Who Benefits from Rideshare Services? The Transit and Land-Use Issue Implications

Are ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft improving transportation in our cities? A new study by Marquet (2020) conducted in Chicago suggests that in many cases they compete with or displace trips taken on public transit, making traffic worse and exacerbating socioeconomic inequality. Here are the key takeaways:

  1. Rideshare customers tend to skew whiter and wealthier. Low-income households take roughly five times fewer rideshare trips, and white-majority neighborhoods took more trips. 
  2. While households without a car tended to use rideshare for more trips, these weren’t necessarily trips that would have been in a car under other conditions. The rides themselves were more likely to connect a walkable area to a less-walkable destination, or vice versa — places with plenty of other transportation options overall, like transit or walking.
  3. More surprisingly, less transit access at the origin or destination was correlated with fewer trips.

As ridesharing services have risen to prominence in cities across the U.S., transportation researchers have been tracking their impact — both positive and negative. Some evidence suggests these platforms increase Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT), but it remains unclear if they reduce private car ownership. The extent to which low-income communities benefit from access to these services is also unclear. 

This study asks a more basic question: how does ridesharing interact with demographics and the built environment?

To get a clear picture, Marquet analyzed data from over 32 million trips in the City of Chicago — making this one of the few studies to analyze actual ride-share data — occurring from late 2018 to mid-2019, and cross-referenced it with socioeconomic census tract data from the American Community Survey. Marquet also compared this data with EPA data on street design, employment, and other land-use factors to determine walkability and transit connectivity, as proxies for the general purposes of these trips.

The results suggest that rideshare is more popular for leisure than work commutes. The largest share of trips occurred on Fridays, at 27%, with the smallest share being on Mondays, just 16% of trips. In other words, ride-share services such as Uber and Lyft have not become substitutes for private vehicles when it comes to getting people to and from work, but rather serve mainly to transport people for social and recreational activities. Rideshare usage is also primarily utilized in areas with a higher presence of high-income households, even when holding constant all other factors.

Marquet notes: “Trips either starting or ending in high walkability areas represent in fact 90% of the total trips, showcasing the attraction of walkable areas for daily travel.” Further, “[r]idehailing is associated with the most accessible areas of the city, which indicates that ridehailing is [often] used even though other cleaner and healthier options are avail­able.” 

These trips between highly walkable areas also have a low “pooling rate,” meaning riders are opting to travel solo — a mode choice that has negative implications for both traffic congestion and the environment. However, Marquet noted that ride-hailing was less frequent if both the origin and destination of a trip were well-served by mass transit — meaning that improvements to a city’s public transportation could result in fewer people opting for services like Uber or Lyft.

While ridesharing still appears to be too costly for lower-income households, Marquet worries these services could capture higher-income riders and reduce fare revenues — thereby undermining political support for existing and expanded transit services, in a vicious cycle that leaves transit-dependent workers with no options.  

The least that public officials could do, writes Marquet, is push for policies that “promot[e] pooled rides as a better alternative than individual ridehailing.”