The big worry

The big worry

Transit ridership is declining as ride-hailing apps gain steam

Illustration by Peter Horjus

ONCE A MONTH, the MBTA’s Laurel Paget-Seekins jumps on a conference call with her counterparts at half a dozen transit agencies in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, New York City, and Washington, DC. They are all worried about the same thing.  Why are fewer people boarding their buses and trains at a time when the twin barometers of ridership—population and economic growth—are rising?

“This is something that everyone is noticing,” says Paget-Seekins, the director of research and analysis at the T. “It’s particularly concerning because it’s a lot different than what we’ve seen in the industry before. Generally, the models have always said that as population goes up and the economy improves, ridership goes up. Now there’s been a couple years where that hasn’t been the case.”

T bus ridership is off about 6 percent and subway traffic is down 2 percent; so far, commuter rail is holding steady. Most of the dropoff is coming during off-peak hours and on weekends. On their monthly calls, the transit agency executives are comparing numbers, exploring theories, and preparing to launch a research initiative. “Part of what we’re focusing on is what is different. What has changed?” Paget-Seekins says.

There are a lot of potential variables that could affect transit ridership. The price of gasoline is relatively low. More and more people are working from home. And the reliability of T service, particularly buses, leaves a lot to be desired. But Paget-Seekins and her colleagues at the other transit agencies think the downturn in riders has a lot to do with the rapid expansion of Uber and Lyft. When these ride-hailing apps first came along, the focus was on their impact on taxis. But it is slowly dawning on everyone that they are a disruptive force in the world of transportation, and hold the potential to cause a lot more disruption with autonomous vehicles looming on the horizon.

Uber and Lyft say loudly and clearly that they are not the enemy. The ride-hailing apps say they are partners with public transit agencies, shuttling passengers between their homes and transit stations, getting people out of their cars, nudging them into ride-sharing options, and helping to reduce congestion on the roads. Once autonomous vehicles take over (Lyft thinks private vehicle ownership will be all but dead by 2025), they say the world will change forever.

John Zimmer, the president of Lyft, calls it the third transportation revolution. “Since autonomous networks will be much more efficient than individual ownership, a large number of cars will come off the road – freeing up an enormous amount of space to devote to anything but cars,” he says.

“Eventually, we’ll be able to turn parking lots back into parks. We’ll be able to shrink streets, expand sidewalks, and make room for more pedestrians. This translates to better cities—and better lives—for people all over the world.”

But there is growing evidence that the ride-hailing apps, at least for now, are not solving the world’s problems. The research indicates that significant numbers of people are calling an Uber rather than walking, biking, or riding public transit. The result is more congestion, not less, and fewer riders on public transit.

The situation raises confounding problems for policymakers. At a recent meeting of the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board, directors circled warily around the problem. They regularly greenlight transportation investments expected to last 30 to 40 years, but is that wise when a columnist for the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine is suggesting that trains and trolleys will soon go the way of horses and buggies? Should the MBTA compete against Uber and Lyft (the LA Metro recently went looking for a private contractor to help it develop an on-demand, mini-bus system) or should the T cooperate with the ride-hailing apps (as it did by farming out a big chunk of its high-cost paratransit service to the two companies)?

Making matters worse, no one really knows what impact the ride-hailing apps are having on public transit, and Uber and Lyft act as if what they are doing is nobody’s business. The Baker administration and state lawmakers, after passing a weak law regulating the ride-sharing apps last year, have shown no interest in compelling the companies to step forward with information.

Karl Quackenbush, executive director of the Central Transportation Planning Staff, an agency whose job is to analyze ridership data to help inform policymaking in Massachusetts, says he is extremely frustrated.

“We’re pretty damn sure that a lot of the trips that are being made by Lyft and Uber are coming off the transit system,” he says. “I think there’s a lot of cynicism among people in the planning world. They think the public sector blew it, blew it big time, by not foreseeing what was going to happen and putting mechanisms in place from the get-go that would compel these companies to work more cooperatively to provide information. It’s a touchy subject. These are businesses. They’re in a competitive situation. We get that they are loathe to part with information that could put them at a competitive disadvantage. But you know public sector organizations like ourselves have entered into agreements in the past with various private operators. We were able to use the information without putting the companies at a competitive disadvantage. Unfortunately, what you’re seeing now is these companies are so damned powerful, they fight back big-time with legions of lawyers.”

