember the day I walked, Bixied, taxied, subwayed, Car2Goed and got a ride in a moving van can. It’s an amazing downtown core for transit options. The only city I’ve used Uber in was Toronto (Black Car, Taxi and UberX, just to try them all.)

      And having been to 21 cities globally in the past five years alone, I’m happy to share two things. The first is that I’ve never been in a city with better options. The second is that a remarkably small number of people use them compared to the number of people in the city.

      Using Uber for last mile mostly replaces using taxis for last mile in that situation. It’s replacing one type of shared transit with another. That doesn’t really displace emissions. That you use all of Toronto’s options is great, but your experience isn’t necessarily shared, which is the point of the observations and studies referenced in the article. Uber is displacing mass transit and cycling for some people and is doing it with a fleet mix which isn’t necessarily better than taxis.

  • jamesjm

    Ride sharing apps should have rider preference of being picked-up in a hybrid/EV vehicle rather that a full gas or diesel burning combustion engine vehicle. I would hail just hybrids given the choice. This would motivate drivers to be more environmentally conscious.

  • hhl

    What about displacing vehicle ownership?

    • JamesWimberley

      Mike addressed this: section on dead mileage, third paragraph.

      • Hazel

        But he never even tried to quantify it. Vehicle production is a massive emitter and energy user. I’d have to look at the details again, but when a friend did this calculation years ago, he found that buying a newly assembled vehicle would use as much energy as driving it for something like 5 years. (Or rather, production of the vehicle… you get the idea.)

        Reducing vehicle production is very significant and needs to be part of any analysis like this.

        • I don’t have to quantify it. The Union of Concerned Scientists did the heavy lifting on this and found that embodied carbon in vehicles was a relatively small portion of overall emissions. The big emissions are from driving.

          http://www.ucsusa.org/clean-vehicles/electric-vehicles/life-cycle-ev-emissions#.VpiJdDYl788

          The ratio is much more skewed in fleet vehicles which see a lot more kilometres on them. Uber Black and Taxi options are like taxis, and drive 70,000 miles per year compared to the average for US private cars of around 13,500 miles. UberX drive more than they would otherwise.

          Embodied carbon is a red herring.

          • Otis11

            What do you mean you don’t have to quantify it?!?! Get of your high horse and put this data in your article.

            Man, I’m just lacking for words. This comment is all sorts of screwed up.

            If you have the data, share it. If someone questions you as a journalist, support your position. The burden of proof is on you as the one making a claim. His question is completely valid.

            If you’re not going to contribute to the comment section, get out.

          • Kyle Field

            C’mon. Let’s stick to the data. No need to get all riled up about things.

          • Otis11

            Seriously? “I don’t have to quantify it.” is such a snarky response.

            Here Hazel (And above BigWu) are raising valid points. Regardless of whether they are correct or not they deserve a real response. Having the author of the article respond by simply quoting the article he wrote and adding no extra information (as done to BigWu) followed by a dismissive comment is dismissive at best – but more likely to come across as disparaging. Such a response as this to Hazel is rude, and frankly, poor journalism (if you don’t support your claims in an article, you need to back it up with data if/when people question it – or at the very least, welcome an open discussion).

            Sorry Kyle, I respect and appreciate high quality journalism (Particularly that of you, Zach and Tina – though I often disagree with underlying the bias, the quality is high enough that I can respect the arguments made, etc), which is why I come to this site (as while things aren’t perfect – and I don’t expect them to be – the authors/staff here is very responsive about fixing errors and fostering discussion).

            Do we really want to allow authors to dispage/discourage genuine commenter questions like this or do we want to foster a place for collaboration/learning?

          • Bob_Wallace

            Mike just gave you the data. Read his link.

          • Kyle Field

            It’s not the carbon “embodied” in the vehicle that is the concern but the energy used in the production of the raw materials, transportation of said materials, energy expended in the construction of the vehicle, transportation of finished vehicle and all the energy that goes into the sales process. It is very carbon dense and not something to dismiss…especially when talking about EVs and Hybrids.

