Ride sharing can help state meet climate-change goals

Car-sharing advocates rally at the state Capitol last summer against burdensome state regulations.
Car-sharing advocates rally at the state Capitol last summer against burdensome state regulations.

The sharing economy – the idea that we can access goods and services more affordably and with less effort by sharing the costs and responsibility with others – is taking hold, especially in transportation.

PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts the global sharing economy could grow to as much as $335 billion in the next 10 years. California is poised to reap many early benefits of the sharing economy because three of the biggest brand names – Airbnb, Uber and Lyft – are based in the Bay Area.

Much has been written about the sharing phenomenon from a consumer and business perspective, but little has been said about the environmental and social impacts of these rapidly growing enterprises, especially in transportation in California.

According to AAA, the average motorist spends up to $9,000 per year on gas, repairs and insurance, while their vehicle sits unused up to 23 hours a day. Private cars are an increasingly losing proposition, especially for low-income households. Unlike a home or a college education, investing limited resources in a vehicle does not yield meaningful returns.

Freeing up that cash for other – and more socially beneficial – purposes is one of the reasons NRDC Urban Solutions and its partners are committed to ensuring that shared mobility options are more available, including in low-income neighborhoods and among older and disabled populations.

We are excited, for example, about the Electric Vehicle Low-Income Carshare program in Los Angeles. Along with other project partners, we look forward to helping the city implement a program to help low-income residents avoid the high costs of car ownership.

Car sharing and bike sharing have demonstrated promising social and environmental gains. For instance, for each car-sharing vehicle in use, on average there are nine to 13 fewer cars on the road because members either sell a car or postpone buying one. Households using car-sharing services reduce their monthly transportation costs, and their emissions drop between 34 percent and 41 percent a year, according to a UC Berkeley study.

As California experiences the impact of a rapidly changing climate (from raging wildfires to a punishing drought), those emission savings are more important than ever. Gov. Jerry Brown has made clear his commitment to lead the nation by setting aggressive targets for cutting carbon pollution and fossil fuel dependence. Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De León has proposed legislation, which we strongly support, to reduce petroleum use in cars by as much as 50 percent over the next 15 years.

NRDC Urban Solutions and our partners believe that car sharing and other shared mobility options could help California achieve its carbon-reduction targets. One innovative and popular technology is “ride-splitting” – matching passengers traveling along the same route to split rides and their cost. By connecting people in real time to split rides, these services could provide an alternative to single-occupant vehicle driving. After launching these services just a year ago, Lyft and Uber now report that more than half of their rides in the Bay Area are ride-splitting.

Of course, much more research is needed to fully understand shared mobility’s social and environmental impact, and important policy challenges remain to ensure public safety and resolve issues around insurance and fair labor practices.

Still, based on the early data we have seen, we encourage the Legislature and the governor to acknowledge in Senate Bill 350 the role that shared mobility may be poised to play in helping to achieve carbon-reduction goals.

Amanda M. Eaken is transportation director for the urban solutions program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Susan A. Shaheen is co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley.