We Are the Traffic

Why Ride Services Are Not The Problem

Michele Kyrouz
The Startup
Published in
8 min readJan 7, 2021


There’s a saying about road congestion — you are not sitting in traffic, you are the traffic. And it’s particularly apt today as cities point fingers about the source of our traffic woes. Many cities have decided that ride services like Uber and Lyft are the problem, and that autonomous ride services will be worse. Cities aim to regulate these services with fees, caps or other measures to make them more expensive and inconvenient to use. But ride services are not actually the problem. Cars are the problem. We are the traffic.

Personally owned cars are ~90% of all traffic in cities. A recent study of six major cities showed that Uber and Lyft trips were between 2–13% of total vehicle miles traveled in a number of urban cores. So even in the highest use downtown area (San Francisco), the trips were only 13% of vehicle miles traveled — leaving 87% of vehicle miles traveled by personally-owned cars. And for cities where 2% of miles were Uber and Lyft, that’s 98% of miles traveled by personally owned cars. We are the traffic.

Cars suffer from terrible road geometry, they move one person using 4000 lbs and a huge amount of road space. This calculus makes no sense for short trips in cities and causes traffic congestion and pollution. The main policy goal should be improving road geometry by reducing single occupant car trips and increasing trips on micromobility and public transit. Targeting ride services separately from other cars does not serve this goal.

Instead of trying to make new mobility modes like ride services and micromobility less attractive, by imposing taxes and caps, cities should enact policies that give preference to all modes with good road geometry by changing our pricing and allocation of road space in cities. This means all car rides should be priced fairly — with road pricing based on the miles we drive and access to congested areas at peak times.

And all modes with good road geometry — moving more people per square foot — should be given additional road space and protected lanes. Cities should allocate more road space to protected micromobility lanes and bus-only lanes and less space for parking and driving of cars, whether personally owned or ride services.

In order to win the battle to reduce all car trips — which would include the ~90% of trips in personally owned cars — these people have to find another way to get around cities. So reducing trips in cars is really an exercise in finding reasonable alternatives to cars that people will actually use. This doesn’t mean every car trip will be replaced. But we need people to choose the right tool for the job for each trip — and ride services can actually help in this process if we enact fair road pricing and road space allocation as well.

The Right Tool For The Job

Ride services are a key factor in encouraging people to use different modes — because they provide a car ride reliably when needed without car ownership. Otherwise, people feel they need to own a car in order to have a car ride when they need one. But once they own the car, they use it not just for the trips where it’s necessary, but for nearly every trip they make.

When we own a car, we are incentivized to use it for all our trips — whether one mile or fifty miles — since we have already paid for it and we incur fixed costs to maintain, park and insure it. The sunk cost of car ownership drives many of our transportation decisions. This is because each new trip has only a small marginal cost for gasoline and some wear and tear depreciation down the road.

In contrast, if you don’t buy a car, you have to pay the full cost of each car trip by purchasing a ride with Uber or Lyft, or a carsharing service. This price disincentivizes unnecessary car trips and encourages you to consider other alternatives. If you don’t own a car, you can determine for each trip you take what the “right tool for the job” might be.

Analyst Horace Dediu has called this the “unbundling of the car.” He describes car ownership as a “bundle of trips” that you pay for up front. When you buy a car, you are buying all the trips you will take in the car in the future. So, if you buy a car, and prepay for a bundle of trips up front, you are incentivized to drive that car everywhere rather than consider other transport modes.

The world is moving toward greater urbanization. The United Nations projects that almost 7 billion people will live in urban areas by 2050. Urban living leads to a greater number of short distance trips. Short trips often can be completed more efficiently by a vehicle much smaller than a full-size car. So as demand for shorter trips increases, the prepaid bundle of trips becomes less attractive, and car ownership will decline.

The unbundling of the car encourages multimodal travel, but not because car travel becomes unnecessary. This is a key point: there are still many trips for which the car is the right tool for the job. This is why ride services are a crucial piece of the puzzle. If you make it inconvenient and expensive to get a car ride when needed, then people will continue to own cars — thus reducing the incentives to use other modes for trips where a car is not necessary.

