From Uberization to Enhanced Public Mobility for All

We have shown that the defense, improvement and expansion of public transport is essential if we are to help control and then reduce transport-related emissions. We have also shown how the current neoliberal policy framework must be rejected in order for public transport is to fulfill its true potential. This applies to both transport policy specifically (and the obvious shortcomings of the public-private partnership approach, alongside pressures to privatize part or all of public transport systems) and it applies at the level of macroeconomic management. The neoliberal framework has failed to impede the rise of emissions and will continue to do so until it is completely rescinded.

We have also shown how the rapid proliferation of small, individually owned EVs is by no means guaranteed to take place at the speed and scale necessary to make a major contribution toward decarbonization. The disproportionate attention given by policy makers reflects a car-centered approach to transport policy, and this approach is seldom influenced by the lived reality of enormous numbers of people around the world, who face increasingly burdensome travel in order simply to get to work (often involving long, stressful, and energy-sapping commutes), or to carry out other daily tasks (shopping, accessing healthcare or education, etc.).

Here it is important to keep in mind that the vast majority of these workers are statistically more likely to be killed or injured by a car than they are likely to own one. And the lack of accessible public mobility has made car ownership a necessity for millions of others. The “Yellow Vest” protests in France that broke out in late 2018 – reported to involve large numbers of people from outside urban areas, who have been pushed ever further from city centers – was described in the New York Times as revealing “a crisis of mobility in all its forms.”1 The real lives of billions of ordinary people are often rendered invisible by the “me-focused” narrative promoted by large car corporations who cater almost exclusively to the world’s more affluent people and “emerging markets.” Meanwhile, the idea of healthy and vibrant communities connected by modern and comfortable public transport networks has no place in this profoundly anti-social discourse.

Regarding climate change, the evidence suggests that modern public transport systems remain the best option in terms of advancing transport-related decarbonization goals. But the case for the expansion of public transport does not rest on climate concerns alone. As noted above, the policy mainstream understands the need to provide safe, secure, high-quality and accessible mobility, and the unique role public transport can play in meeting those needs. There is no need to repeat those arguments here. The International Transport Workers Federation (ITF)’s work is outstanding in this respect, and it also shows how worker concerns can be addressed in ways that also serve the broader public good.2

In this section, we consider how public transport systems are being challenged by the proliferation of ride-hailing and ride-sharing companies like Uber. For present purposes, ride-sharing (or trip-sharing, or shared mobility) refers to rides or trips that are actually shared between different individuals or different parties and paid separately, whereas ride hailing refers to any app-based system to secure a ride from a taxi or other “on-demand” ride service from a “transport network company” (TNC). These rides may or may not be shared.3

The implications of this challenge are yet to be fully assessed, but public transport advocates are already issuing dire warnings with regard to the disruptive impact that TNCs are having on existing public transport systems and the threat these impacts pose to the future of public transport. Although not always central to the discussion, the climate-related implications of this threat are likely to be extremely serious. On current trends, there is a real risk that public transport’s contribution to addressing climate change could dramatically decrease, precisely at a time when it needs to increase by orders of magnitude.

Union responses to the growing presence of (TNCs) have understandably focused on worker-related issues, but future responses could be made more compelling if climate-related arguments were also included. This would also allow unions to make a case for both strengthening the presence and extending the reach of public transport while at the same time reducing vehicle miles traveled (VMTs) and emissions in urban areas. There is reason to believe that recently developed app-based or platform technologies can be harnessed in ways that could make a significant contribution to improving and expanding public transport. But the struggle to harness these technologies for the public good must be viewed as part of the struggle to protect, improve, and qualitatively expand traditional modes of public transport. We call this “enhanced public mobility” because it seeks to improve public transport in ways that can take full advantage of some of recent technological changes and innovations. Public transport authorities are already making some progress in this respect, but the incorporation of these technologies risks being obstructed by political attacks on public transport systems as well as the loss of revenue that has in many cases resulted from the rise of unregulated “predatory mobility.”

As noted elsewhere in this report, traditional modes still have an extremely important role to play in achieving “sustainable mobility for all.” Finding the right balance between traditional modes (trains, buses, etc.) and the need for low carbon first- and last-mile mobility will require consistent input from drivers, riders and the communities they serve. It will also require making sure ridership data is used to improve public transport and generally serve the public good, and not – as data are used today – to the detriment of public systems.

Therefore the fight for public transport – and the fight against climate change – will involve a struggle for ownership and control over these technologies, so that they can be used to complement and improve the public transport services of the future rather than displace or undermine them. In this respect, the future of urban mobility stands at a crossroads. If current trends in new mobility or “Uberization” continue, the challenge to decarbonize road transport will become even more formidable than it already is.