          • That’s what embodied carbon is, the addition of all the costs of energy and materials, construction and distribution. It’s cradle-to-grave and it’s fairly standard now.

            And as the UCS study I referenced earlier which was seemingly ignored pointed out, it’s significantly less than the emissions from driving.

          • Hazel

            Thanks, this is part of what I was looking for.

            Embedded carbon emissions are around 10 T in a typical steel vehicle (~3x steel mass plus some), it will be much higher in an aluminum vehicle (~12x aluminum mass plus some — average including electricity production, for renewable electricity it’s closer to 3x), so closer to 30 T for a Tesla, higher still per unit weight for composite vehicles such as the i3.

            Driving emissions are about 8.9 kg/gallon of gas, so for a 40 mpg vehicle that’s about 200 g/mile, or 10 T in 50,000 miles.

            So you’re partially right, for fleet vehicles it’s surpassed in less than a year, vs. several years for a private vehicle. However, this is not at all “negligible”, it’s a substantial fraction of the life cycle emissions of private vehicles, so please don’t mislead people by saying so. It must be part of the analysis.

            In particular, aluminum is a *really* big issue, particularly as auto makers switch to it in order to satisfy new US CAFE standards, e.g. Ford F-150. Many US and European smelters powered by hydro have shut down or curtailed due to extremely low prices, and the biggest growth areas for aluminum production are China and the middle east, where smelters are certainly not powered by clean energy!

            Until there’s a uniform price on carbon, and it applies to embedded carbon in imported materials and products, materials substitution is just switching out one source of CO₂ for another.

            (Sorry about the delay, was unable to post for a while.)

          • Hazel

            Hmm. The link just compares PHEV and BEV manufacturing emissions with ICE vehicles, which is part of the answer I was looking for. It finds a 15% increase in manufacturing emissions for short-range BEVs, and 68% increase for long-range BEVs, which is not negligible at all!

            Embodied carbon emissions are around 10 T in a typical steel vehicle (~3x steel mass plus some), it will be much higher in an aluminum vehicle (~12x aluminum mass plus some — average including electricity production, for renewable electricity it’s closer to 3x), so closer to 30 T for a Tesla, higher still per unit weight for composite vehicles such as the i3.

            Driving emissions are about 8.9 kg/gallon of gas, so for a 40 mpg vehicle that’s about 200 g/mile, or 10 T in 50,000 miles.

            So you’re partially right, for fleet vehicles manufacturing emissions are surpassed by driving in less than a year, vs. several years for a private vehicle. However, this is not at all “negligible”, it’s a substantial fraction of the life cycle emissions of private vehicles, and non-negligible for fleets, so please don’t mislead people by saying so. It must be part of the analysis.

            In particular, aluminum is a *really* big issue, particularly as auto makers switch to it in order to satisfy new US CAFE standards, e.g. Ford F-150. Many US and European smelters powered by hydro have shut down or curtailed due to extremely low prices, and the biggest growth areas for aluminum production are China and the middle east, where smelters are certainly not powered by clean energy!

            Until there’s a uniform price on carbon, and it applies to embodied carbon in imported materials and products, materials substitution is just switching out one source of CO₂ for another.

            (Sorry about the delay, was unable to post for a while.)

  • BigWu

    There are major problems with this article.

    Many Uber/Lyft cars are hybrids, many taxi fleets have none (especially outside NYC and S.F.). Without fleet data, the claim that uber fleets are less efficient than taxis nationwide is dubious at best.

    Regarding the comparison to personal cars: for the first several minutes personal cars (even hybrids!) get awful milage as they heat up the engine blocks and fluids to operating temps. Even a Prius gets a paltry 20-25 mpg for the first several miles.

    Uber/Lyft cars are already at operating temp when they pick up the second ride of the day. So for short trips, ride sharing is definitely better than a typical personal car and a wash if you happen to drive a Prius.

    • Kyle Field

      Do you have data to support that “many uber/lyft cars are hybrids”? I have never seen a hybrid uber/lyft vehicle..in fact, many minivans, big cars and suvs…

      I never had an issue with my prius getting low mileage for the first few miles and we had it for 6 years. Do you have data to support this?

