‘Ridesharing’ a Climate Change Solution around the Corner

The solution to reducing carbon emissions may be just around the corner.

Car sharing can reduce gas consumption and could ultimately help in the battle to curb climate change, according to a Natural Resources Defense Council director, who maintains that the activity has “demonstrated promising social and environmental gains.”

Amanda Eaken, NRDC’s deputy director of Urban Solutions and Sustainable Communities, Energy & Transportation Program, recently posited this in a Sacramento Bee op-ed column under the headline: “Ride sharing can help state meet climate-change goals.”

Does she actually mean the much-maligned Uber and Lyft entities are good for California’s air quality? The same ridesharing companies whose entries into states and cities across the U.S. have been eyed cautiously or downright opposed? The firms considered the bane of every taxi cab company’s existence?

They aren’t so well liked by the insurance industry either.

Before screaming your heads off about how Uber is anything but an environmental savior, you should know that despite the catchy headline on her column, Eaken puts ridesharing and car sharing in different categories.

“I do distinguish between car sharing, which is like Zipcar and City CarShare, and what’s classified as Uber and Lyft, which I would call ride-hailing services, or transportation network companies,” Eaken said.

Car sharing company Zipcar, a subsidiary of Avis Budget Group, provides auto reservations to members for a few hours or a day. City CarShare is a Bay Area nonprofit that provides members with the use of fuel-efficient vehicles by the hour.

So what’s the diff?

Uber and Lyft drivers make money – as do Uber, with a $50 billion valuation, and Lyft at $2.5 billion – and they don’t really share a ride so much as act as a mode of transportation.

Car sharing is when two or more people headed to the same place or along similar routes share a vehicle, or when two or more people share at different times a vehicle that otherwise would sit inactive when not in use.

Eaken doesn’t rule out the potential fuel savings of the “ride-hailing” activities that Uber or Lyft provide, but she wouldn’t go so far as to say that what some call ridesharing is as an emissions-reducing endeavor.

Eaken, by the way, isn’t alone in her use of “ride-hailing.” Some media organizations, such as the Associated Press, have recognized the discrepancy between sharing a ride and what Uber and Lyft drivers do, so they have changed their copy style to refer to Uber and Lyft activities as “ride-hailing.”

Organizations like the California Department of Insurance also now use “ride-hailing.”

There is no clear answer over whether Uber and Lyft are helping save the environment by reducing fuel consumption.

On one hand, Uber and Lyft drivers aren’t taking a trip to Ikea and bringing along a passenger who also needs a new wicker chair or a chic floor lamp. They circle neighborhoods, or navigate stop-and-go urban centers, or idle while waiting for a ride and then gun the gas pedal when pinged by a waiting passenger.

Yet, there’s a larger picture to consider. These services could be enabling people who live in areas that are well-served by ridesharing and other forms of transportation to forego buying a vehicle, and therefore Uber and Lyft are helping get cars off the road.

As Eaken notes, hypotheses vary about whether rideshare providers are helping or hurting in terms of carbon emissions, but there’s no known solid data to back up either claim.

“I think a lot more research is needed,” Eaken said.

A new phenomenon within the ridesharing community called ride-splitting may lend some credence to claims that Uber and Lyft are helping to reduce emissions.

Ride-splitting is when two passengers close to one another and heading toward a similar destination share an Uber of Lyft ride. Both rideshare companies are promoting this new service as UberPool and Lyft Line, and they encourage passengers to split the ride and save money by sharing the fare.

Ride-splitting is just a new name for an activity in which transportation officials have been begging drivers to partake for years.

“I’m encouraged by ride-splitting, because for decades transportation planners have been trying to encourage carpooling,” Eaken said.

Lyft one-upped Uber with a program it introduced in late July called Triple Match, which enables drivers to pick up three or more riders going on similar routes along the way. For now the program is only available in San Francisco, but according to Lyft it now accounts for 20 percent of all Lyft Line rides.

Both companies have reported heavy usage of these new pooled ride systems in the Bay area.

What may underlie these trends is the possibility that a growing number of people view private cars as an economic burden. That’s a point made by Eaken in her op-ed, which she backs up with AAA statistics that show the average motorist spends up to $9,000 per year on gas, repairs and insurance.

Yet, the average vehicle sits unused up to 23 hours a day, Eaken noted.

Eaken and the NRDC have gone beyond talking about the benefits of the sharing economy. The NRDC is backing efforts to encourage more car sharing, like the Electric Vehicle Low-Income Carshare program in Los Angeles.

The city was awarded a $1.6 million grant by the California Air Resources Board earlier this year for a pilot project that provides electric vehicle car sharing options in low-income communities. The goal is to put 100 car-share vehicles, at least 80 would be electric, into the low-income neighborhoods in downtown L.A. City officials say they could start operating the fleet as early as next year.

Public funded car and bike sharing programs are also in place in San Francisco and San Diego.

“There’s a lot of innovation going on in this area,” said Eaken, who sees urban centers in other states are following suit.

Where will all this lead?

Reduced pollution is Eaken’s hope. Beyond that she and the NRDC have a loftier goal: breaking up the long-lasting love affair between people and their cars.

“Maybe we could start to see people having a different relationship with vehicles though the sharing economy premise where we focus on access as opposed to ownership and using vehicles when we need them as opposed to when we don’t need them,” Eaken said.

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