Public officials should not just allow app-based pooling systems — they should champion them. We acknowledge valid concerns that app-based pooling may detract from public transit in some areas. But transit is already suffering across the country. Bus ridership has been declining for the past two decades (Figure 2) and funding for improving mass transit is limited. When thoughtfully deployed, app-based pooling can do much to support and improve public transit. For example, app-based pooling can provide first/last mile access to major transit stops and stations. It can also provide coverage during times when transit is not cost-effective, such as at night.
Figure 2: Transportation network companies (TNCs), like Uber and Lyft, have rapidly surpassed taxis’ trip share and are approaching that of buses and rail.
Unfortunately, policymakers have been generally slow to embrace these solutions. Chicago, for instance, imposes an $0.72-per-ride fee on all ride-hailing companies. This blanket fee does not differentiate between single-rider trips, which do little to reduce the negative external costs of driving, and pooled trips, which do. Chicago is not unique. As we go to press in May 2019, nine cities and 11 states have some sort of ride-hailing fee on transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft. Only New York City provides any citywide break for pooled rides.
New York City also recently approved congestion pricing in lower Manhattan — a move that will incentivize pooled travel for personal vehicles. In an open letter to the governor, a diverse coalition of transportation experts and stakeholders supported lower congestion fees for pooled travel. We agree and suggest a very steep discount for pooled trips, which will help manage congestion and address legitimate equity concerns.
Many transit agencies and other regional actors are experimenting with partnerships that take advantage of ride-hailing services while meeting transportation goals. For example, UCLA partnered with Lyft to offer flat Lyft Shared rates in the UCLA area. Lyft has also set up a large and growing number of pilot projects with transit providers.
Airports are also setting good examples for smart pooling policy. Airports are often governed by special districts that can set fees outside of state and local rules. Some airports are taking advantage of this capacity to manage ride-hailing traffic by encouraging pooling. In October 2019, for instance, the Massachusetts Port Authority will reduce fees by $1.75 for rides that are shared at Boston Logan Airport. Ride-hailing services will also be required to use “ride-matching” programs that discourage travel without passengers.
Ride-hailing companies loom large in public discourse, but still account for a relatively small share of trips taken in the United States — and hence have so far had relatively modest impacts on driving behavior, public transit use, and congestion. This may change with the advent of automated vehicles that could dramatically reduce ride-hailing service costs, leading to dramatic increases in ride-hailing use.
Now is a critical time to develop policy frameworks favorable to pooling in an era of wide availability of ride-hailing.
Cities reasonably want to regulate app-based ride-hailing services to protect public transit and to generate income. Such policies should be carefully designed to support pooling, discourage empty miles, and encourage transportation innovation. The vast majority of congestion, pollution, and equity problems that our societies face stem from the dominance of private vehicles in transportation systems, not from ride-hailing. Strategic, research-based policy can steer these systems to a more sustainable future.