Is the Ride-Sharing Concept as Eco-Friendly as It Seems?

Before electric cars had cornered the market on fossil-fuel alternatives, a number of companies tried their hands at building hydrogen-powered vehicles. They emitted very little. However, the electrolysis required to make hydrogen fuel required fossil fuels, negating the environmental impact.

Ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft want you to believe that they are helping reduce emissions by giving drivers who would otherwise take their own cars an alternative. By working all day, a single Uber driver hypothetically keeps handfuls of drivers from polluting. But does it really work that way?

Playing the Devil’s Advocate

Let’s role the tape back and consider what we know about ridesharing services, without incorporating speculative ideas about how people use them. We know that these services are popular and that they function by putting cars on the road to provide rides for folks.

We also know that many people have taken to using their personal cars to work as drivers through ride-sharing companies. So what is clear is that cars are being used at times when they might not have been before — whether that has caused a corresponding decrease in cars on the road from the aggregate number of riders who use ridesharing services must still be determined.

Uber operates in 500 cities worldwide and employs over 160,000 drivers. Despite having access to ride-sharing services, people are not abandoning car ownership. They may drive slightly less, but there are still certain occasions when a personal car is desirable to a ride-sharing service.

In the future, as self-driving cars become more prominent, we may see a shift away from personal ownership. However Uber and Lyft alone are not having that effect. Some studies suggest that they’re also encouraging people to call a ride when they otherwise would have stayed home, adding to emissions rather than reducing them.

Where to from Here

Ride-sharing services as they operate today have actually led to an increased number of cars on the road. Traffic created by ride-sharing services contributes to pollution and increases ware on our nation’s highways. Greenhouse gas emissions don’t stop when drivers are between fares, and ride-sharing services are quite lax when it comes to requirements for vehicles.

Toyota’s eco-friendly Prius is a favorite vehicle of ride-sharing drivers. However, there’s nothing to mandate that drivers must use an environmentally friendly car at all. Upscale services like Uber Black encourage drivers to have luxury vehicles like full-sized Mercedes and Lexus sedans or even SUVs, which often pollute at much higher levels than the average car.

It would be simple for the companies to institute standards that required cars to meet specific emissions regulations. Doing so would ensure that the entire ride-sharing fleet was environmentally conscious. However, it would also deter potential employees, and that’s bad for business, so it’s unlikely we will see this.

The lack of regulation combined with the inefficient dynamics of how people use ride-sharing services means that companies like Uber and Lyft are almost unquestionably contributing to the problem, rather than reducing emissions. However, it should be noted that things don’t have to be that way.

The Communal Cars Model

Realizing the eco-friendly future that services like Uber and Lyft want to promote is not impossible, it just requires a paradigm shift from the one-car-per-person approach we have now. Instead, self-driving cars will be easily available wherever you are, and you will rely on them for every ride, not just some rides.

We’re already seeing indicators that the time is right for such a model. Even though people are buying cars at record rates, they are driving them less and less. This creates a problem because we don’t have enough space to park all of our cars in.

Self-driving cars, however, would eliminate this problem because as soon as your ride is complete, a self-driving car can squire itself off to the next waiting passenger.

In our current model, most cars go unused 95 percent of the time. When we’re on the road, we can spend up to 60 percent of our time just looking for parking in an urban setting. Parking spaces in the USA occupy an area roughly the size of the state of Connecticut — but we can have millions of square feet of our land back just by consolidating our vehicle use.

Sorry, gearheads, Porschefiles and Ferraristi — the days of driving for pleasure may be numbered. The future is green, and a transition to public car use could eliminate up to 75% of traffic in areas like Manhattan.

Guest Post from Kate Harveston a talented political journalist and blogger at Only Slightly Biased

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Kate Harveston