Waiting On the Platform?

Urban transport systems are currently undergoing dramatic changes. Mobile phones have enabled web- and app-based “platforms” and these have led to a dramatic growth in ride-hailing and ride-sharing services. These and similar app-based innovations have spurred an explosion of both scheduled and “on demand” transport options and services. The use of these options has grown dramatically. For example, Uber reached 1 billion trips worldwide by the end of 2015, and 2 billion by mid 2016. By May 2017, Uber had clocked up 5 billion trips. The number of Uber-like companies has also proliferated, hiring perhaps millions of drivers in total.” Uber claims to have “employed” 3 million drivers worldwide, and Lyft 1.4 million drivers.4 TNCs are also growing in the global South. In 2017, DiDi reportedly carried out up to 25 million daily trips across 400 cities in China for a total of 7.3 billion rides for the year. In Southeast Asia, a TNC company called GRAB outcompeted Uber, buying the latter’s business in key countries and “driving the ride-hailing giant out of several fast-growing markets such as Indonesia and Thailand.”

Aside from ride sharing, there has been a boom in new startup companies providing “new mobility services.” These include route-planning applications like Google Maps and Citymapper that compete for users by integrating data for a wide variety of transport modes and options to provide a range of alternatives and real-time journey duration estimates, as well as making visible options for ride-hailing and ride-sharing services. Citymapper’s “Smart Ride” relies on a fleet of minivans operating on a fixed network, coordinating passenger pick-ups and drop-offs in what has been called essentially “a cross between a taxi and a bus.” Other startups are “launching ride-sharing apps, dockless bike hires and responsive bus networks in cities around the world.”

Transport policy makers and urban planners are today looking at ways to respond to these new forms of (mostly unregulated) mobility. Some studies have suggested that public transport systems were improved as a result of applications run by third party operators that make it easy for people to buy tickets and plan their journeys, and this can lead to an increase in ridership. They see the potential to integrate these new services into public transport systems, on a “P3” basis where the public transport authorities contract with private companies. A 2017 working paper claimed that companies that harness and use data and technology to streamline the dispatching and tracking of trips, monitor user experience, arrange services and handle payments, can make public transport more attractive and also more competitive.By providing dynamic trip-planning and ticketing services, private companies can encourage city dwellers “to take multimodal journeys by enhancing access to information and simplifying ticket purchases.”5

This may be so, but ride-sharing and ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft are qualitatively different from platforms that offer these planning and ticketing services in that ride-sharing and ride-hailing companies offer (for some) an alternative to using public transport and this could pull passengers away from using mass public transport systems.

The Impact on Public Transport: The Case of the United States

Many public transport advocates have already concluded that the impact of companies like Uber and Lyft on public transport systems will be mostly disruptive, and perhaps catastrophically so. One commentator has stated, “My fear is that Uber is going to lead to a cycle of cataclysmic disinvestment. They will try to siphon off the most profitable customers and leave public transport a rump service.”

In terms of the US, there is some evidence to suggest that ride sharing is indeed eating into public transport ridership levels, and some local authorities are looking to companies like Uber and Lyft to provide mobility as an alternative to maintaining “low ridership” public transport routes and they are willing to subsidize users.

A 2016 survey of seven US cities found a 6 per cent reduction in the use of public buses following the introduction of ride-hailing services, and a 3 per cent reduction in the use of light rail. The researchers concluded: “Current evidence suggests that ride-hailing is pulling more people away from public transit in cities, rather than adding riders.” A 2017 paper by the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University California, Davis, found that the activities of Uber and similar companies “contributed to a 6 per cent drop in public transit use.”6

According to that same study, ridership on public mass transit is down in nearly every major US city, and these declines have been associated with the increase in ride sharing. For example, ridership has declined significantly on San Francisco’s new BART train line to the airport as Uber and Lyft saw their ridership to the airport rise almost six-fold. The ridership decline led to BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit, the regional mass transit system) revenue falling under budget for the year by $3.6-million. It took San Francisco a decade to secure the billions in state and federal funding to extend this line to the airport, and now its usage is being undermined by ridesharing.

The study also cites irregular or unreliable public transport as one of the primary reasons for using a TNC like Uber or Lyft, finding that users were disproportionately young, better educated and earned above $35,000 per year (roughly the median annual income for this age group).7 Nearly half of respondents said that if a ridesharing service had not been available, they would have taken a bus, train, bike, or simply walked. It also found that, if rideshare users did not have that option, up to 61 per cent of their trips either would not have been made at all or would have been done via public transport, bike, or on foot.

