It is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the paid content and the news stories in the NYT. Farhad Manjoo’s piece on Uber’s new carpooling service could leave any reader confused. Manjoo seems to have taken everything Uber said about this service at face value, just as one would expect in paid content.
We can start with the story that sets up the piece. The story is that Abby is going from San Francisco Tenderloin district to the Noe Valley, a trip which the piece tells us would ordinarily take about 25 minutes by car. She decides to use UberPool instead of driving. Before the UberPool trip ends, it picks up four other passengers. According to the article, the total trip takes 55 minutes (not all of it with Abby, who gets out before the last stop) and covers 10 miles.
The piece then tells readers:
'In total, Uber collected about $48 for the ride, of which the driver kept $35. The company had collapsed five separate rides into a single trip, saving about six miles of travel and removing several cars from the road.'
That might be Uber’s story, but let’s look at this more seriously. The driver has to pay for gas, insurance, and depreciation on the car. The I.R.S. puts these costs at an average of 54 cents a mile. We know the trip covered ten miles, but the driver also has to get to the start point and back from the end point. Let’s conservatively say that adds five miles for a total 15 miles driven. This comes to $8.10, which reduces the hourly pay rate for this ride to $26.90. That’s still not too bad, but remember, this is for the time the driver actually has people in the car. If he has to wait another half hour for his next fare, then the hourly rate falls to $17.90. Keep in mind this is in a city with high living costs where the minimum wage is being raised to $15.00 an hour.
How does Mr. Manjoo know that this trip took several cars off the road? We don’t know how long everyone’s trip was, but he did tell us that Ben, the second passenger, got out after a mile. Do we know that Ben wouldn’t have walked or ridden a bike if not for UberPool? How about the other passengers?
And we do know that UberPool put one additional car on the road: the Uber car. For some reason Uber promoters don’t seem to realize that a Uber car is also a car. It pollutes and contributes to congestion just like any other car. This confusion persists throughout the piece.
It tells us:
'Uber has calculated the environmental impact of UberPool rides. In the first three months of 2016, the service has eliminated 21 million automobile miles; that’s about 400,000 gallons of gas and 3,800 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions, it says.'
We have no idea how Uber determined how many miles driven it saved (do they know how many Uber riders would have walked or biked or not taken the trip without Uber?), but that aside, it would be useful to put the REALLY BIG NUMBERS in some context.
According to the Federal Highway Administration, people in the United States would have driven roughly 800 billion miles over this period. This means that, according to Uber’s estimate, it reduced miles driven by a bit less than 0.003 percent. The U.S. consumes roughly 20 million barrels of oil a day, which translates to 1,800 million barrels of oil over the quarter, or 75.6 billion gallons of gas. This means Uber reduced U.S oil consumption by 0.0005 percent. Over the first quarter, we will have emitted roughly 1,350 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, so if Uber is right, they reduced this amount by 0.0003 percent.
The piece then tells readers:
'Critics of Uber’s rise have long feared that cheaper rides could undercut support for public transportation, but a new study by the American Public Transportation Association, a trade group of transit organizations, found the opposite.
‘"The more likely someone is to use Uber and Lyft, the more likely they are to take public transportation, and for our industry that is very heartening,” said Darnell Grisby, the group’s director of policy development and research. People who use these services tend to own fewer cars, Mr. Grisby said. As a result, they become more interested in all forms of transportation — trains, buses, taxis, bikes — and see Uber and Lyft as a complement to other transit, not a replacement for it.'
Actually nothing in the study conflicts with critics’ concerns that Uber may be an alternative to public transit or other less polluting and congesting causing modes of transit. According to the study (figure 10), almost 40 percent of Uber riders said that they would either take public transit, bike, walk, or not take the trip if they didn’t use Uber. Only 20 percent said they would drive alone. This analysis certainly does not provide evidence that Uber is reducing oil use, pollution, or congestion.
There are undoubtedly benefits from Uber and other ride-hailing services, but there are also risks if they are not properly regulated. And to get proper regulation we need a serious discussion of Uber’s impact, which this piece is not.