BOSTON INFORMATION SCARCE

It’s shocking how little we know about the operations of Uber and Lyft.

In August 2016, Gov. Charlie Baker signed into law a bill regulating so-called transportation network companies, or TNCs. (I use the term ride-hailing apps because that seems more descriptive of what they are.) The legislation required transparent pricing, properly marked vehicles, and state background checks of drivers. It also gave the ride-hailing apps the green light to operate out of Logan Airport and the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.

But the legislation said nothing about information. As a result, we know how many drivers have had their backgrounds checked (120,111 as of November 1), but we don’t know how many drivers are actually out on the streets.  We don’t know where they drive, when they drive, or how many passengers they carry.

Uber and Lyft say the information is proprietary and, if released, could violate the confidentiality of their customers. Both companies say transit agencies have nothing to fear from them.

“We’ve always viewed ourselves as a partner of transit,” says Corey Ershow, Lyft’s transportation policy manager. “We really believe that as people have more options, they’re going to use all of them more often and so if we can get them out of cars they will get on to transit more often and more frequently.”

An Uber spokeswoman, Alix Anfang, says much the same. “Uber’s long-term goal is to end the reliance on personal car ownership and instead allow a mix of public transportation and services like Uber,” she says. “Uber helps fill service gaps in communities across Boston that lack convenient access to the T, helping people affordably and reliably move around the city.”

Uber, Anfang says, is currently growing the fastest in Boston neighborhoods that lack good access to public transit, including Mattapan, Hyde Park, Roslindale, Dorchester, and West Roxbury.

Asked for data that would back up her claim, Anfang says the company selected 100 users at random who took an Uber ride in Boston between November 29 and December 5. The dataset ended up being 151 trips. Of the total, 38 percent were roundtrips or to the airport. Another 5 percent were loops, where the user took a trip from point A to point B and then another trip on to C before heading back to A. All of these trips most likely didn’t involve another transportation mode, such as public transit.

The rest of the trips, or more than half, were either one-way (38 percent) or some form of travel that didn’t end up back where the passenger started. Uber admits some subjective judgments are used in its analysis, but officials there say the data indicate most customers are using the ride-hailing app in conjunction with some other mode of travel, such as transit, walking, or biking.

One place in Boston where information on use of ride-sharing apps is available is Logan International Airport, and the impact there is astounding. According to data collected by the Massachusetts Port Authority, ride-hailing apps handled 12.5 percent of the arriving and departing passengers in February, the first month the apps were allowed to operate legally at the airport. Nine months later the percentage has grown to 25 percent, even as overall passenger traffic at the airport grew 6 percent this year compared to the previous year.

Massport declined to provide percentages for other travel modes, but the data the agency made available suggests taxis took a slight hit initially but have since held their own. Logan Express and private buses are holding their own as well. MBTA officials say they believe transit is handling about the same number of passengers at the airport as it did last year. If the ride-sharing apps are growing fast and other modes of transport are holding steady, the likely conclusion is that fewer people are driving themselves or having a friend or family member drive them to the airport. That could create less need for the new, 5,000-car garage Massport is looking to build at Logan.

Jennifer Mehigan, a Massport spokeswoman, says the numbers require more scrutiny. “Talking with airports across the country, TNCs are having a much greater impact than forecasted,” she says. “The same is true at Logan and we are interested in studying a full year of data.”

WHAT THE LIMITED DATA INDICATE

When it comes to data, the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission treats ride-hailing apps like taxis, and requires them to provide detailed trip information. Bruce Schaller, a transportation analyst in New York, crunched the data and issued a report in February 2017 that raised alarms about what is going on in the city.

After adjusting for declines in yellow cab and personal vehicles, Schaller estimated the ride-hailing apps added 600 million vehicle miles to the city’s roadway network between 2013 and 2016. He said taxi and other for-hire vehicles are now growing faster than transit, and ride-sharing options, such as UberPool and LyftLine, aren’t having much impact in reducing total vehicle miles traveled.

“TNC mileage nevertheless continues to grow rapidly because exclusive-ride trips still predominate, and because most TNC customers are coming from transit, walking, and biking,” his report said. “Migration from public transit translates to increased mileage even if the trips are shared.”

