New research suggests that the perceived environmental and traffic congestion easing benefits of ride-hailing services are harder to attain and more complicated than previous modelling predicted.

Researchers at the Future Urban Mobility Research Group at Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), MIT, and Tongji University conducted a study to look at how ride-sharing service offered by Transport network companies (TNCs) impacts urban mobility in the United States.

The results presented in a new paper titled “Impacts of transportation network companies on urban mobility” published in Nature Sustainability, assessed how ride-sharing has affected road congestion, public transport ridership, and private vehicle ownership.

Jinhua Zhao, SMART FM principal investigator and associate professor at MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning says, “While mathematical models in prior studies showed the potential benefits of on-demand shared mobility could be tremendous, our study suggests that translating this potential into actual gains is much more complicated in the real world.”

Analysis of mobility trends, socio-demographic changes, and ride-sharing usage datasets found the arrival of a ride-sharing service led to increased road congestion in terms of both intensity and duration. Specifically, congestion increased marginally at 1 percent while the duration of congestion rose by 4.5 percent. Perhaps more significantly they also found a 9 percent drop in public transport ridership and an insignificant decrease of only 1 percent in private vehicle ownership.

This study, based on datasets from Uber and Lyft, the two most popular ride-sharing companies in the United States, found that easy access to ride-sharing discourages commuters from taking greener alternatives, such as walking or public transportation. Survey data from various US cities also showed that approximately half of TNC trips would otherwise have been made by walking, cycling, public transport, or would not have been made at all.

“We are still in the early stages of TNCs and we are likely to see many changes in how these ride-sharing businesses operate,” says Hui Kong, one of the researchers at the MIT Urban Mobility Lab. “Our research shows that over time TNCs have intensified urban transport challenges and road congestion in the United States. With this information, policies can then be introduced that could lead to positive changes.”