Are Ride-Sharing Services Environmentally Friendly?

For decades now, people have suggested ride sharing as a way to curb carbon emissions. In many ways, it’s easy to see how it would work. If you take one car to work instead of six, you’ve taken five cars off the road. If you ride a bus or train to work, you’ve taken maybe 50 cars off the roads, and certainly more if you live near a large city.

But what happens when you introduce the idea of what ride sharing has become? It’s no longer a group effort to take cars off the road, but more of a personalized taxi service. This has some issues. For starters, the group transportation idea isn’t taking cars out of the equation as people had hoped.

Gathering data that would help evaluate the effectiveness of ride sharing services like Uber and Lyft has been challenging at best. A large part of the problem is that some of the necessary information for an extensive, detailed study is considered proprietary, which means they can’t release it.

This has left the evaluation of their environmental impact entirely up to the company. Some of them, including Uber, have been shown to have some questionable methods for getting the numbers we do have available. These are often very limited regarding time or area, and all of the estimates, such as gas mileage, are on the end that makes them look the best.

This is incredibly problematic. One of the main focuses of an independent study is to prevent a company or person from fudging the numbers. There are also a surprisingly large number of suggestions that Uber has increased the number of cars on the roads, especially in big cities. If that’s the case, then it becomes much more difficult for them to argue for their sustainability.

This increase in drivers means something else has an increased probability — more traffic accidents. Taxi companies are regulated as big business and have restrictions on how many hours their drivers can work. Uber drivers are considered independent contractors and do not have the same kind of restrictions. This can lead to driver fatigue, reckless driving and poor vehicle maintenance, all of which are common causes of accidents involving ride-sharing services.

Those accidents have environmental impacts. They often result in leaks for fluids or gasoline, which can leak into streams and absorb into the ground. If the accident is severe, road repair could occur, as well as an additional car or two added to the landfill.

However, just because Uber has had some questionable results doesn’t mean all ride sharing services have the same issues. In fact, other countries have made serious strides toward increasing and improving their public transportation. Japan’s bullet train, called the Shinkansen, receives worldwide recognition for effectively transporting people. In Germany, the Hydrotrain is the first train that emits only water, with no carbon emissions to speak of.

The other difference with these, besides the Hydrotrain having zero emissions, is these are public transportation options. They run, regardless of how many people use them, so the more people that do use them, the better they become for the environment. It’s an entirely user-based system. Ride sharing options like Uber and Lyft, on the other hand, are on the road individually. The basic concept is adding more people who drive as their job.

Public transportation does add individuals who drive for their job, but the main prerogative is to minimize traffic. Of course, the United States has a long way to go to catch up with European mass transit, but it’s making some strides. In 2013, reports showed that some kind of public transportation is used 35 million times each day by people.

The environmental impacts of ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft have not been well-studied, but that’s expected to change. Since Uber has an issue with their methodology of environmental studies, it’s been decided that an independent third party will evaluate their practices. In this case, it’s UC Berkeley that’s looking into them. However, it’s likely the relationship of ride-sharing programs to the environment will be more complicated than what’s already measured.

After all, ride sharing services don’t only affect people who grab rides to and from their destinations. There’s a chance they may decrease use of other methods of transport like walking or biking. Uber is hoping the data will come back estimating most cars get high gas mileage and the availability of cars helps people to avoid buying cars of their own.

The bottom line is we don’t have a solid understanding yet of how ride sharing impacts the environment. We can hope it’s a good thing and that the overall impact is fewer carbon emissions. At this point, the evidence is not strong for that. The industry is too new, though, and too unstudied to be sure. The best case is that when this third-party study is completed, it will come with recommendations for ride sharing companies to make to improve their sustainability.

Kate Harveston is a freelance political writer and blogger for her site, Only Slightly Biased, and her writing mainly focuses on social justice issues, both in the United States and internationally.

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