Uber and Lyft: Convenience at a Climate Price

Updated: Jun 1

Uber and Lyft are widely recognized as the top, and most convenient, ride-hailing services. However, a new study finds that they release 69% more carbon emissions because of a practice known as "deadheading."

Uber and Lyft are some of the most carbon-intensive practices because of the extra miles they drive. IMG credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

"Deadheading" – the miles a hired vehicle drives without a passenger – represents 42% of all Uber and Lyft mileage. According to a new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, deadheading has a profound impact, as emissions are 69% higher than forms of transportation they replace, despite the fact that ride-hailing cars are generally newer and more efficient.


The report compared ride-hailing vehicles to ride sharing, electric cars, and private vehicles, as well as low-carbon methods of transportation, such as public transportation, walking, and biking. Therefore, the figure of 69% greater is in comparison to the average emissions of other available modes of transportation.


Graph: Emissions Impact of Ride Hailing Vehicles vs. Other Travel Modes

Source: UCS Methodology Online Document, Section 3.

Ride sharing services emit roughly the same emissions as private vehicles. Similarly, electric ride-hailing vehicles emit significantly less emissions than private vehicles, and those numbers drop even more when rides are shared. An electric ride share would reduce emissions by 68% in comparison to a private vehicle and by 79% compared to a non-shared ride. Meanwhile, and electric, non-shared ride would cut emissions by 53% percent (see graph below). California is working to make ride hailing more climate friendly, passing legislation in 2018 that will require ride hailing vehicles to cut emissions and transition to an all-electric fleet beginning in 2023.


Graph: Emissions of Different Ride Hailing Types

Source: UCS Methodology Online Document, Section 2.

However, ride sharing services are not the best solution for everyone. The report states that emissions could be cut in half with ride sharing, According to Luís Bettencourt, director of the Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation at the University of Chicago,

"People want to go fast, they want to maybe have a private conversation, they may not be in a condition where they want to pool."

In order to achieve the goal of one half of all rides being shared, companies and local governments are playing a role. Chicago has begun to assess fees on single-person rides.


Don Anair, research director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' Clean Transportation Program and an author of the report, says

"While ride hailing trips today are higher emitting than other types of trips, we were encouraged by the fact that they can be significantly lower polluting with efforts to electrify and pool rides. The outlook could be positive with some concrete steps by the companies to move forward, as well as policymakers to support that."


Necessary Policies

The report published a list of necessary policies to be implemented in order to change this problem.


1) A mass investment in public transportation and walking/biking. In order for people to fully transition from driving and riding, other systems have to be in place for them to get around, while still limiting the amount of time it takes. Policymakers also have to ensure that the systems are safe, affordable, and convenient.


2) Encourage pooling. This can include carpool lanes and toll/fee discounts.


3) Require the electrification of ride-hailing vehicles. While it would be nice to electrify the entire transportation section, starting out with just this industry can reduce emissions significantly, such as the regulations in California. Part of this regulation would be instituting infrastructure for charging stations and boosting the electric grid with renewable technologies to increase capacity for charging.



Sources

“Ride-Hailing’s Climate Risks: Steering a Growing Industry toward a Clean Transportation Future.” Union of Concerned Scientists, February 2020. https://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/2020-02/Ride-Hailing's-Climate-Risks.pdf.


McKenna, Phil. “Uber and Lyft Are Convenient, Competitive and Highly Carbon Intensive.” InsideClimate News, February 28, 2020. https://insideclimatenews.org/news/24022020/uber-lyft-carbon-intensive-clean-transportation.



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