Ride-hailing services will not solve Halifax traffic problems

There’s been a lot of chatter lately about the role of ride-hailing services, such as Uber and Lyft, and whether or not they will ever come to Halifax.

There are a lot of valid reasons why introducing ride-hailing services could be attractive in Halifax. Currently, the taxi industry holds an effective monopoly on ad-hoc door-to-door trips and ride-hailing can provide competition in a market that has traditionally been dominated by a few companies. Consumer choice here may be a good thing. But, understandably there is some concern, both from the taxi industry and elsewhere, that these services provide ‘unfair’ competition because they are not subject to the same regulations (i.e.: taxi licencing, fare metering, etc….). These are valid concerns as well.

There are also major concerns about accessibility in ride-hailing services. Since these services rely almost exclusively on privately-owned vehicles, there’s no guarantee that they will be accessible to people with mobility challenges.

But the proponents of companies such as Uber and Lyft often like to cite the consumer convenience benefits – in particular, shorter travel times, and reducing traffic congestion – as reasons to introduce these services into new markets.

That is wrong.

There is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that Uber, Lyft, or any other ride-hailing service will make travel times shorter or reduce traffic congestion. In reality, planning and designing for these services will make travel times longer, and make traffic worse. Expert public transit consultant Jarrett Walker has gone so far as to call ride-hailing as an existential threat to liveable cities.

That’s because there are two important interrelated variables in people’s travel patterns that ride-hailing services don’t change: geometry and capacity.

Let’s illustrate these:

The shortest distance from any ‘Point A’ to any ‘Point B’ is always a straight line.

point-a-b

‘Point A’ to ‘Point B’ along a straight line

However, in an urban transportation network, we don’t have the luxury of drawing straight lines from every single possible ‘Point A’ to every single possible ‘Point B’. Instead, we have road networks that are designed to move numerous people along standardized paths. The geometry of road networks is dictated by a number of factors. Density, landscape, population, etc… all determine how and where roads are laid out.

point-a-b-road-network

‘Point A’ to ‘Point B’ through a typical grid road network

 

Because there’s only finite space for roads in a given area, road networks have a limited capacity. Since space is at a premium, a particular focus has to be given to how that space is used. Privately-owned vehicles are a extremely wasteful since they require much more space to move a single person through the road network than a public transit vehicle such as a bus, or streetcar.

Since only a limited number of privately-owned vehicles can move through a road network before it becomes saturated, the capacity of a road network is much lower using privately-owned vehicles than it would be using transit. When we have multiple people trying to get from multiple ‘Point As’ to multiple ‘Point Bs’ all at the same time, these road networks become congested with traffic.

point-a-b-congestion

Multiple ‘Point As’ to multiple ‘Point Bs’ causing road network congestion

So, how do ride-hailing services solve this problem?

They don’t.

Ride-hailing services rely on privately-owned vehicles to move people. If every single person who drove to work during the morning rush hour instead used an Uber or Lyft to get there, there would be the exact same number of vehicles on the road.

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Planning and designing for ride-sharing is no different that planning and designing for cars. While there may be some consumer conveniences that makes these services seemingly attractive to use, they are fundamentally incompatible with goals of reducing traffic, road network congestion, and numbers of trips in privately-owned vehicles.

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