Study envisions ride-sharing future of transportation in NYC

A new algorithm developed by MIT researchers has found that 3,000 Ubers could satisfy 98 percent of the taxi demand in New York City. But will drivers and passengers get on board?

Mary Altaffer/AP/File
The Uber app displays cars available for a pick up at 100 Centre St. on a cell phone in New York.

Imagine a taxi-less New York City. It isn't hard to do, thanks to a new study.

Swapping Manhattan's iconic yellow cabs for sedans connected to ride-hailing apps could reduce traffic by 75 percent, slash pollution levels, and streamline commutes, according to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

An algorithm developed by the researchers found that just 3,000 four-passenger Ubers could theoretically satisfy 98 percent of New York's taxi demand, with wait times averaging 2.7 minutes, if they were to replace the city's existing 14,000 licensed yellow cabs – provided passengers don't mind carpooling with strangers through services like UberPool and Lyft Line. 

The benefits of this hypothetical carpooling scenario are numerous, according to the team's calculations: lower levels of pollution, shorter and less stressful commutes, and fewer parking structures, to name a few. Furthermore, researchers assert, replacing the taxi system could improve the lives of drivers, who would work shorter shifts for the same amount of pay.

"Ride-sharing services have enormous potential for positive societal impact with respect to congestion, pollution and energy consumption," Daniela Rus of MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), who led the study, said in a press release. "It's important that we as researchers do everything we can to explore ways to make these transportation systems as efficient and reliable as possible."

But some experts who were not involved in the study say that, although the calculations provide valuable insight into the current system's environmental effects, and could help innovators looking for alternatives to the taxi empire, the study may not provide a realistic model for the future of transportation.

The algorithm created by Professor Rus and her team uses data from 3 million taxi rides and works in real-time to reroute cars based on incoming requests. It can also proactively send idle cars to areas with high demand, a feature that they say speeds up service by 20 percent.

While Uber and similar ride-hailing services have come under fire for taking business away from cabs in cities around the world, sparking violent riots in some places, the MIT team says the aim of their study is not to harm the taxi industry. 

"We really see this as an opportunity to improve efficiency and improve the lives of drivers," Rus told The Washington Post. "Instead of working 12-hour shifts, you could work six- or eight-hour shifts. And you would make the same amount of money because it's the same transportation need, it's the same level of payment that flows through the system." 

Others caution, however, that determining a wage for drivers in such a system may prove more complicated in a real world scenario. 

"While it is plausible that drivers in this hypothetical system would earn higher per-hour wages than taxi drivers, it is equally plausible that they would earn similar or lower wages," Brishen Rogers, an associate professor of law at Temple University Beasley School of Law who was not involved with the study, writes in an email to The Christian Science Monitor. "Wage setting is a complicated process with a lot of social and political dynamics, and I am skeptical of all claims about wage rates in hypothetical, radically new business structures." 

Another challenge in turning the hypothetical carpooling network into reality: getting people to want to share their ride with a stranger. 

The MIT study may prove helpful in establishing the "theoretical maximum benefit from ride sharing as a kind of benchmark," Evan Rawley, an associate professor of business at Columbia University, tells the Monitor. He notes, however, that the calculations don't take human behavior into account. 

"The problem is that a lot of people don't want to take a shared ride," he says. "They're describing this ideal world where everybody's perfectly happy to share a vehicle with someone else.... But that's the same problem every public transportation system faces." 

But some industry leaders say they are optimistic that, just as getting a ride from a stranger through ride-hailing services has become the norm in recent years, sharing the backseat with one soon will be, too. 

"I think those barriers have now fallen and people are extremely comfortable with the idea of sharing rides not just with drivers but also with other passengers," Steve Taylor, general manager for Lyft operations in the Washington, D.C., area, told The Washington Post in 2015. "Part of the beauty behind ridesharing is that you get to share part of the day with a stranger."

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