San Francisco, the city that spawned Uber and Lyft, has also suffered the most in emissions and congestion from them, according to a first-of-its-kind, statewide study of ride-hailing activity released by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority on Friday.
The city clocked the highest concentration of rides, at 500 times more trips per square mile than the rest of the state, from September 2019 to August 2020, the period covered in the report.
That year, CO2 emitted by Uber cabs in California reached an estimated 494,000 metric tons, numbers comparable to the 2020 Caldwell Fire in northern California, which burned 81,000 acres of land.
About 30 percent of the CO2 emissions were generated with no passenger in the car, as drivers waited for ride requests or were on their way to pick up passengers.
The study fills in a gap in a field where, normally, “it’s very hard” to get data on ride-hailing activities for both government agencies and academic studies, said Tilly Chang, the executive director of the County Transportation Authority. Shey says the only exception is New York City, which gets regular reports from Uber and Lyft.
The facts of the ride-hailing industry have a long history of appearing opaque, not just to drivers, but even to those who study it — or regulate it. For the first time, the report, “TNCs 2020: A Profile of Ride-Hailing in California,” offers San Francisco a panoramic view into the real cost of the industry and its impact on the city’s environment, public safety and, most important, its people. TNC is an abbreviated term for Transportation Network Companies such as Uber and Lyft.
The data shows that San Francisco also suffered from an increased level of fine particle emissions, known as PM2.5 emissions, that create haze and health problems. This resulted in a concentration that is 340 times higher than in the rest of the state.
According to the study, Uber accounted for five percent of all PM2.5 fine particle emissions produced by passenger vehicles and light duty trucks in the city. (Lyft did not report any data to the state that could be used to estimate emissions.)
Around 64 percent of all Uber and Lyft rides in California between September, 2019, and August, 2020, took place in three counties — San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego — which collectively make up five percent of the state’s land, according to the study.
Pre- and post-Covid fluctuations
Looking at data from millions of trips, the study is able to tell the story of ride-hailing across the state. Before the pandemic, trips in California were regularly increasing from Monday to Friday, peaking on Saturday and bottoming out on Sunday.
Unsurprisingly, that exacerbated congestion. The highest volumes of ride-hailing activity occur in the morning and early evening, when congestion is at its worst. Also, “Within San Francisco, trips are further concentrated within the downtown core, on the city’s most congested streets where the city prioritizes sustainable, space-efficient modes of travel, such as transit, bicycling and walking,” says the study.
Lyft, the platform that now plans to lay off 1,200 of its roughly 4,000 employees to reduce costs, reported more driver hours and driver days than Uber before covid, and fewer driver days and driver hours during covid.
In the first six months of the pandemic, trips declined by 80 percent on both platforms.
More than half of the wheelchair-accessible trip requests went unserved. And of the 47 percent of wheelchair requests that were fulfilled, 107,752 out of 229,540, nearly all of them ended up in Ubers. Uber provided 16 times as many wheelchair rides as Lyft.
Data is inconsistent and redacted
The study is based on an analysis of annual reports filed by Uber and Lyft to the California Public Utilities Commission. But that data is incomplete: The report states that the data the County Transportation Authority received under a Public Records Act request has “been highly redacted” by the state.
Additionally, Uber and Lyft may have used different definitions when reporting their data, making comparisons difficult.
Consequently, “Uber’s and Lyft’s data is internally inconsistent,” according to the report. Lyft reported 36 percent of the required data, while Uber reported 99.99 percent of the required data. Due to a lack of raw data, Lyft’s PM2.5 and CO2 emissions were missing from the report, for instance.
Even for the items that both companies provided, each seemed to be reporting differently. For instance, Lyft reports three times more total public-safety incidents per trip than Uber, and 30 times more assaults and harassment incidents per trip, possibly the result of a different definition of “public-safety incident.” In addition, Lyft suspended drivers at more than 11 times the rate of Uber.
“We’re just confused,” said Chang. “The commission has repeatedly found that the data should be unshielded — the actual commission. But then the staff have not been implementing that.”
Chang said it was unclear if the discrepancies were due to poor reporting, or redactions by the state.
“Our wish is for the full data set to be made available, transparent,” Chang continued. “But maybe these were how the companies submitted them, we don’t know. So if the company submitted them fully, then I don’t know why we would not have the benefit of seeing them. So this is a question for the CPUC.”
The Transportation Authority presented its report today at San Francisco’s Transportation Authority Board meeting. The Transportation Authority’s 11 members are the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
Supervisors Dean Preston and Myrna Melgar urged legal actions regarding the incompleteness of the data at the meeting.
“The CPUC doesn’t understand its job, or is not interested in performing its functions of regulating this industry. And here we are, with a mess on our streets,” said Preston. “How is Lyft not facing a lawsuit right now? You basically tell regulators you’re not going to turn anything over that you’re required to provide. This data is a joke.”
“We don’t exactly know where the problem starts. Is it the companies, or the CPUC?” Joe Castiglione, deputy director for technology, data and analysis at the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, said. “I would agree, though, that there is clearly an enforcement failure here.”
“I just want to encourage both the County Transportation Authority, as well as the city attorney, to explore what the legal options are. This has gotten to the point of ridiculousness that you see this extent of redactions,” said Preston.
Uber officials pushed back on the study’s findings.
“Broad conclusions should not be made based on old, outdated data,” Andrew Hasbun, Uber’s Head of Safety Communications, wrote in an email to Mission Local.
He said the data went to the state “with the information they requested in the required format,” but added that some data were withheld as confidential to protect rider and driver safety and privacy.
He blamed the inconsistencies in responses on “evolving definitions and instructions.” It wasn’t until June, 2022, he said, that the state “began implementing uniform definitions for reporting sexual assault and sexual harassment.”
As of publication time, neither Lyft nor the CPUC replied to requests for comment.
The County Transportation Authority’s last report on ride-hailing activity in San Francisco was “TNCs Today” in 2017, and in 2018, the department’s “TNCs and Congestion” report analyzed how Uber and Lyft had affected roadway gridlock.
Within the current report, the County Transportation Authority says it will follow up — when the state releases “properly redacted” sets of data.
This story has been updated to include comments from today’s hearing from the County Transportation Authority Board.