It’s a question that has dogged Uber and Lyft since they burst on the scene a few years ago: Is the convenience of having a ride at your fingertips undercut by its popularity, making Boston’s legendary traffic even worse?
New research from a Boston-region planning agency suggests that ride-hailing services are indeed pulling people off trains, buses, and bicycles — or creating altogether new trips — and adding cars to the streets.
In a survey of 944 ride-hail passengers by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, nearly 60 percent said they would not have been in a car if they weren’t using the apps. The results add to a small body of research indicating that ride-hail services are adding to congestion in US cities already stifled by traffic.
“Just driving around the city, I think this makes intuitive sense. There’s an awful lot of time I’m driving or parked behind a person with an Uber or Lyft sign in their window,” said Marc Draisen, the planning council’s executive director. “And the numbers bear that out.”
Boston estimates that on any given day a quarter-million cars are on the city’s roads during rush hour. But it’s not known how many of those are Uber and Lyft vehicles, or how much worse they make congestion. The city and state governments have collected limited data, and the companies fiercely protect information that details the trips they provide.
“Frankly, we should have this available to us, and we should be able to do transportation planning,” Draisen said. “I think the Commonwealth needs to explore whether more significant data requirements are needed.”
The MAPC survey suggests that 15 percent of Uber and Lyft rides add cars to the streets during the morning and evening rushes, and their cars are noticeably prevalent in downtown Boston. Last fall, the council gave tablets to 10 ride-hail drivers to survey passengers during trips. The month-long query found that 42 percent of passengers would have otherwise used public transit, while another 17 percent would have walked, biked, or not traveled at all.
“Even adding a small amount of additional congestion during rush hour has a very significant impact,” Draisen said.
The survey was the first of its scale in the region. Separately, a survey by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority showed that 30 percent of riders sometimes take Uber or Lyft instead of public transit.
Across the country, city planners have struggled to determine ride-hailing’s effect on traffic. Even in some places where data are handed over, officials have not released the information publicly or shared it with other public agencies that manage traffic.
In most states, ride-hail regulations typically focus on safety matters — such as driver background checks and insurance coverage — rather than on data or traffic management.
New York City is a rare municipality that collects detailed figures from ride-hail companies. Last year, a transportation consultant found Uber, Lyft, and other services were responsible for millions of miles of new car travel in the city, with drivers often cruising without a passenger and further slowing Manhattan’s notorious traffic.
Meanwhile, without access to Uber or Lyft data, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority studied the companies’ apps and estimated they create a staggering 170,000 trips on an average weekday. That’s about 15 percent of all traffic, with the heaviest volume coming downtown, and the highest usage during rush hour.
“You have people arguing [ride-hailing] or whatever new tech is going to solve all our transportation problems. And on the other hand, you have people saying they’re going to be the source of more problems,” said Joe Castiglione, a researcher with the San Francisco agency. “I don’t think it’s very profound to say it’s somewhere in between.”
Another study, from the University of California, found that in cities across the country, at least 49 percent of ride-hail trips create new car rides.
These findings stand in contrast to the companies’ stated ambitions, whimsically articulated by Uber founder Travis Kalanick in 2015: “We envision a world where there’s no more traffic in Boston in five years.”
In a statement, Uber said its “long-term goal is to end the reliance on personal vehicles and allow a mix of public transportation and services like Uber,” but declined to say whether it is causing more traffic now.
Uber said its service is growing fastest in neighborhoods with less transit access, and pointed to other research showing that ride-hail passengers are more likely to also use public transit than own a car. Uber said it supports charging drivers — ride-hail or otherwise — fees for using roads to mitigate traffic.
Lyft’s transportation policy manager, Debs Schrimmer, said pinpointing the causes of traffic congestion is difficult. They include job and population growth, and low gas prices that encourage car owners to drive. “No one singular force can cause congestion on the road,” she said.
Lyft also questioned the MAPC survey, saying the responses could be skewed by the driving patterns of the 10 drivers who surveyed passengers. The MAPC said the drivers were from across Greater Boston and had little control over riders’ destinations.
Rafael Mares, a vice president with the Conservation Law Foundation, said ride hailing could lessen traffic, but only through services like UberPool and LyftLine, which pair multiple riders traveling on similar routes. Traffic doesn’t improve if commuters simply trade their own cars for a solo ride in an Uber or Lyft car, he said.
Just 20 percent of riders in the MAPC survey said they used Uber or Lyft car-pool services. However, Lyft said about 40 percent of its Boston passengers use Line, its shared-ride service, and Uber said Pool is its fastest-growing service — but it did not provide figures.
Representative William M. Straus, cochairman of the Legislature’s transportation committee, cautioned that the popularity of ride-hailing services should not be overlooked. Passengers, he said, are in effect saying they are dissatisfied with their transportation options.
“Whether it’s good in general is not the point,” said Straus, a Mattapoisett Democrat.
“This is a transportation option that the public has definitely gravitated to.” Policy makers should focus on improving the broader transportation system and possibly seek more data from the companies, he said.
Massachusetts has about 135,000 registered ride-hail drivers, up from 62,000 in April 2017, though it’s not clear how many are active or how often they drive. Under a 2016 law, the companies are also scheduled to report the towns where rides start and end, and pay a 20-cent fee for each ride, split between the state, the municipalities, and a fund to help taxi companies.
Uber had previously agreed to provide more-detailed data to the City of Boston, showing the beginning and end of each trip by ZIP code. The city has refused to release that data, even while complaining to Uber that it was too vague to be useful, and no longer collects it.
Uber and Lyft say they don’t release detailed trip data because they value driver and rider privacy. In certain cities, including Boston, Uber publishes the average trip length between neighborhoods.
For now, Boston officials say they are focusing on just one way to address ride-hail congestion: designating curbside spaces in busy downtown areas as pickup and drop-off locations. The goal is to cut down on vehicles stopping in traffic lanes.
Designated areas already exist at South Station and at Boston sports arenas, and Somerville recently cleared curb space in Davis Square for the same purpose.
Adam Vaccaro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.