But What About Traffic?

Cities contend that ride services create more traffic than personal cars, and that autonomous ride services will be worse when they are available. But this argument is based on a faulty assumption: that if you ride in a car service but don’t own a car you will take exactly the same number of car trips as if you owned a car. Under this theory, in the future every car trip today will be replaced by a ride service ride, resulting in even more traffic. This is simply not true. Ask anyone who does not own a car.

Once you stop owning a car, you will take fewer car trips. You will likely decide to take more trips using other modes such as transit, micromobility and walking because they will be cheaper, faster, more convenient and even fun. Unbundling the car changes the economic and convenience incentives. Each ride service trip is fully priced compared to the low marginal cost of another trip in a car you own. That cost differential, and the fact that a car is not in your driveway awaiting use, will cause you to consider other modes for getting around.

Cities contend that Uber and Lyft rides are worse than personal cars because they add “deadhead miles” to traffic, which have zero value as they travel in between picking up rides. But cities ignore the zero and low value miles that are traveled by personal cars as well. Because the marginal cost of driving your own car is tiny, you don’t think twice before heading out in your car to make any trip you want. If you had to pay for a $5 or $10 Uber ride to buy a $5 gallon of milk, is that a trip you would take? Or would you wait until you had other groceries to buy as well, or were going somewhere nearby for multiple errands. These low value trips are similar to deadhead miles and cannot be ignored in this analysis. Ride service trips fully price the cost of each trip and thus discourage un-economic, low value trips.

On balance, ride services have the potential to reduce car trips by encouraging use of other modes for trips where a car is not necessary and reducing un-economic trips. The negative externalities of ride service trips are similar to the negative externalities of trips in personally owned cars and should be addressed with a single policy governing all car trips.

The Messy Middle

Many critics of ride services complain there is no evidence of the benefits of ride services and that people are not selling their cars in favor of ride services. But it’s still too early to tell how this transition will play out. People own their cars for 10+ years and we have not yet reached the point of convenience or price for many people to feel comfortable selling their cars and relying solely on ride services. Regulatory uncertainty about the availability and price of ride services has not helped, nor has a global pandemic.

Car ownership is evolving, and if we can avoid penalizing ride services, and focus instead on fair prices for all car trips, we can further encourage this transition. While the time estimates for when autonomous vehicles will be widely available are uncertain, it seems pretty clear that autonomy will eventually make these ride services cheaper. Autonomous ride services will make it possible for most people who live in urban and suburban areas not to own a car.

Today we are stuck in the messy middle of this transition. Our cities were built for people to drive and park — at work and at shopping areas, restaurants and events. But parking needs have declined as more people want to take ride services and be dropped off, or ride bikes or scooters. Our roads have not changed to keep up with these new ways people want to get around. We can rectify this mismatch of supply and demand by removing street parking in downtown urban areas and opening up those lanes for ride service drop-offs, protected micromobility lanes and bus-only lanes. By reallocating space away from personally owned cars and fully pricing all car rides, cities can reduce congestion and encourage use of other modes.

Cities in California have been frustrated by the fact that they lack authority to regulate services like Uber and Lyft, since the state regulates those entities. But the answer is right here — all around us — cities can regulate all cars with road pricing and space allocation on streets without any special authority at all. This bigger goal is by far the more effective one and reduces the unintended consequences of focusing solely on ride services. Fair road pricing for all cars and fair allocation of space for non-car modes will do more to reduce congestion than any regulation of ride services ever could.

Michele Kyrouz is a writer, lawyer and podcast host based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is the author of The New Mobility Handbook — Rethinking How We Get Around Cities, available on Amazon. Michele also hosts the Smarter Cars podcast about the future of transportation in cities.



Michele Kyrouz
The Startup

writer | lawyer | author of The New Mobility Handbook | host of Smarter Cars podcast