Given the variety of transportation options in many big U.S. cities, most well-off urbanites are multimodal travelers. The decision to drive, use an app to hail a ride, take transit, ride a bike or walk is made using a semi-scientific mental calculation of time, cost and convenience. Is it worth Lyft’s steep price tag to save 20 minutes on your ride home from the bar? Is it better to save money and take the subway even if the trip is a little longer? Is transit actually faster than an Uber car in clogged rush hour streets?
Those questions are at the heart of a new analysis from Washington, D.C.’s Office of Revenue Analysis, which researches economic and demographic trends and posts findings to its District Measured blog. In a Metrorail vs. Uber analysis, the office’s researchers looked at travel times, wait times and cost to determine when it’s faster to take the train and when it makes sense to shell out for ride-hailing. (It should be noted that there’s inequality when it comes to D.C.-area residents’ transportation access, which disproportionately impacts low-income communities and limits choices for people living in them.)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Metro does best for long trips across the city or into the D.C. suburbs. This is especially true at rush hour and when the trip does not require transferring to a different line. The researchers write: “A trip from Metro Center to Bethesda [at rush hour], for instance, takes 33 minutes, and that includes time to wait for the train and walk to and from the station. An Uber takes 47 minutes, and comes at a far higher cost.”
When the trip requires a transfer, however, Uber wins out. Even if it’s just a short trip within the city. “Going from Union Station to Minnesota Avenue or from Columbia Heights to Cleveland Park, for instance,” they note, “is about 20 minutes quicker in an Uber than on Metro, even when Metro is running efficiently, without delays or long headways.”
That latter caveat is important. Transit competes best at rush hour when trains are running at the highest frequency. At peak hours, Metro runs trains every four to 12 minutes. In the best-case-scenario, the analysis assumes three-minute wait times for trains (feasible if you get to the station in between arrivals). In that scenario, Metro is as fast or faster than Uber in 67 of the 114 trips the researchers looked at.
When that wait time increases however, Metro’s success rate falls precipitously — and given the Metro system’s problems with delays and track fires, longer wait times are not abnormal. The researchers found that if you have to wait 10 minutes for the train, Uber is faster in 99 of the 114 trips.
That transit only mostly outperforms ride-hailing in a scenario of frequent arrivals and no unexpected delays helps to explain findings from another new report out of University of California, Davis. Released yesterday, the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies’ study found that ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft are taking riders away from public transit in urban areas, increasing vehicle miles traveled, and doing little to reduce car ownership.
Lead report author Regina Clewlow told SF Gate, “Although we found that ride-hailing can be complementary to transit and reduce vehicle ownership for a small portion of individuals, we found that (overall) these services currently facilitate a shift away from more sustainable modes towards low-occupancy vehicles in major cities.”
The researchers looked at data from Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, the Bay Area, Seattle and D.C. They found that ride-hailing passengers decreased their use of public transit by 6 percent. They also found that 49 to 61 percent of ride-hail trips would have not been made or would have otherwise been made on transit, bike or foot. And 91 percent of ride-hailers said the service has not impacted whether or not they own a car.
Josh Cohen is a freelance writer in Seattle. His work has also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Pacific Standard and Vice.