In an update issued in December, Schaller said congestion is increasing in the city’s central business district, with the number of taxi and ride-hailing vehicles on the road rising to 10,000 during the afternoon peak, more than double the number in 2013.

Schaller, in a telephone interview, says cities need to be paying attention to what’s happening before congestion cripples them. “This is like any new thing—Microsoft, Facebook, Google. It’s like a puppy,” he says. “The puppy is wonderful, but when the puppy grows into a big dog then you have second thoughts and mixed feelings.”

Several other research initiatives have also raised concerns about the impact of ride-hailing apps. A team at the University of California Davis Institute of Transportation Studies surveyed 2,000 people in seven metro areas, including Boston, about their travel choices over a two-year period between 2014 and 2016.  The answers suggest ride-hailing users are cutting back on their use of bus and light-rail service while slightly increasing their use of subways. Overall, the October survey found, between 49 percent and 62 percent of ride-hailing trips added to vehicle miles traveled because, absent the apps, they wouldn’t have been made at all or would have been made on transit or by walking and biking.

“This mode substitution data suggests that directionally ride-hailing is likely contributing more vehicle miles traveled than it reduces in major cities,” the report said. The researchers recommended that policymakers explore ways to reduce congestion by assessing fees on drivers and giving priority to buses on roadways. They also urged transit authorities to tap the massive amount of data ride-sharing apps are gathering about how people move around in cities.

“Limited data in the public sector perpetuates less-informed decision-making, which in turn results in transportation systems that do not meet the public’s needs. We need a solution to this growing problem,” the research report said.

For his doctoral dissertation at the University of Colorado in Denver, Alejandro Henao worked as a driver for Uber and Lyft and conducted surveys of his passengers as he transported them to their destination. He provided 416 rides and collected 311 surveys, which indicated 22 percent of his passengers were tapping his services instead of using transit and 12 percent were riding with him instead of biking or walking.

Only 5 percent of Henao’s passengers were connecting to another mode of travel during their trip and 80 percent said they never had connected to another mode. He estimated vehicle miles traveled on the trips he provided was 185 percent of what it would have been in the absence of the two ride-hailing apps. He said his gross earnings were $15.69 an hour—$7.94 an hour after expenses.

The San Francisco County Transportation Authority, the congestion management agency for the Bay area, analyzed ride-hailing trips made entirely within the city from mid-November to mid-December of 2016. The data indicate between 5,700 and 6,500 vehicles affiliated with the ride-hailing apps were out on city streets at peak times. The vehicles handled 170,000 trips on a typical weekday and generated 570,000 vehicle miles traveled, or about 20 percent of the city’s total. The report indicated 20 percent of the miles traveled by vehicles affiliated with ride-hailing apps were out-of-service miles, meaning the vehicle was just circling waiting for a rider.

Joe Castiglione, deputy director for technology, data, and analysis at the authority, says the agency plans to start surveying customers of the ride-hailing apps this spring to find out more about how they are using them and what impact their usage patterns are having on the city’s transportation system.

The data used in the San Francisco study came from a group of researchers at Northeastern University in Boston who opened a series of Uber and Lyft accounts across the city and used them to track when the nearest available vehicles accepted or completed ride requests. “The Northeastern researchers collected information on vehicle locations every five seconds for approximately six weeks. The data collection methodology has no impacts on either drivers or riders,” the San Francisco study said.

Christo Wilson, a computer science professor at Northeastern, turned cryptic when asked to discuss his research. “Normally I would be happy to chat, but, unfortunately, due to circumstances beyond my control, I’m not in a position to talk about this topic at the moment,” he said in an email.

Asked whether some sort of legal action has been taken against him, he replied: “There’s nothing public. We are proceeding this way out of an abundance of caution.”

Asked if he thought states should require Uber and Lyft to disclose ridership information, he said he did, as long as the privacy of riders and drivers is protected. “Given the growth of ridesharing services, it’s critical for cities to understand their impact on things like congestion, public transit, curb access, etc. This is the only way for municipal planners to make informed decisions about future infrastructure.”

COOPERATION OR COMPETITION?