Looking at global trends, the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) has concluded that the negative impacts go beyond reducing the number of passengers using public transport: “The expansion of new mobility services could lead to worsening traffic congestion, more vehicle accidents, added air pollution, and other unwelcome effects, which some cities have attempted to forestall with regulation.” A 2015 study by the International Transport Forum (ITF; not to be confused with ITF the Global Union Federation) found that a shift from walking and cycling to shared vehicle travel could result in a significant increase in vehicle miles traveled, thus increasing congestion and travel times, even as vehicle occupancies increase.8 In New York, utilization rates – the time drivers spend driving billable trips divided by the total time they spend in their cars with the app running – were about 58 per cent for Uber and Lyft in the second half of 2017, with Juno’s utilization about 50 per cent. In London, both taxis and TNCs were exempt from congestion charges, although revenues from London’s congestion charge were used by the city to support bus network improvements and other projects. However, the exemption was removed in April 2019 and Uber announced it would raise its fares in order to offset the impact of the charge.

The availability of Uber and similar companies has already led to decisions by city authorities to reject making improvements to public transport systems and to subsidize riders to use Uber and similar companies instead.9 Some authorities have offered incentives to low income people to use car-sharing services like Car2Go as an alternative to providing and maintaining public transport systems. However, in California, less than 1 per cent of households earning under $35,000 hold a car share membership compared to 2.4 per cent of households earning over $100,000.10 “Even where car share vehicles are physically available, barriers such as a lack of credit card, lower computer or internet access, or language barriers may inhibit low-income carless residents from participating in car sharing.”

Going for Broke? Predatory Mobility

There are clear signs that TNCs and their backers in Silicon Valley see urban transport as a lucrative future market, and view traditional public transport as competing for the same potential market share. The idea that public transport should make way for private ride-hailing companies is aggressively promoted by the industry. Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi’s declaration “I want to run the bus systems for a city” sends a clear privatization message. Tesla’s Elon Musk has called public transport “a pain in the ass,” which he hopes to replace with his “hyperloop” alternative: a futuristic model of transport based on “tubes” with reduced air pressure through which passenger or freight “capsules” would be whisked at high speed – and a model widely seen as highly impractical. New mobility entrepreneurs would therefore oppose the expansion of public transport and happy to celebrate the demise of existing public transport systems. Whether or not they are aware of it, these new mobility entrepreneurs are echoing the anti-public diatribes of far right voices that see public spending on public transport as a “waste [of] taxpayer money on unpopular, outdated technology like trains and buses just as the world is moving toward cleaner, driverless vehicles.”11

But major questions remain about the financial viability of Uber and other TNCs. A 2016 analysis of Uber’s financial performance by transport sector expert Hubert Horan found that despite being “the most highly valued private company in the world,” the company was also “losing more money than any startup in history,” in the form of $2-billion annually of investor funds which were effectively subsidizing rider fares in order to capture the urban mobility market. As Horan put it at the time, “Uber has been aggressively pursuing global industry dominance, in the belief that the industry has been radically transformed into a ‘winner-take-all’ market.” For 2017, the company posted losses of $2.2-billion, and then $1.8-billion for 2018, with concerns over slowing growth of revenues. In other words, the company continues to hemorrhage cash, with no clear end-game to achieving durable profitability. In essence, Uber’s strategy has been to gamble that it could retain sufficient investor backing to drive out all competitors and then recapitalize through a public stock listing (“initial public offering,” or IPO) and use its monopoly position to dramatically increase ride prices, recoup losses, reward its venture investors and begin operating at a profit based on far higher ride prices for consumers. (According to Horan’s 2016 analysis, riders were paying on average just 41 per cent of the costs of each ride at that time.) In the words of one commentator, “After burning through $10.7-billion in nine years, Uber still hasn’t found a way to turn a profit.”

Horan has also reported how, in March 2019, Lyft’s public filing documents provided a picture of “a company with negative cash flow, growing annual losses that have reached nearly a billion dollars, and declining rates of revenue growth” – essentially the same picture he had previously found for Uber. According to Horan:

“Lyft’s prospectus provides absolute no data demonstrating that it has the ability to profitably raise prices over time, increase operational efficiency or win significantly greater market share…. Lyft makes no attempt to lay out a possible path to future profitability, or even a timeline as to when breakeven might be achieved.”

