City should incentivize electric and shared ride-hailing

If San Franciscans want more electric vehicles on city streets, there is a small and important action they can take this year: offer ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft an incentive to electrify their rides.

Ride-hailing companies already are coming under public scrutiny because they are increasing congestion and pollution. Last year, the legislature passed a law (AB 1184-Ting) that would allow San Francisco to impose fees on rides to help reduce congestion. Under the law, the city can add a small fee of up to 3.25 percent to single rides. Customers who share rides, thereby causing less congestion and pollution, could be charged a 1.5 percent fee. The law allows, but doesn’t require, the city to set a lower fee for rides provided by zero-emission vehicles, namely battery or fuel cell electric vehicles.

San Francisco voters may have the opportunity to approve these fees if a measure being developed by Supervisor Aaron Peskin and his colleagues on the County Board makes it onto the ballot this November.

Setting a lower fee for rides in cars without tailpipe emissions is the right thing to do and will help incentivize ride-hailing companies to more quickly adopt electric vehicles. It’s a simple and easy climate action city leaders should take when drafting the proposed measure.

Transportation is the largest source of California’s climate emissions and a major source of air pollution. We can’t allow the convenience of ride-hailing to worsen our congestion, pollution and climate problems.

Climate action at the local level is critical to meeting state targets. If San Francisco adopts a fee that incentivizes electric rides, it will be the first jurisdiction in the country to do so. Of the cities and states that already impose fees on Uber and Lyft, only New York offers a reduced rate for shared rides. This type of incentive is an excellent example of how cities can take control of increased emissions and congestion from ride-hailing services.

In the span of about eight years, app-based ride-hailing has gone from non-existent to ubiquitous in major metro areas. In 2017, San Francisco officials reported there were more than 150,000 trips taken each day within the city via Uber or Lyft. That’s roughly 15 percent of all vehicle trips within the city and more than 10 times the number of taxi trips.

Based on the minimal public information the California Public Utilities Commission makes available on ride-hailing company revenue, San Francisco could generate tens of millions of dollars per year.

Two years ago, Lyft committed to provide 1 billion miles of travel in self-driving, electric vehicles powered by 100 percent renewable energy by 2025. This is a welcome announcement and is bolstered by the company’s more recent commitment to offset all climate emissions from existing rides.

Yet it is estimated that just 4 percent of the vehicles on Lyft’s platform would need to be electric to reach that 1 billion-mile mark. The sustainability teams at both Uber and Lyft are taking steps to increase electrification, but their drivers use electric vehicles at one-third the rate of California as a whole.

Local government can take steps to collectively push these companies further and faster. London’s fee on vehicle pollution, for example, has prompted Uber to set a goal of operating only electric vehicles in the city by 2025.

If we are to virtually eliminate heat-trapping, carbon emissions by mid-century, which climate scientists say is needed to limit the worst impacts of global warming, we must make profound changes to how we move people and goods around the state.

San Francisco should set an example for the country on how to govern ride-hailing services and ensure every ride gets us closer to a clean transportation system. Incentives – like a lower fee for zero-emission cars and shared rides – is one creative way to make a difference.

Dr. Jimmy O’Dea is a senior vehicles analyst in the Clean Vehicles program at the Union of Concerned Scientists and an expert on heavy duty transportation policies.

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