Protesters rally in front of Uber headquarters for the Uber and Lyft driver protest on Wednesday, May 8, 2019. (Ellie Doyen/Special to S.F. Examiner)

#UberLyftStrike likely had more impact on public opinion than on traffic

Data shows little change in number of cars in most congested neighborhoods during the labor action

Lyft and Uber drivers in cities around the world including Los Angeles, New York City, Sydney and London switched off their apps on Wednesday, May 8 in a well publicised strike calling for better pay and working conditions.

While the rallying drivers shut down Market Street in San Francisco, home to Uber and Lyft’s headquarters, the strike’s impact on traffic was next to none, data shows.

The San Francisco Examiner asked INRIX, a transportation analytics firm, to crunch traffic congestion data from vehicles and road sensors to measure traffic flow the day of the strike. The firm looked specifically at the north-eastern sector of San Francisco, including downtown, South of Market, North Beach, Chinatown, the Marina and Pacific Heights. This section of San Francisco is where previous studies conducted by the city government have found Ubers and Lyfts clog the city’s streets most often.

Specifically, a 2018 study by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority and the University of Kentucky found that Uber and Lyft vehicles comprise roughly 36 percent of downtown traffic, which bleeds into northeastern neighborhoods.

Theoretically, then, if enough Uber and Lyft drivers shut off their apps in the Bay Area last Wednesday, San Francisco’s downtown core could have seen less traffic.

That didn’t happen, according to INRIX.

Trevor Reed, an INRIX transportation analyst, told the Examiner in a statement that San Francisco’s traffic flow in the north-eastern sector of The City was roughly the same as the previous four Wednesdays.

“There is no discernible difference,” he said. “The volume of Lyft and Uber drivers striking did not reach the scale necessary for it to reduce congestion measurably.”

INRIX did offer a caveat: The firm captured average speeds across the road network, so specific corridors could have seen greater changes in speed “but across the network as a whole, little changed.”

Average speeds in the studied section of San Francisco ranged from roughly 10-12 MPH throughout the day, including peak commute hours, according to INRIX.

Low participation in the Uber and Lyft app blackouts was also seen in the daily trips measured at the San Francisco International Airport, a lucrative source of ride-hail trips that are tracked by SFO officials. Overall ride-hail trips the day of the Uber and Lyft strike were down 7 percent compared to the previous Wednesday, said SFO spokesperson Doug Yakel.

However, he said “passenger volumes were also down compared to the previous Wednesday,” which likely led to that drop.

Uber itself acknowledged the same thing. “We did not seen any significant impact on the reliability of our service (e.g. wait times or percentage of trips surged) last Wednesday compared to the monthly average,” wrote an Uber spokesperson in a statement Tuesday.

While drivers didn’t necessarily see huge participation in their San Francisco app “blackout,” David Latterman, a principal with Brick Circle Advisors who has worked on transportation-related ballot campaigns and political campaigns, said it likely didn’t matter.

“I think the news win is more important,” he said.

Latterman noted the coverage with news websites and TV stations worldwide as well as the statements from leading Democratic presidential candidates, helped the drivers’ message reach people’s ears. Bad driver pay, dwindling benefits and unfair practices against drivers on the app were all on people’s lips last week.

Even the hashtag #UberLyftStrike was among the top trending social media topics last week, reaching into the media stratosphere.

Latterman did add that if Uber and Lyft drivers had been able to demonstrably hurt the corporate giants’ income for a day, that they may have had more bargaining power over pay issues. But still, he said, “They did what they set out to do in terms of public opinion and the press. They sort of punched above their weight class.”

Reaching his riders was all San Francisco Lyft driver Steve Gregg cared about, he said Tuesday.

The Antioch resident is at his breaking point providing for his three children, aged 16, 15 and 13, as Lyft continues to cut drivers’ rates. As he spoke about the difficulty supporting his family, he had to pause to gather his composure.

“I never had a desire to impact Uber financially. I felt that was unrealistic,” he said. “What I did have a desire to do was to spread the word, so more drivers would realize they’re not alone.”

joe@sfexaminer.com

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