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Air Quality

Published on January 14th, 2016 | by Michael Barnard


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

is Chief Strategist with TFIE Strategy Inc. He works with startups, existing businesses and investors to identify opportunities for significant bottom line growth and cost takeout in our rapidly transforming world. He is editor of The Future is Electric, a Medium publication. He regularly publishes analyses of low-carbon technology and policy in sites including Newsweek, Slate, Forbes, Huffington Post, Quartz, CleanTechnica and RenewEconomy, and his work is regularly included in textbooks. Third-party articles on his analyses and interviews 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's available for consulting engagements, speaking engagements and Board positions.

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