On-Demand Ride Services: Is New Mobility Tech Adding to the Traffic Tragedy of the Commons?

On-Demand Ride Services: Is New Mobility Tech Adding to the Traffic Tragedy of the Commons?

Last week in Quartz, Tim Fernholz dove head first into the swirling brew of transportation politics that is New York City. In his piece, “Uber is slowing down New York City, but slowing down Uber won’t fix the problem,” he notes that the impact of on-demand rides may have finally hit a breaking point. Mayor de Blasio is now contemplating a moratorium on new vehicles in the services, ostensibly to allow time for a study to understand what exactly is happening with traffic.

One thing is for sure, though, driving in New York has headed off a cliff. Average speeds are now a miserable 8.5 mph — down from a whopping 9.4 mph in 2010. From the mayor’s office to the taxi stands to the crosswalks, many are pointing to the 23,000 for-hire cars that are now on the road as the smoking guns.

Citing policy and transit activist Charles Komanoff, Fernholz notes:

People make a decision that is rational for themselves, to pass up the subway and use their phone-based app and grab a fore-hire vehicle. Everybody’s utility function doesn’t include the congestion that their choice of motor vehicle is imposing on everyone else.

Traffic is a classic example of the tragedy of the commons. Quick economics refresher here: we’re talking about the situation where individuals acting in our own self interests behave contrary to the best interests of the group. When I sit in a car staring at the brake lights ahead and groan, “This traffic is terrible!” I mean you. I, obviously, am not traffic. I am just trying to get where I’m going. You and everyone else are the problem.

The reality of the situation is that on-demand services are just the most recent arrivals to the village green. Rather than throwing rocks at the newcomers and trying to run them off, we all should all take a deeper look at the transportation modes that we and the cities we call home prioritize. Compared with driving around alone in our own cars all of the time, on-demand works — when it’s part of a system that includes functioning transit, good pedestrian access, car sharing, well-protected bicycle routes, ride matching, airport shuttles, and more.

Photo credit: Thomas Teichert

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