The top transportation officials in Boston and the Baker administration don’t seem inclined to press for legislation requiring the ride-sharing apps to turn over data. The Boston officials indicated in an interview that they are more interested in cooperating with the apps and state Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack is not convinced the apps are undercutting the MBTA.

Boston officials say they are working with Lyft to identify congested pickup and dropoff areas around the city where they could clear the curb area so the ride-sharing app’s vehicles won’t have to double-park and disrupt parking and bicycle lanes. The city and Lyft officials are looking at areas in Downtown Crossing, Back Bay, the South Boston waterfront, near Symphony Hall, and North Station.

Chris Osgood, Boston’s chief of streets, says Lyft and the city have a mutual interest in sharing data on the congested pickup and dropoff spots—to speed rides up for Lyft and to enhance safety for Boston residents.

“We think we’re going to be able to work well with these companies, at least on the curb management stuff,” he says. He acknowledged the ride-sharing apps have been less forthcoming with information that would indicate whether their drivers are increasing congestion in the city.

Gina Fiandaca, commissioner of the Boston Trans-portation Department, says “public transit is the foundation for mobility,” but she makes clear that the city doesn’t view ride-sharing apps as a threat to public transit.

“We want to sit at the table with the TNCs, knowing that this business model is here to stay,” she says. “It’s something that citizens want, that they’ve identified a need for, and [the apps] do fill some gaps in the transit network. How do we in the regulatory environment support that in a positive way that’s consistent with the mobility goals we’ve set out in Boston 2030 (the city’s visioning study]? Clearly, we don’t want TNCs stopping to pick people up in the traffic lane on Congress Street or operating in a disruptive way. They want to be successful; we want success in our city. We want to provide the mobility options that we know people want, so how do we work together?”

Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack.

Pollack says she always wants more data, but she seems in no hurry to press Uber and Lyft for information. She raises privacy concerns with the data and acts as if no one in her shop is really clamoring for the information, even though her own strategist is working with other transit agencies around the country to figure out the impact of Uber and Lyft.

Pollack says people have a lot of transportation choices today, so instead of riding the Red Line to work and back five times a week, four weeks a month, an individual may take an Uber when it rains, ride a bike when it’s sunny, or work from home occasionally. Over the course of a month, she says, that person may take 36 trips on the Red Line rather than 40, a 10 percent reduction. That shows up as a decline in ridership, but Pollack says it’s less concerning because the customer benefits by having more choices.

“We don’t know if we’re losing trips or riders,” she says. “I would be worried if we were losing riders.”

The secretary says the lack of data isn’t really preventing the T from planning for the future. She says the T’s best option is to build a variety of possible scenarios for every major investment and then figure out how many futures any given investment will work in.

“In most futures, the Red, Orange, and Green Lines are going to matter,” she says. “I don’t think autonomous vehicles can move 50,000 people in a half hour. They may be autonomous, but they still take up a lot of room.”

Ride-sharing apps have already cut into bus ridership, and could have an even bigger impact down the road, Pollack says. But she isn’t too worried because buses are relatively inexpensive compared to rail systems and they have a useful life of 12 years, so the T can adjust to any dramatic shift in ridership fairly quickly.

Pollack says commuter rail is the one service that’s hard to figure, largely because the purchase of a locomotive is a 50-year investment. Will ride-sharing apps spur commuter rail ridership by providing first and last-mile service, or will passenger traffic crater as customers opt for the convenience of door-to-door service provided by ride-sharing apps? Autonomous vehicles may make parking obsolete, so it’s possible the T could open more commuter rail stations at far less cost, Pollack says.

Although some members of the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board are trying to decide whether to cooperate or compete against the ride-hailing apps, Pollack takes a different tack. “I always think in terms of what’s the no-regret strategy. What’s the smart thing to do when you’re not sure. Running a great service is the smart thing to do when you’re not sure,” she says.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

The secretary says better, more reliable service puts the T in a good position if competition turns out to be the best approach or if cooperation ends up being the way to go. That’s why the T is investing in new Red and Orange Line cars, working with municipalities to create dedicated lanes for buses, and thinking long and hard about the future of commuter rail.

“We’re not smart enough to know what the future is going to look like because it’s a moment of real disruption in transportation,” Pollack says. “The disruption of the last five years has been TNCs. The disruption of the next 10 years may well be autonomous vehicles or something else we don’t even know about yet.”