Policy makers who are being swayed by the idea that partnering with TNCs offers a cheap alternative to traditional public transport may soon have to confront the fact that the financial, social and ecological costs associated with TNCs far outweigh their benefits. According to one commentator, “Uber’s business model is to subsidize fares and flood streets with taxi-like cars in order to grab market share and eventually market pricing power. Most customers who love Uber don’t realize that the company actually subsidizes about 50 per cent of the cost of every ride. So every time a passenger gets into the car, they are only paying half of the actual cost. The other half is paid by Uber’s wealthy venture capital funders.”

It is worth noting that car-hailing TNCs like Uber and Lyft have also been buying other shared-mobility-service companies like Lime that provide electric scooters, or Jump and Motivate bikes, etc.12 While these actions are typically presented in terms of providing “one stop” convenience to users, it is not difficult to see how they also fit well with a business model aimed at establishing a monopoly over mobility options, with the aim of reaping the potential future rewards of such a dominant position.

Unions vs. Uber

For unions, changes in urban transport have unfolded so rapidly that it has been hard for them to keep up – and the speed of change appears to be accelerating. For example, when the ITF (the union federation) was preparing its report on transport workers and climate change in 2009, Uber had just been formed.

So far, unions have rightly been concerned about the impacts of app-based, ride-hailing companies like Uber, Lyft, Juno and others, on the wages and conditions of the drivers working for such services. Drivers typically use their own vehicles to provide the service, with a fixed portion of the fee paid as a commission to the driver. But unions have also been concerned about the impacts of such new services on drivers for traditional taxi services. In New York City, drivers for TNCs such as Uber and Lyft and other TNCs outnumber traditional yellow cab drivers by a ratio of 4-to-1, and their rapid proliferation has been identified as a contributing factor in the suicides of several “yellow cab” taxi-drivers.

In late 2017 the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA) joined with allies to get the city to raise the hourly wages of the 80,000 drivers working for TNCs. The union stated:

“With more than 80,000 Uber cars on our roads, no driver can get enough fares to feed our families. Uber created this crisis of congestion on our streets. Uber caused this crisis of plummeting incomes for all drivers. And Uber is worsening the MTA [Metropolitan Transit Auhority] crisis, siphoning income away from public transit by subsidizing its passenger fares.”

More recently, a June 2018 study found: “Ninety per cent of New York City’s app-based drivers are immigrants, and only one out of every six has a four-year college degree. Driving is their only job for two-thirds of the drivers. Eighty per cent acquired their vehicle to enter the industry and would risk losing their investment if they switched to working in another industry.”

There are also wider equity concerns about the impacts of such systems as they become increasingly enmeshed in urban mobility while other inequalities still exist.13 Because such services generally require users to have a smartphone and credit card, substantial numbers of people are currently unable to use them. Even in the US, roughly one-sixth (17%) of adults do not have a smartphone, and an even higher proportion of households have no credit card. These figures are almost certainly significantly higher in the developing world, which is precisely where motorization and urbanization are growing the fastest.

Unions in major cities around the world have rallied to the defense of both the workers who drive the buses and subways in major cities and the public transport systems that employ them and serve communities. Unions in Italy, Spain, the UK and elsewhere have also been involved in legal battles to regulate companies like Uber or to ban them altogether. In some of these battles, unions have formed alliances with taxi companies. For example, in May 2015, unions in the taxi sector in Italy were successful in persuading a court to give Uber fifteen days to take its smartphone platform offline. The court determined that Uber resembled a taxi service but its pricing system was not subject to the laws governing the traditional taxi services; Uber fares are lower because its drivers do not have to bear the expenses incurred by taxi license holders such as the cost of installing meters, insurance and maintenance checks. Unions were concerned about the prospects for employment in the sector in terms of job quality, security and remuneration.

As Uber and similar companies have grown, so have the legal efforts to have TNCs comply with the kind of regulations that traditional taxi companies have been subjected to for decades. In a growing number of instances, cities and countries (among them Bulgaria, Denmark, Hungary, and Italy) have banned Uber altogether.

Some drivers have even formed their own cooperatives. As the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) notes, in Austin, Texas, “taxi drivers – digital and off-line drivers – organized together for better wages and working conditions. They managed to set up their own taxi cooperative and Uber and Lyft even temporarily left the city.14 The ITF notes how “Other examples of cooperative taxis that were formed as an alternative to the exploitative practices of the likes of Uber and Lyft, include Union Cab in Madison, Wisconsin; Coop Taxi in Montreal, Canada; and COOP Taxi in Seoul, South Korea.”

How do TNCs and “New Mobility Services” Impact Emissions Levels?

