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Ride-hailing in Boston: Who's in the Back Seat?

Special thanks to Northeastern students Johanna Cimilluca, Hannah Bernstein and Burke Niner for their assistance with the analysis.


Boston and surrounding cities experienced double digit increases in ride-hailing trips over the last several years. These trips - around 80 million in the state and 42 million in Boston - represent a small share of the 7 billion total vehicle trips in Massachusetts (see RideShare in Massachusetts), but are substantial relative to the 400 million public transit rides recorded. In last week’s Globe spotlight report on traffic, ride-hailing was highlighted as a key contributor to congestion.

At Green Streets, we sought to better understand adoption and opinions of ride hailing services among the Boston-area working professionals who logged a commute on our website in October. We worked with a group of four Northeastern students who took this on as their semester project for an environmental policy class.

Of the 1,225 people logging their October commute, 94% responded to the question. Survey participants work across 27 organizations involved in Green Streets’ 2019 Commuter Challenge and represent approximately 30,000 employees.

Adoption of Ride-Hailing Services is Low Among our Boston-area Working Professionals

While Uber and Lyft are ubiquitous on our streets on a daily basis, our sample of Boston-area working professionals aren’t big users of the service. Fewer than 15% of our participants indicated weekly reliance on Uber/Lyft. Usage is higher among those with an urban home address (Somerville, Cambridge, Boston, Brookline), but only 15% of these urban dwellers are using the service at least once a week. The service is used 1 to 3 times a month by just over one-third of those surveyed and a similar percentage use it less than once a month.

This adoption is far below the 68 rides per person in Boston and the 74 rides per person in Cambridge reported in the 2018 RideShare report. This metric would imply that Bostonians use ride share at least weekly. But, are Bostonians and Boston-area commuters primary users of the service? Do we know who is riding in the back seat of Ubers and Lyfts and why?

Usage is Mostly Outside Work

Uber and Lyft aren’t being used for the daily work commute. Seventy percent of our participants use Uber/Lyft to get to non-work events and only 13% report using it to commute to work or school. Almost 20% have other reasons not provided by the survey for why they use Uber/Lyft. We know from the comments shared that a significant share of Uber/Lyft trips are to the airport, especially from Cambridge.

Those Without a Car Use Ride-Hailing More

Correlating car access, work commute mode and ride-hail usage shows that those without reliable car access are more likely to use the service.

Bus Riders and Walkers More Likely to Use Ride-Hailing Services vs. Drivers

Furthermore, those who take the bus or walk to work use ride-hailing more frequently than those who drive or take the commuter rail. In other words, Uber/Lyft users are typically sustainable transportation adopters in their everyday work commutes.

These findings would appear to support Uber/Lyft’s goal of helping people get by without owning a car. Most participants appear to be using ride-hailing on a one-off basis when more sustainable modes aren’t practical.

Sentiment Analysis - Ride Hailing a Net Positive Among our Participants

Participants are twice as likely to view Uber/Lyft as being a positive for Boston than a negative. Fifty-two percent indicate the impact has been somewhat or mostly positive while 26% view the impact as somewhat or mostly negative.

Those who include a bike leg in their commute were the least positive about Uber/Lyft than other groups segmented by mode; 44% of cyclists view the impact as somewhat or mostly positive while 35% say the impact is negative. Drivers were the second most likely to report the impact as negative (28%).

We received over 500 comments in response to our question, with about an equal share coming from those with a negative and a positive view. Many comments included both the pros (easy, reliable, convenient) and cons (more cars on the road, unsafe for bikes). The word cloud below represents all of the comments received. Many comments tied the increase in traffic to Uber/Lyft. The positives included many comments about the improvement of Uber/Lyft over traditional taxis in terms of cost and safety.

A narrower focus on the keywords used shows “Car” as the most cited word. Several noted that Uber/Lyft allowed them to live without a car while others used the term to indicate there were now more cars on the road. Many cited the danger of Uber/Lyft to cyclists, particularly as Uber/Lyft drivers stop in bike lanes (“block”, “stop”, pick-up, drop-off). Finally, many comments indicated that Uber/Lyft was a solution to unreliable public transportation.

Our conclusions

Our group of Greater Boston employees and residents do not use ride-hailing as much as might be expected. Who is using ride-hailing services most? Could it be tourists and visitors? College or university students? Youth?

Anecdotally, and logically, these groups may be the most typical users of ride-hailing. The MBTA system, especially the bus network, is undoubtedly opaque to those new to the city. And transit is often unreliable or unavailable. Accessing a ride-hailing app with one click of a button is clearly easier than investing time and energy learning a new public transportation system, especially for trips that are one-and-done events. Furthermore, these non-work trips may be group trips, when the cost of ride-hailing becomes more economical compared to transit trips.

Better understanding who is riding in the back seats of Ubers/Lyfts and why they chose this service over public transportation could better inform policies designed to manage ride sharing-related congestion and traffic violations. If visitors are the heaviest users, then MassDOT could fund educational campaigns at airports and train stations, convention centers, hotels and wherever visitors pass through to make public transportation more understandable and enticing.

Our most frequent users of ride-hailing are bus riders who use these services primarily outside of their work commutes, presumably outside of rush-hour. Since they already know how to ride buses, one might assume they use ride-hailing because of inadequate bus service. Or because they are traveling in a group when ride-hailing is more financially appealing.

Overall, our participants’ use of ride-hailing and their perspectives show that ride-hailing services do have their place currently in Boston. The findings also clearly show a need for improvements in public transportation. Transit improvements will benefit everyone, including drivers and cyclists. As Uber/Lyft services (or similar types of tech-enabled on-demand services) become even more integrated into our transportation landscape, policy makers need to better manage their use to ensure they serve as complements to public transportation and not replacements. In addition, we need to make sure they are accessible to those with fewer financial resources who are often those who could benefit from these services most.

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