Universal congestion pricing is the way to go

Rideshare accounts for 8% of VMT in Suffolk County

MASSACHUSETTS LIVES and breathes as the Commonwealth of firsts. From the Mayflower to the continent’s first subway system, this state knows what groundbreaking transportation looks like.

While we have accomplished many firsts, Massachusetts transportation seems to be at a standstill. In recent months, there’s been much conversation (and ire) about the MBTA and transportation woes in the Boston area. And while some have called this a moment of crisis, I see it as an opportunity for positive change.

That’s why when it comes to congestion, we need to explore solutions that look at the whole transportation picture, not just one slice of the pie. One such solution could be universal congestion pricing — but we’ll get to that a bit later.

Here at Lyft, we believe that positive change works best when it is informed and data-driven. So we decided to take a deeper look at congestion as it pertains to ridesharing.

Together with Uber, we set out to work with renowned transportation consultancy Fehr & Peers to put together a third-party assessment of rideshare’s impact on vehicle miles traveled (VMT), a standard metric for overall vehicle activity in a region. This is the first report to use the companies’ own trip data as well as information from a variety of state-level and other sources.

Fehr & Peers found that in the greater Boston area, VMT from personal and commercial vehicles accounts for 98 percent of total regional VMT, which means Lyft & Uber contribute only 2 percent. In Suffolk County, which includes Boston, personal and commercial vehicles account for 92 percent of VMT while Lyft & Uber contribute 8 percent.

In addition to these findings, we know from our own data that the majority of Lyft trips take place outside of peak commuting hours. In fact, nearly half of Lyft rides in Boston occur during nights and weekends, when transit is less available and would-be drivers might be impaired.

These new findings highlight the need to look at traffic comprehensively and that reducing personal vehicle miles traveled, often in single occupancy vehicles, is a powerful way to reduce congestion. Lyft is proud of the investments we’ve made to encourage less personal car use and more efficient and sustainable modes of transportation.

Lyft is making car ownership optional and is most often used in conjunction with public transportation. In Boston, nearly half of Lyft users do not own or lease a personal vehicle and a vast majority of Lyft riders take public transit at least once a week. In fact, our top destinations are public transportation hubs like South Station, Malden Center, and Back Bay Station.

We also launched Nearby Transit, giving real-time public transportation information right in the app; invested in Boston’s micro-mobility through the city’s Bluebikes; and partnered with Mayor Marty Walsh’s administration on designated curb space for rideshare pickups and dropoffs.

We are also increasing mobility access by partnering with the MBTA’s The Ride program to provide on demand transportation for residents unable to access the core transit system due to a disability. And more recently, we have been working with local restaurants to provide subsidized rides for late night shift workers.

But as story after story casts headlines about the region’s ongoing transportation issues, one major piece of the puzzle seems to be missing: a feasible, holistic solution to the long-existing congestion problem.

Let’s first start by taking a step back and looking at the entire transportation ecosystem — that includes personal cars, which are the primary cause of congestion. And instead of singling out one mode of transportation, why not consider universal congestion pricing that applies to all cars that enter the busiest downtown areas during peak hours?

Cities like Stockholm, London, and Singapore have implemented it successfully.

There’s an added benefit, too. In addition to relieving congestion, universal congestion pricing could be an effective way to raise revenue for the state to help address growing infrastructure needs. But don’t just take our word for it.

Robin Chase, co-founder and former CEO of Zipcar (a company founded in Cambridge) is a supporter of congestion pricing on all cars. She explains in a New York Times op-ed: “Congestion pricing addresses [the congestion] problem by making it much more expensive to drive in the city. People will do less of it, and the new revenue will improve public transit and make using it more appealing — a win-win.” She goes on to say that “[c]ongestion is caused by all vehicles, not just a fraction of them.”

But this solution will not work effectively without the community in mind. Universal congestion pricing should be implemented in an equitable way designed to help bring more mobility options into communities that have been historically underserved so people can choose to not drive alone.

Now, some policymakers argue that raising fees on the ridesharing community is another approach to solving congestion. This is a misplaced approach. Leaving aside the ineffectiveness of specifically targeting a very small percentage of Uber and Lyfts on the road, Massachusetts residents — regardless of income level or neighborhood — depend on affordable transportation options like ridesharing to get around their communities. That’s a fact. More than half of Lyft rides in Boston start or end in low income areas and the median income of our riders is significantly lower than the area’s median household income.

Making ridesharing more expensive, like the state is considering, will encourage people to drive themselves — putting more cars on the road. Going further, placing additional (and unnecessary) cost burdens on those who can least afford it is simply unfair and regressive.

Meet the Author

Tyler George

Regional director New England, Lyft
Over 100 years ago, Massachusetts led the country in transportation leadership with the first subway system in North America. Let’s continue to carry the torch and look again to innovative and practical solutions that propel the Commonwealth forward. Lyft is here to partner in that innovative thinking and help reshape cities around people, not cars.

Tyler George is Lyft’s regional director of New England