Uber says it wants to lead Europe’s zero-carbon transition in the transport sector, but it’s record is a company that has massively contributed to the pollution of cities.
The Gig Economy Project, led by Ben Wray, was initiated by BRAVE NEW EUROPE enabling us to provide analysis, updates, ideas, and reports from all across Europe on the Gig Economy. If you have information or ideas to share, please contact Ben on GEP@Braveneweurope.com
This series of articles concerning the Gig Economy in the EU is made possible thanks to the generous support of the Andrew Wainwright Reform Trust
As COP26 in Glasgow approaches, carbon intensive industries are coming into focus, and there are few which are more carbon intensive than transport, which accounts for 21% of global CO2 emissions. Decarbonisation of transport should therefore be a key issue for all governments, and it must start in the urban environment, where proximity and density makes walking, cycling, getting the bus or the train to wherever you need to go practical and cost effective.
But is there a role for the private-hire car in this urban green transport mix? Ride-hail giant Uber and its CEO Dara Khosrowshahi would have you believe there is.
Speaking at a “European CEO round table” on “reimagining urban mobility” last month, which was also attended by a representative of the EU Commission working on the green transition, Khosrowshahi made his pitch for Uber being a potential leader of zero-carbon mobility in Europe.
“Ultimately our goal is to replace private car ownership with shared, electric, multi-modal transport at the push of a button,” he said.
Khosrowshahi says Uber plan to be zero-carbon in Europe by 2030, and will have 50% of its cars zero-carbon in seven European cities by 2025.
The Uber CEO’s pitch is not that Uber is an alternative to buses or trains, but that it could be a “gateway to multi-modal transport, putting people reach of public transport, and essentially making it more accessible. There are many public transport deserts in cities, and we think that Uber can help bring water to those public transport deserts.”
Finally, Khosrowshahi called on the public sector to help Uber go green.
“Right now the economics are not quite there to get drivers to make that switch [to an electric vehicle], so both public partnerships and private companies have to lean-in to make the economics work,” Khosrowshahi said, adding that government should subsidise the cost of electric vehicles for private hire drivers.
Let’s put some of Khosrowshahi’s arguments to the test.
Is it greener to book an Uber than to use a private car?
Underpinning Khosrowshahi’s whole argument is that private hire cars are better for the environment than privately owned cars, but an academic study last month in Environmental Science & Technology has found otherwise. Three professors, Jacob W. Ward, Jeremy J. Michalek and Constantine Samaras, from Carnegie Mellon University in the US have quantified the pollution impact of private-hire versus private-owned cars, by simulating what would happen if private hire replaced private-owned car journeys in six US cities.
The study finds that private-hire is less polluting when comparing one private-hire trip to one private-owned car trip, due to the avoidance of “cold starts” and because private-hire vehicles are usually newer and thus more fuel efficient. However, once the wider ramifications of an increase in private-hire cars are introduced into the simulation, private-hire cars end up being more polluting than private-owned cars, with external environmental costs 30-35% greater. This is due to the environmental impact of ‘deadheading’, where private-hire drivers drive around and wait for their next job, as well as the increased congestion, crashes and noise from the additional cars on the road. These external environmental costs are reduced by just 16-17% when the private-hire car is an electric vehicle.
It is interesting that the problem of ‘deadheading’ is also critical to debates about fair pay for private-hire drivers in the gig economy. Drivers can spend 40-50% of their time at work deadheading, which is unpaid. However, the UK Supreme Court verdict in February, which ruled that Uber drivers are workers not self-employed, found that all time at work from log-in to log-out should be paid by Uber, a finding the company has entirely ignored when it agreed tom make its UK Uber drivers employees in March following the Supreme Court ruling.
If Uber did pay its drivers for the whole time they were logged in, they would have to fundamentally alter their operational model, most likely to one whereby drivers operated on scheduled hours, based on predicted demand. In this scenario, drivers would be deadheading significantly less than they are today and there would be significantly less private-hire cars on the roads competing for work, thus reducing congestion. Private-hire cars therefore could be more environmentally-friendly than private cars, but only if the gig work labour model is ditched in its entirety.
A more planned organisation of private-hire cars, where workers are paid based on scheduled hours of work, would therefore be more eco-friendly and would also improve driver pay and financial security.
Does Uber help or hinder public and active transport?