But what do the proliferation of TNCs and “new mobility services” more broadly mean in terms of altering emissions levels and trajectories? Do these new forms of (mostly urban) mobility pose yet another obstacle in the way of reaching decarbonization goals? Or can they, perhaps, help in terms of reducing emissions by, for example, reducing individual car ownership?

Uber and other TNCs claim that ride hailing and ride sharing will reduce vehicle ownership and this, in turn, will produce environmental benefits. At the global level, 15 of the largest TNCs came together in 2017 to launch the Shared Mobility Principles for Livable Cities at the Ecomobility World Festival in Taiwan. Claiming to “lead the transition toward a zero-emission future and renewable energy” the group stated, “Our goal is to align cities, the private sector and civil society around a shared vision to ensure we harness the good and avoid the bad of new business models and technologies…. [W]e share common goals, like a commitment to zero-emission vehicles and efficient use of urban roads.”

Researchers have only begun to assess the impact TNCs have had, or might have, on emissions levels. Most of the studies that have explored this and similar questions have focused on individual cities and therefore it is difficult and perhaps unwise to draw any firm conclusions until more studies have been done. But a more comprehensive 2017 study by the University of California (UC) suggests that, if anything, ride-hailers in the US are not getting rid of their private cars as a result of the availability of TNCs. The report states, “Contrary to recent research on the topic, with this more representative sample of people in major cities we find that ride-hailing users on average do not possess significantly fewer vehicles than their non-ride-hailing counterparts, and have more vehicles than those who only use transit.”15

As the UC study notes, from an environmental benefits perspective, the reduction of vehicle ownership is primarily of value insomuch as it reduces VMTs. The conclusion of the study, while conditional, is this: “based on mode substitution and ride-hailing frequency of use data, we conclude that ride-hailing is currently likely to contribute to growth in VMTs.”

A recent study by Schaller Consulting Group is, however, less conditional in its conclusions. The study reported that, in the US at least, “ride-hailing companies added 5.7 billion additional driving miles to city streets, with 70 per cent of all trips taking place in nine large cities. Among those who use services like Uber, 60 per cent would have otherwise taken public transportation, biked or walked, further contradicting claims that city dwellers would eventually abandoning individual cars en masse.”16 Furthermore, in order to provide “on demand” mobility, there have to be a enough vehicles ready to get to the rider or riders at very short notice. According to one source, the current business model for TNCs “relies upon very short wait times for passengers requesting rides, which in turn depends on a large supply of available but idle drivers and vehicles.” Both trends – more riders and rising numbers of vehicle available to move those riders around – runs contrary to the claims made by the TNC companies’ Shared Mobility Principles for Livable Cities stated commitment to the “efficient use of urban roads.”

The study noted that even ride-sharing options such as UberPOOL and Lyft Shared Rides add to traffic-congested roads. In total, those car-pooling options added 2.6 new miles on the road for every mile of individual driving, in total increasing traffic on the road by 160 per cent, according to the study. According to the study, “They’ve added billions of miles of driving in the nation’s largest metro areas at the same time car ownership grew more rapidly than the population.”

Although perhaps difficult to quantify with any degree of precision, there is normally a positive cor-relation between traffic congestion and emissions levels, as there is between vehicle miles traveled and emissions levels. In an October 2018 draft report, the State of California Transportation Authority reported that, in San Francisco, TNCs “accounted for approximately 50% of the change in congestion in San Francisco between 2010 and 2016, as indicated by three congestion measures: vehicle hours of delay, vehicle miles travelled, and average speeds.” In an attempt to address TNCs’ growing contribution to GHGs, California passed legislation in September 2018 to create a baseline for GHGs per passenger mile generated from TNCs, beginning in 2020. By 2021, annual targets for emissions reductions will be adopted, and TNCs will be required to develop emissions reduction plans to meet those targets by 2022.17 The new law states that plans developed by the TNCs must “be consistent with the Zero-Emission Vehicle Action Plan” and “be technically and economically feasible” and “based upon data reported by the transportation network companies to the commission.”

Partners, not Predators? Redefining the Relationship between TNCs and Public Transport

Some analysts have promoted the idea that TNCs can partner with public transport authorities. Rather than prey upon public transport and its ridership levels base, these analysts envisage a “win-win” situation wherein TNCs can supplement public transport services while reducing the costs associated with sustaining and improving the current public transport system.

