Sustainability is about ecology, economy and equity.- Ralph Bicknese

Ride Sharing: Uber, Lyft, Sidecar and others–are they good for the environment?

Through marketing (mostly radio ads and Facebook) and my friends, I’ve been hearing a lot lately about Lyft and Uber. Sidecar isn’t as popular here in Seattle, but it still got my attention while researching ridesharing applications. Former sustainability assistant and blogger extrodinaireTim wrote a post about Lyft two years ago when they first started becoming popular here in Seattle, and since then there has been a bit of controversy about the legality and regulation about these kind of application based vehicle services (dubbed Transportation Network Companies by the city). Although these services were legalized in Seattle about a year ago, there are still concerns about insurance and potential conflict between statewide and local legislation.

Image Credit: Jeff Blucher, Flickr

Image Credit: Jeff Blucher, Flickr

As a car owner, I know how bad traffic can be, especially during rush hour. I also know that I contribute to traffic, and I feel especially guilty when I’m driving a short distance I could be walking, or when I’m the only one in my car. With all the hype I’ve heard lately, I wanted to know more and know if the companies are helping to alleviate the use of personal vehicles for single occupants.

Photo Credit Rob Barrett, NY Times, 2008

Image Credit: Rob Barrett, NY Times, 2008

After reading a number of articles, I found some on the basics of Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) and others relating to the politics and the environmental factors. These articles all helped me to better understand about the issues at hand.

What’s legal here in Seattle and what was all the controversy about?

The current regulations on TNCs were passed in July of 2014 and include:

  • Licensing and insurance requirements for drivers in the networks (there are specific requirements, but all listed pretty generally in news articles).
  • Removal of the cap on the number of drivers for each TNC, so there can be many drivers from Uber, Lyft, or other companies.
  • The creation of an Accessibility fund, which charges 10 cents per ride in vehicles not equipped for wheelchairs in order to create a wheelchair accessible taxi service.
  • Changes made to benefit taxis and for-hire drivers. The City will increase the number of taxi licenses they issue over the next four years, and for-hire drivers are now allowed to pick up passengers that hail them on the street instead of being restricted to arrange-in-advance rides only.Ridesharelogos

Repealing the ordinance on the limit of drivers pleased the TNCs and allows them to increase their business as much as they can afford to insure their drivers. This decision left traditional cab drivers a bit unhappy, because of the limited licenses that they are provided by the city. The controversy is that these TNCs are not really creating ridesharing, but a private on demand taxi service for cheaper, because they are avoiding all the licensing and insurance costs usually associated with becoming a cab driver. From the perspective of traditional services, these new companies aren’t playing by the strict rules, and that’s not fair. From the perspective of TNCs, they’re creating innovation and helping people save money. This leads to questions of safety and fairness which is where state legislation is now headed towards answering.  They are working to answer these questions not just for Seattle, but for the sake of other large cities like Tacoma and Spokane.

How can these transportation network companies help or hurt the environment?

These companies can be an alternative to the personal vehicle which is awesome, but they are also an alternative to the traditional carpool and public transit system. San Francisco has seen mixed results with the addition of transportation network companies, and citizens of the bay area have been taking advantage of them. Uber and Lyft have been lightening the load on the public transit system, which has been helpful in some ways because of the overcrowding that was predicted, but at the same time has made public transit less important. It is too soon to see if these ridesharing companies are supporting the use of alternative transportation from the personal vehicle, or if they are actually increasing cars on the road as a way of making money.

In efforts to be more environmentally friendly and fulfill their ridesharing claims, Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar have developed additional options for their applications that include catching a ride with other customers. Uber Pool went live last week, and Lyft Line has been available for almost a month. Sidecar hasn’t released their carpool service nationwide, but hopes to have it by the end of the year. There is also the option in Chicago to choose an electric car instead of a typical car when you ride with Uber, which can reduce trip emissions to nothing. Uber also has made efforts in their marketing to seem more environmentally friendly, by donating money to help plant trees from Earth Day profits and encouraging passengers to carpool in their Uber ride.  A small nugget I found while researching the environmental friendliness of Uber and Lyft was Via. It is truly ridesharing and similar to the specific carpool apps that Uber and Lyft have added. Although it is only in New York (Manhattan specifically) right now, I wouldn’t be surprised if it grew to other areas or cities quickly.

The difference between the each model is the type of niche they fill and the people they attract. Via works more with people commuting to and from work, and I feel like Uber and Lyft cater more to people with irregular schedules or special occasions when they need a ride. There are still the options of old school taxis and the public transportation system that can be taken advantage of as well.

I hope this information was helpful for anyone curious about this growing trend! Comment below on thoughts about ridesharing and how we can reduce emissions!

Author: Lauren

SPU Student

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