The second premise of Khosrowshahi’s argument is that Uber is a “gateway” to public and active forms of transport, rather than an alternative to them. There is no evidence to justify this claim, in fact the opposite is true.
As Greg Lindsay has written, Uber actively seeks out opportunities to displace public transport with its “UberPool” service. For example, it took advantage of the “Metropocalypse” in Washington, when the metro service was down for some time, to offer pooled fares at less than the price of a metro ticket. UberPool managed to turn a short-term problem for the Metro into a long-term decline in its users.
“The most important question surrounding Uber is not whether it is a platform or a transportation company, or whether its drivers are employees. It’s whether it can only recoup its investors’ billions by building a monopoly (or at least duopoly with Lyft) on the ruins of public transportation – and it may not take much to tear it all down,” Lindsay writes.
US data shows that over the past decade people are travelling more, while use of mass public transport is declining. With the traditional taxi service in crisis, it’s the surge in ride-hail which is increasing the number of cars on the road. Summarising studies at five separate universities on consumer transport preferences, three University of California professors have found that “a significant fraction of ride-hailing customers would have travelled by transit”, as much as one-third in San Francisco and 22 per cent in Denver.
Buses, in particular, are under pressure from Uber. University of California research has found private hire vehicles have reduced bus usage by 6% across the US. In London, TfL has blamed a reduction in bus usage on “slower, less reliable journey times”, which is largely due to increased congestion, to which Uber’s nearly half a million drivers in the city have been a significant contributor.
Unsurprisingly, the Carnegie Mellon University study finds that the problems of private hire car pollution increases threefold when they “displace transit or active transport”.
Is subsidising electric vehicles for Uber drivers a sound use of public money?
If you hadn’t noticed already, Uber’s zero-carbon rhetoric is not altruism; it’s part of a broader strategy to secure ‘partnerships’ with governments and local administrations which would see Uber win outsourcing contracts and secure public subsidies as part of the trillions of public money which will be invested in Europe over the next decade on the green transition.
Would subsidising Uber drivers to purchase electric cars be a good strategy for the green transition? One could feasibly argue that Uber is not going away, and therefore it’s better if Uber cars are electric rather than petrol, but there is at least three good reasons why such a view is deeply misplaced.
First, Uber may not be as permanent as it appears. The company has never secured a profit, and has been described by gig economy expert Juliet Schor as “the lose-est firm in human history”. Khosrowshahi has been busy selling off large chunks of Uber assets as it reins in its ambitions. The point is that government creating a financial incentive for a driver to make a significant personal financial investment in a car with the intention of that car being driven as an Uber would be an incredibly irresponsible use of public money, not least because many drivers realise after they start driving for Uber that it does not offer the sort of financial security that they thought it would and decide to quit.
Second, compared to building electric buses or electrifying rail-lines, there is an enormous gap in value for money in terms of carbon emission reduction per pound invested between public transport and private-hire cars. And as the Carnegie Mellon University study mentioned above shows, even electric private-hire cars contribute significantly to pollution in the urban environment due to congestion and crashes, especially because of ‘deadheading’. While there will surely be a role for electric cars and taxis in the green transition, on a list of priorities for zero-carbon public investment it should come well below a massive transformation in public and active transport infrastructure and accessibility.
Finally, the public sector should not be subsidising any form of employment which is associated with precarious employment and low-pay, as Uber most certainly is. The zero-carbon transition must also be a transition from an exploitative labour market to a socially just one, and that will not come from handing out green subsidies to bad bosses.
The idea of Uber being placed at the centre of Europe’s green mobility transition may seem far-fetched, but in the city of Denver in the United States, you can already purchase your bus and train tickets through the Uber app. The company aims to become the app not just for private-hire cars but for all modes of public transport, and the zero-carbon transition is the wedge it is going to try to use to get there.
Those serious about decarbonising transport should therefore be aware of the facts:
- The rise of Uber over the past decade has so far been a disaster for the environment.
- The company is unwilling to move to an operational model which would reduce ‘dead-heading’ and be more ecologically efficient
- Uber’s plan to get drivers to start paying for electric vehicles out of their own pocket is reliant on public subsidies, not on purchasing the vehicles out of Uber’s own coffers.
- More Ubers means more congestion and pollution, less incentive for people to move to public and active forms of transport, and propping up a gig economy model of industrial relations which is in defiance of numerous Supreme Court rulings.
Uber does not have a plan for going green in the transport sector.