Uber partnerships with car-rental startups could increase congestion, experts say

Uber has entered into partnership with at least two companies in Toronto that rent cars to Uber drivers. But experts say it could lead to increased congestion on the city’s streets.

Whether the arrangement will actually attract more drivers isn't yet clear

Uber has entered into a partnership with a Toronto company that rents cars to Uber drivers. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

A recent set of partnerships between Uber Canada and various car-rental startups aimed at making it easier for people without cars to drive for the ride-hailing company could lead to more congestion on Toronto streets, experts say.​

The partnerships involve companies that rent vehicles to Uber drivers for weekly or monthly fees that include maintenance, insurance and other costs. Their aim is to get more people to drive for Uber by making it easier for those who don't want to buy a car or who can't get financing. 

"If you are making it easier for more and more drivers to become Uber drivers, especially in the context of single-occupancy trips, it will contribute even more negatively toward congestion," Bilal Farooq, a professor of transportation engineering at Ryerson University, told CBC Toronto.

It's concerns like this that prompted a heated debate in New York City, that culminated Wednesday with the city deciding to cap the number of Uber and other ride-hail vehicles that can operate in the city.​ 

Splend, an Australian car-rental company, expanded to Toronto late last year. The company owns a fleet of Kia Sportages and rents them out for $250 per week, according to the company's website. 

"We want to help drive opportunity and accessibility," said Scott Watson, head of operations at Splend, in an emailed statement to CBC Toronto. "We are achieving this by reducing the barriers of entry for prospective drivers who may otherwise not have access to a vehicle."

Uber also has a partnership with Autzu, a Toronto-based "drivesharing startup," which offers similar services to Splend, except that it charges by the hour.

"Services like Splend partner directly with drivers to offer them vehicles," Xavier Van Chau, public affairs lead for Uber Canada, told CBC Toronto in an email. "These drivers may not be able to purchase or lease a vehicle, making the opportunity to get behind the wheel through Splend particularly attractive."

Making it easier for people to become Uber drivers it could mean more cars on the city's streets, says Bilal Farooq, a professor of transportation engineering at Ryerson University. (CBC)

More options, more congestion

So, what do partnerships like this mean for Toronto?

For one thing, ride-hailing services can have a positive impact in areas that are under-served by public transit, according to Farooq. He said they're especially useful for the "first mile, last mile" of transit trips.

"If I am living in Markham and working downtown and I am able to get to the Markham GO station pretty easily through a service that is offering me an on-demand connection, in that context, these services have a very big role to play," said Farooq.

But he also warned it could mean more cars on the city's streets.

"If you look at downtown Toronto right now, it is already congested," said Farooq. "If you are decreasing the barriers for the drivers to bring in more cars on the road that can operate as Uber, you have more trips taking place on these roads."

Studies have shown that ride-hailing services have already increased congestion in major North American cities.

One study of ride-hailing users in Boston found they were not using rides hailed through apps like Uber and Lyft to connect to a subway or other form of public transit, but instead as a separate mode of transportation. This led the study authors to conclude "these commercial services are exacerbating congestion on the region's roadways."

Toronto 'behind the times'

Van Chau, from Uber, said the company's service supports more efficient mobility in cities.

"By providing driver with an alternative to car ownership, we believe that ride-hailing companies can complement public transportation," he said.

Kristine Hubbard, director of operations at Beck Taxi, thinks using rental cars to increase its driver workforce is in "complete contradiction" with Uber's initial claim that its service would make use of existing infrastructure to move people around.

"These ride-hailing services are adding vehicles to our already choking city streets and adding to that traffic and congestion," she said. "To offer these rental vehicles adds more to that." 

Instead, Hubbard says, Toronto should move in the direction of Europe, whose top court in December 2017 ruled Uber is a taxi company. 

"We're behind the times," she said. "Our city has done the opposite, they've actually reduced requirements ... to make it easier for them to operate however it is they want to operate."