CHICAGO - Ride-share companies like Uber and Lyft promised they would supplement public transit and help ease traffic congestion.
But data collected by the city and now made public shows almost half of Chicago's millions of monthly ride-share trips are taking place in just a few wealthy, crowded and already transit-rich areas.
A Tribune analysis of ride-share trips that occurred in March shows that more than four of every 10 passenger pickups happened in five of the city's community areas - the Loop, the Near North Side, the Near West Side, Lakeview and West Town. Many of the drop-offs were concentrated in those areas, too.
A more granular look at ride pickups and drop-offs by Census tract, which can be areas of just a few blocks in a dense city like Chicago, shows that aside from airport trips, the most popular ride was a short one between the Loop and the Near North Side.
Nearly 1 in 5 trips in March occurred during rush hour, when trains and buses are most readily available.
Ride-sharing services have ushered in new convenience for residents trying to get around the city and represent another transportation option in lower-income communities. But the city's data also reflects ride-sharing's impact on city streets and balance sheets - Uber and Lyft drivers competing with taxi cabs in already congested neighborhoods and millions in dollars of lost revenue at the Chicago Transit Authority as people shun public transportation for a solo ride in the back seat of a stranger's car.
The release of the data comes as new Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot considers new fees for ride-share trips. Chicago already imposes a 72-cent-per-trip fee, which helps fund the CTA.
Lightfoot has not specified what new fee the city could impose, though her transition document suggested exploring additional funding for transportation, including congestion pricing and a new Loop ride-share surcharge.
"We will continue to look at creative ways to address our challenges and to improve transportation access in Chicago, including as it relates to ridesharing," a spokeswoman for Lightfoot said in an email.
Transportation experts who have reviewed the data say that it appears some people are choosing ride share over transit.
"We're definitely seeing trips that could have been served by transit - people are taking Uber and Lyft instead," said Elizabeth Irvin, transportation director for the Center for Neighborhood Technology, a sustainable development nonprofit.
An unintended consequence
Ride-sharing companies started operating in Chicago in 2011 and have expanded rapidly.
As of March, there were 66,562 active ride-share drivers who make 4 or more trips a month, compared with 15,078 in March 2015, according to the city's Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection.
Uber and Lyft say that most Chicago drivers work part-time.
Although the number of cabs operating is limited to 6,999, there is no cap on ride-share vehicles.
Ride-share trips are far outstripping cab trips - with almost 10 million rides just in March, compared with 21 million taxi trips for all of 2018, according to the city. Taxi trips have dropped from 33 million trips in 2015, according to the city.
The services have changed the way people get around the city and, for some, have opened up an opportunity to earn extra income as a driver. But they may also have an unintended consequence: more traffic congestion.
Ride-sharing makes it easier to have a car-free life. A study last year by the Chicago-based Shared-Use Mobility Center found a correlation between heavy ride-sharing use and lower rates of car ownership.
And ride-sharing companies have said they want to help take private cars off the street.
"We want to make sure we're broadening the reach of transit," said Lyft Chief Operating Officer Jon McNeill. "We want to be additive to transit." He said that transit stops are among Lyft's most popular pick-up and drop-off locations.
"All of us want cleaner, less-congested cities where everyone can move freely - and we want to partner with cities and public transit to achieve that," said Josh Gold, senior manager of public affairs for Uber, in a statement.
But research on other cities has found that ride sharing is contributing to traffic congestion, and anecdotal reports in Chicago suggest the same.
A May University of Kentucky study found that the services are the biggest contributor to growing traffic congestion in San Francisco, and a 2018 study by New York-based Schaller Consulting found that ride sharing has added 5.7 billion miles of driving annually in the Boston, Chicago, New York and six other cities. The same study found that people are making trips by ride share they either otherwise would not have made or would have made by public transit, biking and walking.
It is difficult to say exactly how ride-sharing has increased congestion in Chicago, because the city's Transportation Department does not have estimates on the total number of vehicles on roads over time, but professional drivers say areas around downtown and at the airport have become intensely crowded.
"During rush hour, there's crazy congestion, more than there used to be," said Rocky Orok, a cabdriver and chairman of the United Taxidrivers Community Council. He said that a trip to O'Hare from downtown used to take an hour during rush hour, and now can take 90 minutes because of congestion at the airport. "All these people are waiting for Uber pickups," Orok said.
