By Laura Bliss — Pacific Standard
Earlier this month, Lyft announced that all passenger rides will be carbon neutral, indefinitely. The plan is to cancel out vehicle emissions by investing in carbon offset projects, while eventually folding electric and autonomous vehicles into its fleet. The move bolsters the company’s image as a greener, more socially conscious alternative to Uber, its major competitor, which has not made such a pledge. …
Both Uber and Lyft have repeatedly stated their intentions to vastly reduce private car ownership. The underutilization of personal vehicles—the average car is used just 4 percent of the time—is “the heart of our transportation problem,” Lyft co-founders John Zimmer and Logan Green wrote on the company’s blog in June of 2017. …
But is vehicle ownership really what counts when measuring the industry’s environmental impact? Probably not, since car ownership isn’t what produces emissions. It’s using the car. …
… drivers also spend a lot of time traveling without any passengers in the car. Estimates from two of the largest markets in the U.S. give a sense of how many of these “deadhead” miles in between trips are being driven. In San Francisco, it’s estimated that approximately 20 percent of the miles traveled by Uber and Lyft drivers are without passengers. In New York City, deadheading accounts for an estimated 50 percent of the 600 million miles that transportation network companies (or TNCs, as they’re called in policy and academic literature) have added to the roads since 2013 …
Last fall, in a major survey of seven U.S. cities, the University of California–Davis transportation researcher Regina Clewlow found that Uber, Lyft, and similar on-demand services were replacing trips that might have been made by transit, walking, or biking, suggesting that ride-hailing is contributing more vehicle miles traveled (VMT) than it reduces. …
Without serious policy interventions, demand for cheap, convenient rides is likely to grow if vehicles become more automated and potentially less costly to operate, and congestion is likely to worsen. …
Perhaps Uber’s foray into biking and transit access will so dramatically scale up demand for a fully car-free lifestyle that the fossil fuels its drivers are burning now will ultimately be neutralized. “The way we think of it is in terms of people miles traveled, not vehicle miles traveled,” said Adam Gromis, a manager of sustainability and environmental policy at Uber. “We want to maximize people movement while reducing vehicle movement, over time.” …
A better understanding of the impacts of on-demand transportation is probably called for: with the exception of a few local studies, the public has little idea of how many miles these cars are driving. Laws that require companies to share data could be designed so that, for example, deadhead miles can be accounted for and dealt with.
Full story here.

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