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Economic Development Research Group Blog

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On-Demand Ride Services: A Compelling Case for Research

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Scott Middleton is the newest member of the EDR Group team. Before joining, Scott worked as an analyst and planner at the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Volpe National Transportation Systems Center and completed graduate studies at MIT.  At MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, he completed a master’s thesis that investigated rider behavior and preferences in on-demand ride services (e.g., Uber, Lyft, Waymo). He plans to contribute to EDR Group’s growing body of work in this exciting new discipline. 

In July, EDR Group released a new report that measured the economic impact of Uber at national, state, and metropolitan scales. The report generated media attention as the first study to quantify both the economic impacts and benefits of on-demand ride services offered by transportation network companies (TNCs) such as Uber. This work pioneered new methods for putting numbers to intangible features of this emerging industry, including reliability, access, flexibility, income, and productivity – ultimately finding that Uber contributes billions of dollars in economic benefits and impacts each year.

In addition to economic benefit and impact modeling, EDR Group’s study relied on large-scale surveys of riders and drivers to better understand their career choices, travel behavior, and trip patterns. In fact, this rigorous study involved a detailed survey of more than 20,000 drivers and riders. This type of primary data collection is critical to understanding the impacts of TNCs as they supplement and sometimes replace traditional modes of transportation.

Although much smaller in scale, my own master’s thesis at MIT contributed to the important effort of understanding TNCs and their impacts. Specifically, my thesis considered the issue of discrimination and equitable access to these platforms more broadly. Arguably, TNCs have greatly improved access relative to taxicabs: a 2015 study found that taxis dispatched by phone to low-income Los Angeles neighborhoods took 2-3 times longer to arrive than UberX rides and cost roughly twice as much. Nonetheless, other research has provided initial evidence of discrimination from TNC drivers to riders, and vice versa. Most notably, researchers at MIT, Stanford, and the University of Washington found that the pick-up decisions of individual Uber and Lyft drivers may lead to discriminatory outcomes for riders.

My thesis extended this research in three ways. First, I investigated rider-to-rider discriminatory attitudes in the context of dynamic ridesharing (i.e., UberPOOL and Lyft Line) using a survey of roughly 1,100 Lyft and Uber riders. Second, I interviewed national experts in TNC policy and design to evaluate a set of regulations and platform design interventions that could prevent possible discrimination and ensure equitable access to on-demand ride services. Third, I used additional survey data to consider how the advent of driverless ridesharing may affect rider attitudes in the backseat of a Lyft or Uber, ultimately finding that many riders imagine they may feel more uncomfortable sharing rides with passengers of a different gender once the driver is out of the picture.

This final element of my thesis research was inspired by a critical change coming to on-demand ride services and to transportation more broadly: automation. While an exact prognostication is impossible, it is safe to say that autonomous vehicles (AVs) will become increasingly common in the coming years. What’s more, on-demand fleets will be among the first applications of self-driving technologies. In the words of Elon Musk, self-driving cars are "just going to become normal." If this is the case, it is also critical that firms like EDR Group continue to explore how the radical transformations that automation will bring about will affect people’s choices and drive changes in the transportation system.

EDR Group continues to work on this topic through FHWA's Shared Mobility Incentives and Options study, which will help understand why different groups of travelers choose private or solo TNC trips. In this work, we continue to apply cutting edge survey and data analysis to understand emerging mobility trends. We’ll be exploring how polices could incentivize more people to share their journeys and what impacts this might have on the transportation system in different cities. The project is also building on carpooling data from the mobility-as-a-service app Metropia.

Beyond the economic benefits of TNCs highlighted in EDR Group’s recent research, on-demand ride services also have the potential to curb discrimination in transportation – particularly in a driverless future. From segregated buses to transit deserts to cab drivers refusing rides, transportation has a long history of discrimination in the United States, limiting some people’s access to employment and opportunity. Depending on their design, on-demand services may be able to deliver a more equitable mobility system for future generations. Thoughtful research on accessibility and mobility of the type we undertake here at EDR Group is essential for harnessing the innovations of the sharing economy to support an equitable future.

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