Well-off people, it turns out, make a lot of trips. The volume of cars these two companies have added in the nine major cities where they primarily operate is stunning. According to one estimate, ridership on Uber and Lyft dwarfs that of taxicabs; taken together, cars for hire carried more passenger trips than the U.S.’s entire city-bus fleet. In San Francisco, Uber and Lyft now represent one in five car trips and half of all new congestion since 2010.
The influx of circling for-hire vehicles has strained the road systems in these cities. And it has been devastating for public transit—which, in most metro areas, depends heavily on buses that run on the same streets as Uber and Lyft cars.
Even the best-funded bus and rail systems have struggled to compete with door-to-door chauffeur services, which have been subsidized by billions of dollars from venture capitalists more concerned about expanding market share than profits. In greater Seattle, despite massive local investment in transit, Uber and Lyft now carry more trips a day than the 22-mile Link light-rail system. One study found that, after entering the San Francisco market in 2010, Uber and Lyft have reduced bus use by 13 percent.
Not only do Uber and Lyft pull wealthier riders off transit, but they also make transit worse for those who can’t afford to bail out. The two ride-hailing companies alone add an estimated 6,000 vehicles to the streets every rush hour in San Francisco, helping to mire city buses in gridlock. Declines in transit ridership often lead to service cuts that, by making routes less frequent and convenient for everyone, lead to further declines in ridership.
But with the introduction of Uber Copter, we may be entering a new, more wildly unequal frontier, where 1 percenters literally soar above the masses in major cities, with serious environmental and health costs to ordinary city dwellers. Uber maintains that the journey from downtown Manhattan to JFK by helicopter takes about 30 minutes, compared with 82 minutes by transit.
In many ways, the new venture for Uber is fitting. New York City streets are overwhelmed with more and more cars, many of them operated by Uber and Lyft—and people are seeking escape. Now the company can capitalize on the problem it helped create.
In its Twitter announcement, the company said, “The pilot is designed to generate learnings for a future all-electric Uber Air ride-sharing network.” Yet any hypothetical benefits from those “learnings” are a far-off dream at best, and the nonexistent all-electric network is a convenient way to wave off environmental complaints. The potential environmental harms, of course, are evident now. Helicopters are gas guzzlers. When CityLab’s Laura Bliss tried the service last week, the pilot told her that her half-hour flight consumed 10 gallons of gas—and that this was “‘efficient’ for a helicopter.” A 2006 study in the Netherlands also found that helicopters produce about three to five times the pollution of a diesel car.