Clean ride: Would California’s new electric ridesharing bill kill public transit?

Sacramento commuters have plenty of pre-existing gripes with local buses and trains

This story was made possible by a grant from Tower Cafe.
This is an extended version of a story that appears in the March 1, 2018, issue.

As Uber and Lyft outrun public transit, more carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases get pumped into the air. It’s part of a wider commuting trend that is giving the capital region the eighth-worst air quality in the country, according to the American Lung Association. One state senator is convinced it’s time to turn ride-hailing services fully electric.

Sen. Nancy Skinner, a Berkeley Democrat, introduced legislation that sets a target for companies like Uber and Lyft to replace their fleets with clean-burning vehicles over the next 10 years. The bill would try to accomplish this by setting aside $300 million from the Clean Vehicle Rebate Program.

Not all transportation advocates are convinced of the ambitious bill’s merits. Joel Espino, legal counsel for the economic justice nonprofit Greenlining Institute, stressed that ridesharing services pull dollars from buses and light rail.

“We want to get folks out of cars and into high-occupancy transit,” Espino noted, adding that Skinner’s strategy would actively compete with public transit while dissuading car-pooling and increasing congestion.

The Greenlining Institute has developed electric vehicle access programs to encourage low-income communities to use shared electric vehicles. Espino thinks the state should get behind similar initiatives if it wants to fight inequality in cities, provide good jobs and affordable services, and boost transit use.

Espino’s concerns don’t come in a vacuum: A 2015 study by UC Davis suggested that ride-hailing services do indeed pull ridership from public transit. But Matt Baker, land use and conservation policy director for the Environmental Council of Sacramento, said that Skinner’s bill would make good use of funds that are already meant to help California’s broader goal of putting million zero-emission vehicles on its roads by 2030.

Another factor that could bolster Skinner’s bill in Sacramento is a growing disenchantment with local public transportation. According to the Valley Vision report released in January, 64 percent of respondents living around the Capitol said that transportation is “a critical or serious problem.” That compliant-driven stat is up 36 percent from 2014. Additionally, 41 percent of those polled in the Valley Vision report felt that transportation is getting worse—an assessment that rose 10 percent in the last three years.