One example of this approach is captured in the New Climate Economy working paper cited above, which imagines a well-designed “public private partnership” between TNCs and public transport authorities that could produce positive social and environmental outcomes. A P3 approach, this report argues, could deliver “tailored mobility packages to the user” in which on-demand services “play an important role as complement to public transport due to their flexibility.”18

The report claims that private-sector TNCs and service providers can better match services with demand. For example, the presence of fleets of on-demand electric minibuses could improve access to public transport, lower operating costs, (no need to provide underused buses late at night), and reduce environmental impacts. Private-sector ride-hailing companies could also provide “first- and last-mile ride sharing” to underserved city areas, expanding access and use still further. The working paper suggests that “subsidies could be paid to passengers for on-demand shared rides from areas with poor transit access to transit hubs.”19 The working paper also suggests that “Replacing fixed-route diesel buses with on-demand electric minibuses could yield improvements as well,” and that, “Deploying ride-sharing services for first- and last-mile trips to and from public transportation stops, which enables more people to use mass transit instead of their cars, could reduce per journey emissions of GHGs and local air pollutants by 55-80%.”

There is nothing in the report to suggest that the selective use of on-demand minibuses or other forms of ride-sharing must be the exclusive domain of the private sector. Similarly, any gains in terms of avoiding transport-related emissions could, it seems, just as easily be accomplished by public fleets of smaller electric vehicles that could fill the kind of gaps in public transport systems that currently exist – a point we return to below.

But it is clearly necessary to distinguish between gaps in public transport that may be intrinsic to systems for technical reasons – for instance, not everyone can have a bus stop at their doorstep – and gaps that are the result of service cuts, underfunding, etc. Gaps of the latter type simply confirm the devastating impact that years of neoliberal policies have had on public services; they reveal nothing about public transport per se. Indeed, concerns regarding the need to control and even reduce costs have been magnified by the neoliberal discourse and its concerns to redistribute wealth in an up-ward direction. A comprehensive US study found that, according to TNC users, as many as one third of rides were due to poor or infrequent public transport services.20 Had these public transport services been maintained, expanded and improved over the years instead of being starved of resources in the name of austerity, the rise of TNCs could have been significantly curtailed.

A report recently released jointly by UC Davis’ Institute of Transportation Studies and the Institute for Transport and Development Policy develops the P3 approach still further, and with an eye on the future. Titled Three Revolutions in Urban Transport, the report states, “The world is on the cusp of three revolutions in transportation: vehicle electrification, automation, and widespread shared mobility (sharing of vehicle trips). Separately or together, these revolutions will fundamentally change urban transportation around the world over the next three decades.” But without strong policy interventions, the report suggests, these changes could produce a “hell scenario” involving an out-of-control growth in private vehicle use. The report offers projections based on the rapid growth of automated and electric vehicles alongside ride sharing. With the right policies, the “mobility revolution” can, it suggests, be steered in a way that can reduce urban transport emissions by 80 per cent by 2050. The report states, “TNCs will never substitute for a robust transit network or compact, pedestrian-friendly development. However, they can provide safe, reliable, affordable connections to transit, as well as flexibility for more complex trips that require carrying goods, traveling with a companion who has limited mobility, and so on.”21 In other words, the authors assume that TNCs should continue to operate as private entities on a for-profit basis, presumably under contract with public transport authorities, and that this partnership could produce positive social and ecological outcomes.

The problems with this approach should be fairly obvious. Given that in any given city, there is likely to be several TNCs operating at any given time, a public transport authority will need to deal with any number of private TNC “partners.” If through a bidding process the number of partner TNCs was reduced to one or two, and these contracts contained what might be termed “mobility service provision agreements,” then the public authority would effectively be subsidizing private providers by paying costs incurred by public use of the likes of Uber and Lyft – the very same TNCs that pulled passengers away from public transport in the first place.

The report also urges that priority be given to policies – such as Norway-style subsidies (“purchase incentives”) for EVs, public investment in charging stations, etc. Here again, the costs of these investments will be come from the public purse, but at least some of the gains will ultimately accrue to the private manufacturers of the EVs. Who will benefit? Not the public transport system. If EVs become less expensive as a result of purchase incentives and other policy supports, it is likely to lead to an increase in individual vehicle ownership.

Ride Sharing and Enhanced Public Mobility

As noted above, unions have waged a spirited war of resistance against the predatory practices of TNCs like Uber. In many large cities, unions have defended taxi drivers, informal sector workers, and done their best to protect public transport systems.

But there appears to be no compelling reason why unions cannot lead a political effort that goes beyond regulating TNCs – although campaigns of this nature are important and, as we have seen, some have been successful. Such an effort could be built around the need – for social as well as eco-logical reasons – to incorporate ride-sharing and other “new mobility services” into public transport systems. The app-based or platform technologies that have made ride-hailing and rise-sharing possible, can be harnessed in ways that could make a contribution to improving and expanding public transport and reducing emissions. Traditional public transport modes – buses, trains, etc. – still offer the best returns in terms of social and ecological gains and these should remain at the heart of public mobility in the decades to come. But the struggle to harness app-based and other technologies for the public good can be viewed as an integral part of the struggle to protect, improve, and qualitatively expand traditional modes of public transport – and the need to reduce emissions and protect the climate can be situated at the center of such an effort.

