This story originally appeared on Mother Jones and is part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
Cars are tough for climate-conscious Americans: we cannot live with them, we cannot live without them. While rides like Uber and Lyft reduce dependency on car ownership, they hardly solve our problems. According to a report published on Tuesday by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-profit research group, such services now account for up to 13 percent of all vehicle traffic in large city centers. But instead of simply replacing other cars, Ubers and Lyfts increase the total number of car trips and our collective carbon footprint, and are estimated to generate 69 percent more emissions than the trips they displace.
The reason for this is twofold. When analyzing public data from seven US cities, the report found that ridesharing runs many miles between passengers. Known as "deadheading", this tendency, which can also be seen in taxis, makes a non-pooled hail trip 47 percent more environmentally harmful than a private car ride. In addition, a survey of California passengers found rideshare to replace trips they would otherwise take on local transportation, bicycles, or on foot. As a result, the report concludes that ridesharing in cities and suburbs "increases vehicle travel, climate pollution, and congestion" ̵
The report differentiates between unpooled trips where passengers drive directly to their destination and pooled trips where the car picks up other passengers on the way. Pooled trips that California drivers request in about 20 percent of cases have a carbon footprint roughly equivalent to that of private car trips, while carpooling in electric cars can actually reduce emissions by up to 68 percent per trip. The problem is journeys without a pool in gas-powered cars, which replace low-emission modes of transport in about 28 percent of the cases.
In order to become more climate-friendly, the report concludes that carpooling could electrify their fleets. Improve the price and convenience of pooled journeys and promote the use of public transport by providing first and last mile connections that only replace the part of the journey that a train or bus does not travel. Passengers can choose such trips more often, while cities with special lanes and reduced fees can create incentives for carpooling.
The report also urges policymakers to improve local transportation and enact laws to electrify the rideshare industry. Lyft has used Colorado tax credits to provide its drivers with 200 long-haul electric vehicles for rent, while California regulators are looking for ways to switch to electric fleets over the next ten years.
"Hailstorm journeys increase emissions today," said Don Anair, one of the report's co-authors. "However, if companies take sensible action to build electric vehicles and carpools – and can help policymakers and consumers – these services can be part of a low-carbon transportation future."
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