Creating Designated Riders: A Tale of Two Cities

Uber Under the Hood
Uber Under the Hood
5 min readJan 9, 2018


by Rik Williams, Data Scientist, Policy Research & Economics, and Nadia Anderson, Manager, Public Policy, Road & Traffic Safety

Ride-hailing apps like Uber have tremendous potential as an alternative to drinking and driving, and anecdotally already help people avoid getting behind the wheel after consuming alcohol. Studies on the broader impacts are not yet conclusive, but our qualitative research with MADD indicates a shift in mindsets about drinking and driving, while trip data support the notion that ridesharing is used during nights and weekends and in close proximity to events and establishments where alcohol is readily available.

Uber continues to explore the ways in which people use ridesharing as a transportation mode during these at-risk times and in certain locations. The following illustrates one way we’re thinking about this very important question: a data-driven analysis demonstrating that Uber is being used in these times and places, and is available as an option to help people make the safe choice — the choice not to drink and drive.

The findings presented here highlight the complexity of this issue and demonstrate how far we have to go to make drinking and driving a thing of the past. We’re committed to being a part of the solution and will continue to work with the research, enforcement and advocacy communities to get to zero.


A Tale of Two Cities : Salem, OR and San Francisco, CA

Salem, Oregon

Salem, the state capital of Oregon, is a mid-sized city (metro area population of 400,000) about an hour’s drive south of Portland. It’s also one of Uber’s newest markets: we launched service there in June 2017.

Locations of the four largest cities in Oregon where Uber currently operates. Basemap for this and subsequent figures courtesy of OSM and Mapbox.

The downtown area consists of state government offices alongside a bustling commercial center with a large urban mall and numerous quaint coffee shops, restaurants, and boutiques. Beyond downtown, the city and its adjacent suburbs are almost exclusively single-family homes.

Salem’s public transit options are somewhat limited. The Cherriots bus service covers most of the main corridors, but daily service ceases before 10pm (and doesn’t run on weekends or holidays). In the past, if you went out at night to a bar or restaurant and had a few drinks, your options for getting home were limited. Public transportation was sometimes an option, but depending on the hour you may have had to call a taxi or phone a friend.

This all changed in June 2017 when Salem residents were introduced to another reliable, affordable option: Uber. In similar cities, we’ve seen that people do in fact use Uber to get around when public transit service is infrequent — but to better understand Uber as an alternative to drinking and driving we wanted to dig deeper. How have Salem residents actually been using Uber since its launch, especially during times when other options for travel may not be readily available?

To investigate this, we looked at Uber’s trip data in combination with public records. The State of Oregon makes data about establishments that serve alcohol for consumption on premises (including bars, restaurants, brewpubs, and wineries) publicly available, and the map below shows the locations of 298 such establishments in the Salem area (denoted by the blue dots).

Area around Salem, Oregon used to analyze nighttime Uber trips (grey box). Blue dots represent businesses licensed to serve alcohol for consumption on premises; source: Oregon Liquor Control Commission

Using these locations, we counted the number of Uber trips which started during late weekend nights (10pm-2am Friday and Saturday) within 500 feet of these establishments, and compared them to the total number of Uber pickups during those same hours in the Salem area (grey box).

The results are striking. In the last half of 2017 — essentially the first six months Uber operated in Salem — over 59% of Uber’s late night trips started within 500 feet of an alcohol-serving business. In other words, thousands of Salem residents immediately began using Uber as a way to travel during peak nightlife hours from venues where alcohol is consumed.

The rapid adoption of Uber as a late-night option is encouraging — but what is the story in a city where ride-hailing has been available for years?

San Francisco, California

The San Francisco Bay Area, home of Uber’s headquarters and the first city where Uber service was available, stands in sharp contrast to Salem in many ways. It’s a metropolitan area of nearly 5 million people anchored by the densely-populated 7-by-7 mile San Francisco city proper, which is served by multiple rail lines, 24-hour bus service, and a grid of bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly streets.

City and County of San Francisco (grey outline), with rail (orange) and bus (blue) routes overlaid. Source: DataSF, BART

Uber has been available in San Francisco since 2010, growing to millions of active unique riders and tens of thousands of drivers in the Bay Area. Once requested through Uber, a vehicle typically shows up within 3–5 minutes — and therefore is considered a reliable transportation mode throughout the city. The below image shows how long it takes on average from requesting a vehicle through Uber to its arrival at the pick-up point. The darker green hexagons are under 3 minutes; as you can see, the vast majority of wait times are within the 3–5 minute range.

Hexagons denote the average time between Uber request and car arrival; in the vast majority of the city, wait times are under 5 minutes. Data from December 1–7, 2017.

Between public transportation, taxi, Uber, Lyft, and other services, San Francisco residents have numerous safe ways to get around, day or night. Even so, in 2017, the San Francisco Police Department conducted 285 arrests for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs; tragically, 30 of these incidents resulted in injury. As shown on the map below, every one of these arrests happened in an area where the typical ride through Uber was less than 5 minutes away.

Locations of arrests during 2017 by the San Francisco Police Department, for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, overlaid on the Uber average time-of-arrival map.

Be a #DesignatedRider

San Francisco and Salem differ in many ways, but together they demonstrate the complexity of this issue and the importance of ongoing and dynamic public engagement and research. In addition to making sure options like public transit, ridesharing and other modes of travel are readily available, the data demonstrate the need to continue building awareness and education around the dangers of drinking and driving.

We hope to see more studies examining the relationship between alternate travel modes, new and innovative countermeasures and education and awareness campaigns on alcohol-impaired driving prevention. And in the interim, whether in Salem, San Francisco, or anywhere else, we’ll continue to encourage everyone to take a ride on the safe side and choose to be a #DesignatedRider.



Uber Under the Hood
Uber Under the Hood

Insights and updates from the Uber public policy team