Every day in the Seattle region, Uber and Lyft provide more rides than:
- Sound Transit light rail (77,576 rides on a typical weekday).
- The population of Bellingham (89,045).
- The number of votes that decided the 2016 presidential election (77,744 combined in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania).
The two ride-hailing giants provided more than 91,000 rides on an average day in the second quarter of this year, according to ridership reports the companies filed with the city, recently made publicly available for the first time.
While that’s just a fraction of daily travel in the Seattle region, Uber and Lyft trips are heavily concentrated in the city’s densest neighborhoods, where nearly 40,000 rides a day start in ZIP codes covering downtown, Belltown, South Lake Union and Capitol Hill. They are almost certainly contributing to worsening congestion.
And Uber and Lyft have grown extraordinarily quickly — ridership is more than five times larger than it was in the beginning of 2015, the first full quarter that the companies reported data to the city.
Uber and Lyft, known as transportation network companies (TNCs), ostensibly replaced taxicabs in the city’s transportation system. That’s kind of like saying travel by airplane replaced travel by blimp. It didn’t so much replace as obliterate. At their peak, before Uber and Lyft arrived, Seattle taxicabs provided just over 5.2 million trips in 2012. Uber and Lyft are on pace to provide more than 31 million trips this year.
“As Seattle continues to grow, we know that TNCs are increasing congestion,” said Dawn Schellenberg, a Seattle Department of Transportation spokeswoman.
Schellenberg cited a recent report by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority that estimated TNCs account for 25 percent of total vehicle delays in that city. That study also found that TNCs were responsible for more than half of the increase in San Francisco traffic congestion from 2010 to 2016.
Boston, one of the few other cities where ride-hailing data is publicly available, saw about 96,000 TNC trips per day in 2017. That figure is not directly comparable to Seattle’s, because it covers only Boston, whereas the data here covers all of King County. But the Boston data isn’t broken down by company, so it also includes minor competitors to Uber and Lyft.
Do Uber, Lyft undermine public transit?
Unlike almost every other major city in the country, Seattle has seen public-transit ridership grow — a result of big local investments in bus service and light rail — at the same time as Uber and Lyft use has exploded.
“The rapid growth of TNCs does, I would think, threaten to at least partially undermine that, as it has in other cities,” said Bruce Schaller, a transit consultant and former deputy commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation who studies TNCs’ impact on cities. “The traveler is up for grabs right now.”
A 2017 study of seven American cities, including Seattle, found that people are less likely to use transit after using Uber and Lyft, and that 49 to 61 percent of all TNC trips would have been made by transit, walking, biking or not at all if a ride-hailing service wasn’t available.
Uber estimates that TNCs account for only about 1.5 percent of trips in the Seattle region and points to other factors as far more important in Seattle’s worsening traffic: a growing population, a booming economy and people driving alone.
“The growth in rideshare along with the corresponding growth in transit ridership shows that people are choosing to get around cities differently when they have more options,” Uber spokesman Nathan Hambley said. Hambley also stressed that ridership is growing fastest in north and south Seattle neighborhoods, that may have poorer access to transit — although ridership in those areas remains a fraction of what it is downtown.
The companies provide a lot of good, from helping the elderly get to a doctor’s appointment to helping bar-goers get home safely, noted Jonathan Hopkins, executive director of Commute Seattle, a city-funded nonprofit.
“It’s not a good or bad thing in and of itself, it’s just when and where these trips are being taken and what would otherwise be happening without them,” Hopkins said.
Back in 2015, the city prepared a report for the City Council on what initial ridership numbers looked like and how the city and county should handle the growing number of Ubers and Lyfts.
Uber and Lyft filed suit to keep their data secret and the report was never made public. The report is marked “do not distribute” and “attorney eyes only,” and the data is marked “confidential.” The companies only relented in September, following a Supreme Court ruling this year that went against them.
The city provided the ridership info, dozens of spreadsheets containing data on every ride from Seattle-registered drivers, to The Seattle Times following a public-records request.
Lyft did not respond to requests for comment. But, in a court filing before the company dropped its legal challenges, Todd Kelsay, the company’s Pacific Northwest general manager, said that releasing ridership data could drive Lyft out of Seattle. Releasing the ridership data, Kelsay argued, could “lead to fewer jobs, less economic development and reduced investment in the local community.”
The data was released in September. Lyft has not, to date, left the Seattle market.
Ridership larger than first estimated
Even back in 2015, before TNC use quintupled in three years, the city wrote in the report that ridership “is significantly larger than originally estimated.”
“Traditional efforts to license, regulate and ensure enforcement of this industry are being redefined,” the report concluded. “New approaches and infrastructure are necessary to ensure appropriate regulation of this field.”
Since then, the city has installed a new computer system to automate the licensing process for TNCs, and it does checks to verify drivers are licensed and cars are compliant.
Don MacKenzie, an engineering professor who leads the University of Washington’s Sustainable Transportation Lab, used some rough, back-of-the-envelope calculations to estimate that Uber and Lyft account for somewhere around 4.5 percent of total miles traveled in Seattle.
“They are likely contributing to congestion, but another way to think about it is that 95.5 percent of traffic is caused by private cars, transit and trucking,” MacKenzie said.
Yonah Freemark, a doctoral student in urban planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who frequently writes about American transit systems, noted the huge number of total trips people take every day — somewhere around 3.5 million just for work commutes in the Seattle metro area, which includes all of King, Pierce and Snohomish counties.
“Then add up all the other trips people take — to the store, to shows, etc. — and 91,000 starts to feel like a blip,” Freemark, who runs The Transport Politic blog, said. “So it really matters where and when these ride-hailing trips are being taken to know the degree to which they are impacting the city.”
Here, the big majority of those trips are being taken in Seattle and most of those Seattle trips are right downtown, where things are most clogged up.
The Uber and Lyft data covers all TNC drivers that operate in the city of Seattle. Those drivers sometimes also operate in suburbs outside the city, like on the Eastside.
For both companies, about three-quarters of rides began in Seattle, according to the most recent data. And more than half of those come from the busiest neighborhoods: downtown, Belltown, South Lake Union and Capitol Hill.
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