Can the ride-hailing services reply to the “tragedy of the urban roads” and become a substitute of the transit system?

Cities are facing a series of  problems at the urban mobility level, what is called “the tragedy of urban roads” (Iaione, 2009), that implies: a growing traffic congestion, a huge amount of car accidents and a rising level of carbon emissions, all conditions that affect the urban life. As Iaione[1] underlines they represents the “perfect showcase for the tragedy of the commons, a collective action problem in which a resource held in common – urban streets and roads – is subject to overuse and degradation”. He suggests market-based regulatory techniques and public policies for controlling the demand-side of transportation congestion as the best response. In addition, a traditional inefficient (and sometimes outdated) public transport system is fueling the use of private cars, with no perspectives of improvement lacking substantial funds in ad hoc infrastructures. May ICT’s and new technologies offer solutions to solve these problems, respecting commons, environment and people, and to improve the urban mobility? There are at least three orders of answers.

Picture by Nav Tombros / CC BY

The first one is related to the possibility of triggering individual behavioral changes that will have over time a collective impact on the society. As stressed by Comin and Speroni in “2030. The perfect storm – How survive to the Big Crisis” (2012) “behaviors that really have a significant impact on the environment imply a radical change in the life styles, with economic consequences of great importance… in addition behavior changes should be accompanied by political choices able to extend and enhance their effectiveness and by proper business strategies”. The global movement careful about environment and sustainability is growing, even if still fragmented. The two authors in their book invite to enhance to the fullest the efforts of this global mobilization, considering them in the political choice, creating synergies with the business world and with the market economy, to be able to reply to the perfect storm. Additionally, internet and ICTs are helping in spreading a new aptitude and lifestyles more careful about the environment.

The second answer to the tragedy of road congestion concerns new organizational formulations made possible thanks to advanced digital solutions, from car-sharing to car-pooling, from services like Uber and Lyft up to the futuristic driverless-car, all examples of urban mobility transformation. About this point a deepening is required. Ride-hailing services are growing in the urban mobility panorama, especially in USA, where the use of private cars as primary means of transportation is even more rooted (for the low gasoline price, for the effects of the urban sprawl that make difficult plan or infrastructure a rich public transit system, and for the lobbies that over the years have invested in the road network rather than on the train system, enriching the “road industry”). Services like Uber and Lyft are more and more used to slowly plug gaps normally filled by public and private investment in infrastructures and services. They are perceived as justification for the bad public service, and even pro-transit politicians and officials have started to see ride-hailing services as possible and acceptable substitute for public transit. Pressed by tight budgets, some towns are looking at this services as a replacement of the public transit system. What’s going on is that more and more cities are cutting transit lines and subsidizing car rides. After several years of uneasy or hostile relationship over regulation among the ride-hailing companies and the local government officials, today something is going to change. Los Angeles, Pinellas County and Altomonte Springs in  Florida,  Centennial in Colorado, Washington DC, are just examples of cities that are looking at Uber and Lyft as alternative services of the public transit system. The Amalgamated Transit Union even affirms that the speed at which these services are replacing the existing public services is “like a tsunami”, especially because they represent a saving for government.

Opinions on this option are nevertheless in contrast, there are supporters and detractors of this vision and strategy. For someone to support these services is simply a smart choice especially in suburban contexts that are expensive to reach and support with public transport. In addition, in front of a growing poverty that is pushing more and more people in suburban neighborhoods, these services have the potential to do a lot of good for places that need it the most (not to mention that they can do it for a lot less money, very important aspect in a time when many state legislatures opposed to any new taxes or debt). For others, on the contrary, this choice would bring unpleasant consequences. Even if at the moment Uber and Lyft are subsidizing US ridership, one day they could start to profit from it and raise the prices. With the outcome of having less bus and train lines, no infrastructures and only few alternatives to private cars. Someone also underlines that “Uber isn’t replacing buses, but instead providing an alternative that shifts more of the transportation cost onto individuals”, opening to the doubt that governments are choosing to serve corporate interests and transforming public transportation in a mean for profit and not for the public good. Morozov invites to ask loudly for investments in infrastructures instead of relying on the opportunities that these companies seem to offer today, instead of thinking to obtain more while paying less. Furthermore, beyond surface appearances Uber, for example, is registering economic losses, in part due exactly to subsidizing fares. To face the situation Uber is trying to diversify its offer (UberPool, UberEats, UberRush are the new entries of the company) but soon investors will want to see concrete results. A part from the risk of a price rising, there are also other hot aspects: there are people without smartphones or mobile internet, and disabled that requires specific services for example. Unlike transit agencies, private providers have no obligation to operate in poor, low-density areas, work with disabled residents, or keep fares stable; and what about the bad working conditions often reported by employees of these services? The risk is to affect public sector jobs replacing them with contract work, and only this aspect could open a spirited debate.

The third aspect is related to the data sharing on traffic and mobility fluxes. Uber has already implemented a strategy to transfer its data to planners and municipalities in order to allow for a better traffic planning. Anyway, the risk is to become dependent from the Uber data flux and to let it create a real monopoly. Actually, the company has replied creating an open data site, Uber Movement, through which share aggregated data of urban traffic generated by the GPS during their rides. Institutions, research organizations, universities and people interested in studying the flow of the urban mobility of the cities where Uber operates (450) may access to data, which facilitates understanding and makes the urban mobility system more efficient and sustainable. At the moment, the service is active on the main Australian cities, on Manila and Washington DC with the idea to extend the service.

Time will tell us if the strategies just reported will or not have a good environmental, economic and social impact and what will be the European reply to this American tendency.


Nella società high tech aumentano le possibilità di dare risposte concrete ai problemi di congestione urbana e inquinamento. Non solo è necessario un cambio nei comportamenti prima individuali e poi collettivi dei cittadini, ma è importante aprirsi anche alle potenzialità che possono avere nuove formule organizzative.  Entriamo nella dimensione del car-sharing e del car-pooling, con servizi come Uber e Lyft a farla da padroni. Si tratta infatti di compagnie che stanno crescendo a dismisura, soprattutto nelle città Americane e di recente assistiamo ad un tentativo delle municipalità di aprirsi ad un’insolita integrazione del servizio di ride-hailing in sostituzione di alcune linee del trasporto pubblico. Tra acclamazioni da un lato e seri dubbi e preoccupazioni dall’altro.


[1] Christian Iaione, The Tragedy of Urban Roads: Saving Cities from Choking, Calling on Citizens to Combat Climate Change, 37 Fordham Urb. L.J. 889 (2009).