Uber + Public Transit: Changing SoCal’s Car Culture

By Amy Smith and Andrew Salzberg

Los Angeles is often described as the epicenter of America’s car culture. As automobiles became increasingly affordable in the mid-20th century, the streets of LA were flooded with an average of 45,000 new cars a year, and freeways were constructed to accommodate growing geographic sprawl and personal car ownership. Today the Greater LA area is home to some 14 million people spread out over more than 500 square miles, owning an average of 2 cars per household [1]. As a result, residents of the area overwhelmingly rely on driving their own car to get around [2].

In recent years, things have started to change as the city has invested in more public transportation. But it can be hard to reach everyone in an area this expansive. Using public transit alone, only 23% of Orange County residents and 11% of Riverside and San Bernardino county residents have access to transit services with 15 minutes or better frequency [3]. And in Imperial and Ventura counties, there is no transit service at all with this level of accessibility or reliability.

Over the last several years, Uber has started to help fill this gap. We’re excited by the degree to which Uber, which first took off in the dense cores of America’s cities, is now making it easier to get around even in suburban areas. The graph below shows the expansion of our service across the vast LA metro area. We’ve included a map of Manhattan in the lower left corner to provide a sense of scale. Today, riders wait 5 minutes or less to get a ride throughout much of the LA Metro Area — from Ventura to Pasadena to Laguna Beach.

Areas that have five or ten minute Uber wait times across Southern California from January 2013 — January 2016

Many riders are not just using the accessibility of Uber to replace their own car with a private driver, but to complete the first or last mile of a longer journey. By literally picking up where mass transit leaves off, Uber extends the reach of these systems. The map below shows Uber trips that began or ended near Metro stations in LA.

Finally, it’s during off-peak hours, when transit service is closed or running less frequently, that services like Uber really step in to fill gaps in public transit service. We dove into our data in LA to explore this idea further. The graph below shows LA Metro service over the course of a week [4]. While LA Metro is one of many transit agencies serving the Southern California region, the patterns are classical public transit profiles, with transit capacity at its highest during weekday commute hours. It’s during the periods when public transportation services are most limited when Uber activity is at its highest. In the LA metro area, the number of Uber pickups spikes late at night and on weekends.

Analysis of Uber pickups and LA Metro Data (source: LA Metro GTFS data posted March 16, 2016)

By making it easier and faster to get around Southern California without the hassle of driving, Uber and public transit appear to be doing together what neither could achieve on their own: changing life in America’s most car-centric city. And if Los Angeles can reduce its dependence on cars, any city can.

  1. There are roughly 3.2 million households in LA County, and about 7.5 million cars in the same county.
  2. Approximately 75% of commuters travel alone by car, according to http://rtpscs.scag.ca.gov/Documents/2012/final/f2012RTPSCS.pdf
  3. 2012–2035 Regional Transportation Plan/ Sustainable Communities Strategy
  4. GTFS Data Analysis Methodology: The total number of unique trips within each hour was compiled using scheduled trip data made available by LA Metro in General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) format. Any trip with a scheduled stop time within a given hour was included in the total number of “trips in progress” for that hour. The black line shows the percent of total trips hour-by-hour over the course of one week in April as an indicator of relative transit availability over time during a typical week.
  5. Special thanks to LA Metro Service Planning, Scheduling and Performance Analysis for reviewing our GTFS data analysis and providing helpful background on LA Metro’s GTFS data feed.