Finding the right balance between traditional modes and the need for low carbon “first- and last-mile mobility” will require consistent input from drivers, riders and the communities they serve. But for “transport democracy” to work effectively, there will probably need to be some recognition of the fact that enhanced public mobility can not become synonymous with personalized “on demand” mobility. However it is configured, without restrictions of some kind this type of mobility risks resulting in an increase in total transport-related energy consumption.22

The Three Revolutions report is helpful in this respect, as are others that have been written as part of the policy discourse around “sustainable mobility.” The report speaks to the need to match service providers with demand, and it notes that one of the key regulatory challenges in the coming years will be to ensure that, “A much larger share of travel [is] provided by more efficient modes (bus and rail systems as well as smaller, right-sized vehicles, whose size better matches travel demand).” Also needed is “a higher average load factor (people per trip), more intense vehicle use, requiring far fewer vehicles to meet passenger travel needs (since personal vehicles currently remain idle 90+% of the time.”23

Although constrained by a P3 approach that sees a role for private TNCs, the proposals offered are aimed at incorporating shared mobility and automation into public transport systems. Shared mobility – which includes shared vehicle trips as well as public transport modes – “can lead to more efficient use of urban space, reduce traffic congestion, enable more walking and cycling, cut energy use and emissions, and generally improve urban livability.” It draws on data from simulations that suggest fully occupied shared vehicles of between 4 and 10 passengers could provide an alternative to both personal vehicles and traditional taxis that are often under-occupied. Car sharing, too, can make a significant contribution to positive social and ecological outcomes in that it “offers a transportation solution for users who don’t own a car but would like occasional access to a car for more than a single short trip. Car sharing offers the benefit of serving more people per vehicle than if those people were to use private vehicles, resulting in less need for parking and user cost savings through more efficient vehicle utilization.”

Importantly, the report suggests that major travel corridors continue to be served by efficient bus systems such as bus rapid transit, and major cities continue to build rail systems for the busiest travel routes. Furthermore, “smaller buses, with 8-16 seats, grow in number, as these are almost capable of providing point-to-point services and can be summoned – at least to locations nearby specific residences if not to the door. Even with a driver, on-demand small bus and van services provide a very low-cost, convenient travel option for many types of intermediate trips in dense areas. As vehicles become automated, the cost of small-bus travel drops further to become the cheapest per-passenger-kilometer on-demand travel option in the world.”

According to Three Revolutions, what emerges is “an ‘ecosystem’ of public transport and ride hailing services that are harmonious and complementary. Small vehicle ride hailing does not displace trips from larger public transport services, except where currently large vehicle public transport is poorly utilized and inappropriate given corridor demand. One result of this ecosystem is significantly higher load factors (average passengers per trip) in all vehicular modes.” Sidewalks and bike lanes are add-ed to create continuous networks and ensure maximum safety for these travelers.”24

Unions (especially those representing public transport workers) would welcome proposals that might improve public mobility in ways that are equitable and less carbon mobility. As noted above, the report’s weakness lies in the fact that it assumes that private vehicles can be “replaced with ride hailing of TNC vehicles, shared vehicle trips leading to much higher average vehicle occupancy, and all this coupled with a strong role for public transport and active travel.”

But there is no reason that a public transport authority cannot incorporate publicly owned ride-sharing into services a wider system of public transport aimed squarely at the shared public good. Not only would such a system be easier to coordinate, but it would allow public vehicle fleets to be standardized, fully electrified, and charged in public spaces using public charging stations or at a central depot, with (over time) the power coming from a modern grid transmitting and distributing electricity generated by renewable sources of power. •

The full report is available at TUED Working Paper #12: The Road Less Travelled.