"The traffic is insane," said Eli Martin, who drives for both Uber and Lyft and is co-founder of Chicago Rideshare Advocates, which has pushed for higher driver wages. He said part of the problem is that Uber and Lyft offer promotions that encourage drivers to stay in high-income areas so that they can make consecutive trips.
Martin pulled up recent promotions for drivers on his phone. One from Uber offered an extra $25 for trips in a North Side "boost zone."
"So you have drivers idling, driving empty, they're waiting for that consecutive trip bonus," Martin said. "They're driving around, waiting for that ride."
Representatives for Uber and Lyft said that they try to match drivers with demand.
Orok said another cause of congestion is that ride-share drivers are not well-trained.
"Sometimes they're slowing down to look at the phone, sometimes they take a wrong turn, stop at the wrong spot, stop in the middle of the lane," said Orok. "Those are things you're not taught to do as a cabdriver."
Ride sharing's popularity
Why do people who could use transit use ride sharing instead? Those interviewed cited convenience.
Allison Kaplan, 36, of Chicago's Roscoe Village neighborhood, said she mostly works remotely, but when she does go downtown she chooses ride sharing because it's less trouble.
"I don't have to drive and deal with parking, but also because it's less of hassle and quicker than walking to public trans, waiting, et cetera," she said. She added that if she worked downtown every day, ride sharing would not be sustainable, both in terms of the environment and the cost.
A typical Chicago ride-share trip is 3.6 miles and costs about $10, compared with $2.25 for a bus or $2.50 for a train on the CTA.
Lucas Stephens, 31, of the city's Hyde Park neighborhood, is a sustainable transportation researcher who knows the downsides of ride sharing, but sometimes uses Uber, Lyft or Via to and from the airport, or when coming home after going out at night in bars and restaurants in Pilsen or Logan Square.
"Ride share can cut 30-plus minutes off of those trips," Stephens said.
Ride-sharing services "are used so much because they provide a good service," said Sharon Feigon, CEO of the Shared-Use Mobility Center.
City data also backs up claims by ride-share companies that they are serving low-income areas where cabs have been historically less likely to go. In March 2019, for example, ride-share drivers made more than 47,000 pickups in the low-income, majority African-American neighborhood of Englewood, compared with 85 cab pickups in March 2017, the most recent comparable information available.
Lyft said in its economic impact report that 37% of rides in Chicago begin or end in a low-income area. A Lyft spokesperson said that 40% of all its rides are shared.
Gold said that Uber is seeing the most growth in Chicago in poorer neighborhoods such as West Garfield Park, Englewood and West Englewood.
Ride-sharing services "do seem to be filling some holes for some folks," said Irvin, of the Center for Neighborhood Technology. She noted that average trip distances tend to be longer for trips to and from the South and West sides than in other areas close to transit. "It seems like people are using these services to get to places they might not have been able to get to before."
The city data also indicates that ride-sharing services are being used to get to and from evening entertainment, and therefore possibly removing drunk drivers from the road. More than one in four ride-share trips between November 2018 and March were taken between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m.
Fees and a cap
Ride sharing is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to urban transportation. The challenge is getting all those piece to fit together.
Total ridership on the CTA has fallen 12% between 2012 and 2017, with bus ridership tumbling the most, by almost 21 percent. Transit officials have cited r ride sharing as a factor, along with slow bus speeds, which are a byproduct of increased congestion.
"We recognize that the changing transportation landscape comes at a price to public transit," said CTA spokesman Brian Steele. "Specifically, we estimate that the CTA and the city have lost tens of millions in revenue due to the growth of the ride-share industry."
In 2017, Chicago became the first city to increase fees on ride-share trips in order to give money to public transit. The CTA is using the money for track and security improvements.
New York has gone further, becoming the first city in the nation last summer to cap the number of ride-sharing vehicles on its streets and require Uber, Lyft, and other companies to pay drivers a minimum rate.
Irvin said the risk of a cap is that if there are fewer drivers, they will stick with the busiest areas and not serve low-income neighborhoods.
Regarding the possibility of new local fees for ride sharing, a Lyft spokeswoman said that Chicagoans already pay the highest ride-share fees in the nation.
McNeill said that Lyft wants to make sure ride sharing stays affordable in low-income areas.
Cities must look at the transportation system holistically, with an eye toward getting single-occupant cars off the road, said Feigon, of the Shared-Use Mobility Center. This includes improving bus and rail service to make it more reliable and attractive to those who may want to take ride sharing.
"When you have to stand the whole way home, it's not necessarily a good ride," Feigon said.
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