      One of the key benefits of uber/lyft is the fact that drivers can fit in a ride or two in any spare time they have vs drive all day and sit around.

      • Hazel

        I have to agree with BigWu. I’ve been in several hybrid Lyfts, and a lot of Crown Vic taxis. One Lyft driver said he was planning to buy ten Priuses and hire ten drivers to drive for him, and that for the number of miles a vehicle drives in ride-sharing, hybrids win hands-down.

        Anecdotal evidence, I know, but simplistically saying that taxi fleets are more efficient is at least as wrong.

        • Kyle Field

          I’m not saying taxis are more efficient but they are more inclined to look at fleet savings and fleet efficiency vs an uber/lyft driver who is, in all likelihood, just driving the car they had before driving for uber/lyft.

      • Otis11

        Ah, I gotta say, I’ve seen quite a number of hybrid Ubers… And some volts/leafs as well. (Only one Tesla MS)

        Now I don’t know the ratio, but it wouldn’t surprise me to find Uber vehicles have cleaner emissions, especially since outside of the few very progressive cities, most cities taxi fleet was previously the cities police fleet. (Cheap, well maintained cars sold at auction)

      • Modok EvilMastermind

        I rode in a Pruis via Uber in SF last fall. I even talked to the guy about it for part of the ride. It might not be common as I do not use Uber very often but I did experience an Uber hybrid.

        In Minneapolis, on multiple occasions, I have driven in taxis seriously out of alignment or with scarily lacking brake pads. If they are not doing simple basic maintenance they are not getting great emissions either. On top of that, in the winter, those taxis sit there idling at the airport…and nearly all are mini-vans.

        Mine is just a fairly small data point but from my vantage point the taxis I have been in have largely been in horrendous shape. I am not saying Uber is a living wage or fair but so far all the cars are leaps and bounds in better running condition.

        Apologize for being late to the party 🙂

    • I’ll just quote the article:
      “Taxi emissions standards in advanced cities such as San Francisco and Vancouver have driven significant increases in hybrid taxis, which significantly reduce idling emissions for overall fleet reductions. There are poorer overall emissions in the Uber/Lyft fleet in many cities than passenger vehicle averages, especially when considering the Black Car segment.”

      Advanced cities. Many cities. Black Car.

      Your anecdotal observations do not trump nuanced points supported by references. This is not a major problem, it’s an acknowledged nuance.

      • Otis11

        How many cities are “advanced” though. Does this outweigh the “non-advanced” ones?

        As far as I can tell, in the US only San Francisco, New York, Boston and Chicago have had meaningful success switching fleets to hybrids. (Surprised LA didn’t make the list, so I might have missed some) Does this outweigh Phoenix, San Antonio, Dallas, Austin, Atlanta, Houston, and other major cities who haven’t?

        I understand it’s anecdotal, but he raises a good point. Let’s bring up data and discuss.

        No need to disparage like that. (Especially when you reference an entire Wikipedia article on that point… Hardly specific. Actually, I see very little in the article supporting you other than your one line you took from the into! I site hope you did more research than that!) Please back up your statements more rigorously.

    • Hans Nyberg

      Yhe Uber hybrid is a myth. And it originates from gthe first UBerX in 2012 which Travis originally stated should be hybrids. But everything has changed after Google and Goldman sachs invested. Uber became an illegal taxi calling them self ridesharing even if they have nothing to do with ridesharing.

  • JamesWimberley

    It certainly looks reasonable that rideshare companies should be subject to the same fleet standards for emissions and efficiency as taxis. Uber can pay a premium for EVs to meet this.

    Imposing such standards, and tightening them on a known path, is one of the quickest-acting policies available to mayors to reduce air pollution, second only to going electric for all new buses. Public transport vehicles do high mileages.

    • Freddy D

      Exactly. And installing electric mass transit in heavily travelled corridors and bikeshare for the last mile – that’s environmentally friendly.

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