It’s a common complaint: Uber and Lyft drivers in some of the most congested parts of Seattle stop in the middle of the road to pick up or drop off passengers, slowing traffic even further.
Is there anything the city can do to encourage drivers to pull over and not block traffic?
One solution a new University of Washington study explored is increasing curbside passenger loading zones where drivers could pull in, drop off or pick up riders, and take off — saving time and reducing aggravation on the road.
Earlier this year, loading zones were expanded on Boren Avenue North while transportation network companies (TNCs) such as Uber and Lyft added geofencing to their apps to direct drivers and passengers to the designated locations.
The study released last week found that geofencing and passenger loading zones encouraged drivers to pull over to the curb more often, reduced the amount of time drivers spent waiting to load and unload riders, and improved customer satisfaction, based on surveys conducted as part of the study.
Drop-offs were 42 seconds faster than the previous average. Stopping in traffic lanes to pick up passengers fell from 20% to 14% of trips recorded by the study. Stops in traffic lanes during drop-offs barely budged, from 16% to 15% of trip.
Roxane Castro, who drives for Lyft, said the loading zones make it easier for her to identify and pick up passengers, who she said are mostly tech employees working for Amazon, Facebook or Google in South Lake Union.
Using video and sensor technology, as well as in-person observation, UW researchers analyzed activity on three blocks of Boren Avenue North in South Lake Union, first in December 2018 before any curbside changes were made, and then again in January 2019 when loading zones were expanded and geofencing was added to the apps.
The additional zones and geofencing did not have any significant impact on roadway travel speed or traffic safety. And so-called conflict situations, defined as times when drivers, bicyclists or pedestrians are forced to alter their path or have a near-miss collision, did not significantly change.
Anne Goodchild, the director of UW’s Supply Chain Transportation and Logistics Center and an author of the study, stopped short of a full endorsement of passenger loading zones and geofencing.
“We saw a higher use of appropriate curb parking and reduced street pickup. We also saw that increasing compliance didn’t come at the cost of making things less convenient for users,” she said.
But, “the caveat is that it perhaps encourages people to use TNCs as a transportation mode instead of alternatives like walking and taking transit.”
The companies have grown exponentially in Seattle since their arrival in 2014.
Uber and Lyft provided more than 91,000 trips on an average day in Seattle in the second quarter of 2018, according to ridership reports the companies filed with the city. South Lake Union, home of Amazon’s main campus, has some of the largest TNC ridership in the city.
Quan Wang, 23, has lived in Seattle for about three months and has never taken the bus. Instead, he takes a Lyft ride every weekday from his apartment in Belltown to his Amazon office in South Lake Union.
Amazon gives its employees $160 per month to help cover transportation costs, including pooled trips from TNCs, said Amazon spokesman Adam Sedo.
“I get so tired after work, and it’s easy to just take a Lyft,” Wang said. “In the mornings, I don’t want to be late. Someone else drives me, and it’s care-free.”
More than 70% of the 116 TNC passengers surveyed in the UW study said they use TNCs exclusively for an individual for a trip, not in combination with the bus or some other transportation option.
Nearly half of survey respondents said they would have taken transit and one-third said they would have walked if ride-hailing services were not available, the study said.
Ethan Bergerson, a spokesman for the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) said by email that SDOT will use the study’s findings to “help us make informed decisions about managing space on crowded Seattle streets.”
He also said SDOT will continue to prioritize and encourage transit, biking and walking as primary ways to get around.
“The question the city needs to think about,” Goodchild said, “is should we be providing more space for TNCs or is there a larger strategy that should be considered when thinking about the future of transportation?”