Outside researchers to probe environmental impact of Uber, Lyft

Starting Aug. 13, Boston will be the fifth US city to offer UberPOOL.
AP/File

A group of researchers is set to analyze the environmental impact of Uber and Lyft, whose impacts on auto emissions have long been a subject of controversy.

Fans of ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft often argue that they benefit the environment by eliminating the need for people to own a car, but some skeptics say the services could replace eco-friendly alternatives such as public transportation or biking. Experts from the University of California at Berkeley and the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Urban Solutions program said Friday at an MIT conference that they hoped to clear the air.

“All we have right now is anecdotes,” said Amanda Eaken, deputy director of urban solutions at the council. “I think we are all served by understanding what is actually happening with these companies.”

Eaken said Uber and Lyft had agreed to provide user-survey data for the study, which would be funded by a grant from the Hewlett Foundation. The companies might provide other data depending on the methodology the researchers pursue. Eaken said the group hopes to complete its research by summer or fall of 2016.

Susan Shaheen, co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at UC Berkeley, said she hopes to gather at least 2,000 pieces of data from at least two cities to measure the environmental impact of the rides, asking riders information about the car they took, their demographics, and what they would have done if they hadn’t used Uber or Lyft. The ride-hailing companies will send the survey to users and add their own anonymized data on details such as how far drivers had to drive to pick up their passengers, Shaheen said.

The study will focus on cities such as New York, San Francisco, Austin, and Boston, where the ride-hailing companies offer their longstanding ride-on-demand services, as well as the new offerings Lyft Line and UberPool, which allow riders going in the same general direction to share a car and save money. In New York, MIT researchers found the overwhelming majority of cab rides could be shared; results could be similar for ride-hailing companies, but their data is more closely held than taxi trip information.

“There have been many calls for Uber and Lyft to share their data from many, many agencies, so this is sort of breaking new ground,” Eaken said.

Shaheen said researchers had been in talks with the companies for nearly an entire year about the study.

Updated at 11:12 a.m. with more details.