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Uber and Lyft contribute to congestion. Can they also be the solution?

An Uber driver near the San Francisco International Airport.
AP Photo/Jeff Chiu
FILE - In this July 15, 2015 file photo, an Uber driver sits in his car near the San Francisco International Airport.

Traffic congestion in Seattle is getting worse.

As traffic slows, more people are hailing rides from Uber and Lyft — and that’s adding to the trouble. Now, transit agencies that once fought to regulate car sharing services are thinking it may be time to make a new deal with them.

On any weekday morning at South Jackson and 3rd Ave. S., you can see the problem.

The street is bursting with traffic. Buses are jostling with cars. Traffic is down to a crawl. And you can see that some of the cars are Ubers and Lyfts.

That's a concern for Christina O'Claire, assistant general manager at King County Metro.

“That's the challenge of the future," O'Claire said. "It’s the use of that public space to provide mobility for everyone.”  

A wave of research is pointing to a connection between ride-sharing and congestion. Among the latest studies is a University of California at Davis paper that says people who use Uber and Lyft take more trips than they would otherwise. And the research also shows people who use ride-sharing often choose that instead of the bus or light rail.

Transit planners say that to keep people moving, they need more information.

“We need to understand where people are starting their trip and ending their trip so we can protect that public value as we’re looking at building the system,“ O'Claire said.

They need to collect data from Uber and Lyft. But for that to happen, there needs to be some incentive.

“That’s one of the most difficult things,” O’Claire said. “How to engage with them on how to protect their private right to hold their data and information but understand the public value if they work with us.”

In the past, Uber and Lyft have fought agencies to protect their competitive information. But Uber's approach to cities may be softening.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Christina O'Claire of King County Metro says partnerships with companies like Uber are essential for agencies wanting to make smart decisions with limited public space and limited funds. ", "fid": "142348", "style": "offset_left", "uri": "public://201801/christina_o_clair.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Carolyn Adolph"}]]“It’s not easy," said Andrew Salzberg, head of transportation and mobility policy at Uber. "We’ve been investing a lot internally to try to make it easy for transit agencies to work with us.”  

He said since Uber appointed a new CEO, the company has been looking for ways to work with cities: "Being a better partner is part of that vision."

There's a reason for that shift. Only transit agencies can give ride-hailing companies access to the next big market: the suburbs.

Transit agencies and ride-shares share a dream – that people will leave their cars in their driveways and get to work by some other means.

“If we already have a rider in a car who is going past someone’s house in the suburbs and they’re on the way to a light rail stop, well hey maybe you could pick somebody else up and get them to the station,” Salzberg said. “And couldn’t we partner with a transit operator to make it increasingly easy to do that?”

This could be a solution to one of the Seattle region’s most vexing transportation problems. Many people live too far from major transit corridors, like light rail or the RapidRide lines. A lot of them solve the problem by taking their own cars.

But what if even suburbanites could decide not to own cars, because the cost of car-sharing was lower?

David Zipper, who follows urban transportation for Altantic Magazine’s CityLab project, said cities might even subsidize riders.  It could “quite easily be a cheaper investment of public sector dollars” than sending a bus to a sparsely populated area, he said. “And you don’t have to pay the capital of the bus.”

So would it take to improve the relationship between ride hailing companies and transit agencies? An agreement to share data that benefits everyone.

Agencies say they want aggregated data to find trends —  not data about individuals. But the ride-sharing companies say data about trends can also help competitors.

Cities need a way to guarantee that information won’t become public whenever someone makes a public records request.

Salzberg of Uber is optimistic: “Those are the big constraints, but I don’t think that they’re a blocker on finding ways to share information.”

Local agencies say they're exploring how a new deal with Uber and Lyft could finally get them the information to keep everyone moving. And the University of Washington now has a team working on creating a safe haven for this data, where it could be made anonymous, protected from prying eyes and ready for use by cities.

Correction 02/05/2018: Updated to correctthe spelling of Christina O'Claire.