Categories: Green Space

Are Uber and Lyft putting San Francisco’s health at risk?

When former Mayor Gavin Newsom required The City’s taxi fleet to use fuel-efficient vehicles in 2008, it was national news. Cities around the country, once again, hailed San Francisco an environmental leader. In two years, the Green Taxi Ordinance reduced gas consumption by 2.9 million gallons per year, lowered greenhouse gas emissions by 35,000 tons annually, and saved drivers money in gas costs and brake repairs.

But The City’s innovative policy has been disrupted. Ride-hail companies, like Uber and Lyft, are not only driving business away from The City’s green taxi fleet; they are allowing drivers from all over the state to oversaturate San Francisco streets with any type of car they want. Last week, a Lyft driver from Santa Cruz picked me up in a Jeep. A few years ago, Uber sent a Hummer to drive me home.

I don’t know how many Uber and Lyft cars are gas-guzzlers. But I assume these companies’ fleets aren’t as good for the environment as the nearly 100 percent fuel-efficient taxis they’re replacing. And that’s surprising because these companies say they want to help the environment by reducing personal car ownership. Why don’t they also want to continue The City’s mission to reduce gas consumption and greenhouse gas emissions?

Of course, the government could make them. The California Public Utilities Commission tells utilities what percentage of their energy must come from renewables. Can’t it also require ride-hail companies, which it has authority to regulate, to use fuel-efficient vehicles? No, Constance Gordon at the Commission told me, the CPUC needs express legislative direction.

The City could also extend the Green Taxi Ordinance to ride-hail companies. But Tim Papandreou at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, told me The City doesn’t have clear authority to regulate and data to guide
regulations. He assured me the SFMTA is “trying to figure out a way through this,” but data is key. “Without data we can’t make statements.” he said.

Fortunately for everyone, Uber and Lyft recently decided to share their data. In the past, the companies blocked attempts to gather information. A few months ago, Uber fought back when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio attempted to cap its growth while its environmental impacts were studied. But now the company is willingly handing their data to researchers at UC Berkeley and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Dr. Susan Shaheen of Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center was giddy about the study when we spoke. “They may be wondering the same questions we are,” she explained when I asked her why the companies decided to give her data. “I don’t think anyone knows the full environmental impacts of these services — not even the companies.”

I’m as excited as Dr. Shaheen at the prospect of understanding Uber and Lyft’s environmental impacts. And it’s great the SFMTA will finally be able to say their cars aren’t as good for the environment as San Francisco taxis. But isn’t this obvious? Why does San Francisco need a study to find replacing fuel-efficient taxis with other cars increases gas consumption and harmful emissions?

If The City wants to accomplish the Green Taxi Ordinance’s goals, perhaps SFMTA and the Mayor’s Office should figure out a way to require Uber and Lyft to use fuel-efficient cars in The City. Our city is famous for challenging authority and leading environmental policy.

Alternatively, Lyft and Uber could regulate themselves. If the companies want to help the environment and avoid laws, they could require drivers to use fuel-efficient vehicles and subsidize the transition with their billions of dollars. When Lyft launched Lyft Plus, it offered to pay new SUV drivers a monthly stipend. Why not pay drivers who switch to hybrids and electric cars extra and avoid potential fights with city halls?

If everyone wants to reduce gas consumption and harmful emissions, this shouldn’t be a hard issue to solve, especially in an innovative city like San Francisco.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist, who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time..

Robyn Purchia
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Robyn Purchia

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