  1. Michael Kimmelman, “France’s Yellow Vests Reveal a Crisis of Mobility in All Its Forms,” Dec. 20, 2018.
  2. ITF, Transport Workers and Climate Change (World Congress, Mexico City, August 2010), available at See also: ITF, “People’s Public Transport” policy proposals, forthcoming as part of the its “Our Public Transport” program.
  3. Source of definitions, Three Revolutions: “It is important to keep the two concepts separate. On-demand ride-hailing services are not ride-sharing services unless they exclusively offer shared rides (such as a micro transit bus system). We consider it misleading to use the terms “ride sharing” and “shared mobility” to refer to a ride-hailing service in a generalized manner, and while we use these terms to refer to any situation with truly shared trips, we try to avoid their use for the more general situation of ride hailing, throughout this report. We also use “trip sharing” in this report to emphasize true shared mobility, and to avoid overuse of the terms ride sharing and shared mobility.
  4. Uber (n.d.) Company info.
  5. Canales, D., Bouton, S., Trimble, E., Thayne, J., Da Silva, L., Shastry, S., Knupfer, S., Powell, M., 2017. Connected Urban Growth: Public-Private Collaborations for Transforming Urban Mobility. Coalition for Urban Transitions. London and Washington, DC.
  6. Regina R. Clewlow, Gouri Shankar Mishra, “Disruptive Transportation: The Adoption, Utilization, and Impacts of Ride-Hailing in the United States,” Institute of Transportation Studies, University of California, Davis, October 2017.
  7. Regina R. Clewlow, Gouri Shankar Mishra, “Disruptive Transportation: The Adoption, Utilization, and Impacts of Ride-Hailing in the United States,” Institute of Transportation Studies, University of California, Davis, October 2017.
  8. OECD – International Transport Forum, Urban Mobility System Upgrade: How shared self-driving cars could change city traffic. Corporate Partnership Board Report, 2015.
  9. “Outside Tampa, for example, the East Lake Connector bus cost the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority about $16 per per-son per ride. Riders paid $2.25 each. That route has since been discontinued. In its place, starting this month, riders will pay $1 for an Uber, Lyft, or cab ride from anywhere in the county to the nearest bus stop. The transit agency will achieve the low fare by providing a $5-a-head discount.”
  10. California Department of Transportation 2012 data.
  11. Hiroko Tabuchi, “How the Koch Brothers Are Killing Public Transit Projects Around the Country,” New York Times, June 19, 2018.
  12. Paul Mackie, “Now that Uber and Lyft own bikeshare, what will happen to open data?” June 5, 2018; LA Times, “Uber buys Jump Bikes and enters the electric bike sharing business,” Apr 09, 2018.
  13. See Kevin Cashman, “Uber and Lyft Are Threatening to Expose Poor and Elderly to Predatory Practices,” Truthout, December 16, 2016.
  14. Waging Non Violence (November 2016) How Uber and Lyft were driven from Austin and replaced with a worker cooperative.
  15. Regina R. Clewlow, Gouri Shankar Mishra, “Disruptive Transportation: The Adoption, Utilization, and Impacts of Ride-Hailing in the United States,” Institute of Transportation Studies, University of California, Davis, October 2017.
  16. Schaller Consulting, Empty Seats, Full Streets: Fixing Manhattan’s Traffic Problem.
  17. IDTP, Ride Fair: A Policy Framework for Managing Transportation Network Companies, March 2019.
  18. Alonso Gonzalez, M., van Oort, N., Cats, O., and Hoogendoorn, S. (2017). Urban Demand Responsive Transport in the Mobility as a Service Ecosystem: Its Role and Potential Market Share. In Thredbo 15: Competition and Ownership in Land Passenger Transport (Vol. 60).
  19. Canales, D., Bouton, S., Trimble, E., Thayne, J., Da Silva, L., Shastry, S., Knupfer, S., Powell, M., 2017. Connected Urban Growth: Public-Private Collaborations for Transforming Urban Mobility. Coalition for Urban Transitions. London and Washington, DC.
  20. Regina R. Clewlow, Gouri Shankar Mishra, “Disruptive Transportation: The Adoption, Utilization, and Impacts of Ride-Hailing in the United States,” Institute of Transportation Studies, University of California, Davis, October 2017.
  21. ITDP, Ride Fair: A Policy Framework for Managing Transportation Network Companies, March 2019.
  22. Teske, Sven (Ed.), Achieving the Paris Climate Agreement Goals: Global and Regional 100% Renewable Energy Scenarios with Non-en-ergy GHG Pathways for +1.5°C and +2°C, Springer International Publishing, 2019.
  23. IDTP and ITS, Three Revolutions in Urban Transport (authors Lew Fulton, UC Davis, and Jacob Mason, ITDP, and Dominique Meroux, UC Davis).
  24. Three Revolutions, page 19.

Sean Sweeney is Director of the Murphy Institute's International Program on Labor, Climate, and the Environment at the School of Labor and Urban Studies, City University of New York. And he writes for New Labor Forum and Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED).

John Treat is a researcher with Trade Unions for Energy Democracy based at the CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies.