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Uber and Lyft just got a big boost from the public transportation world

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Fear not the ride-sharing

For years, ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft have claimed that one of their primary goals was to reduce the number of cars on the road. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has gone a step further, saying he wants to "make car ownership a thing of the past." This week, new research from a leading transportation organization appears to back that up. Compared to people who haven't used any shared modes of travel beyond public transportation, people who use Uber and Lyft own nearly half a car less — 1.5 versus 1.05 cars per household — according to a survey conducted by the American Public Transportation Association, which was released Tuesday.

APTA surveyed 4,500 people from seven major cities: Austin, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, DC. What they found was more good news for Uber and Lyft than the two companies likely even thought possible. In addition to owning less cars, people who use ride-sharing services were more likely to also use public transportation and spend less on transportation overall than those that don't.

"a better body by using ridesourcing"

Ten percent of those surveyed were identified as "supersharers": people who use some combination of car-sharing, ride-sharing, or bike-sharing in their daily commutes, to run errands, or for social trips. Approximately 57 percent of those supersharers said they used public transit most often, followed by car-sharing, bike-sharing, and finally ride-sharing. This seems to suggest that Uber and Lyft, despite their claims of egalitarianism, are still seen as something of a luxury product by many people.

The study even found that using app-based car services, along with subways and buses, can lead to better health — almost half of all respondents said they are more physically active since using ride-sharing. "You can actually get a better body by using ridesourcing in conjunction with public transit," said Michael Melaniphy, president and CEO of APTA. "You can't beat that."

Solving the last-mile challenge

Transit agencies have traditionally been skeptical of Uber and Lyft, especially as those services unveil new features like carpool rides to directly compete with public buses. But ride-sharing, car-sharing (like ZipCar and car2go), and bike-sharing all present unique opportunities for public transit agencies looking to solve the "last mile challenge" — a phrase used to describe the difficulty in getting people between transit hubs and their homes. That could translate into integrating Uber and Lyft's software into transit apps, or creating a seamless payment system for all these services.

Uber and Lyft love this APTA's survey so much, they laid aside their differences to join a press conference in Washington, DC Tuesday highlighting the results. Emily Castor, director of transportation policy at Lyft, even went so far as to call her company and Uber "allies" in the broader goal of improving transportation services for the public. And David Plouffe, chief policy advisor at Uber, said the findings underscore the need for cities to embrace ridesharing, rather than try to impede it.

"The math is the math. Our cities are already bursting at the seams," Plouffe said. "Congestion is hurting our businesses, our GDP, our lifestyle. It's only going to get worse. There's going to be more people coming into cities over the next decade and over the next three decades ... The only way our society can deal is to have fewer cars on the road and for those cars that are on the road to have more people in them."

Uber and Lyft only signed on after learning the study was positive

But Uber and Lyft only signed on to the study after learning that its findings leaned positively toward their businesses. Sharon Feigon, executive director of the Shared-Use Mobility Center, which conducted the survey under the guidance of APTA, told The Verge that neither company would share its data with the researchers. Feigon said her team was given access to Uber and Lyft's application program interface, or API, which its publicly available through both companies software integration project, to build models using wait-times and surge pricing as surrogates for demand. "We had to figure out to get the information," Feigon said.

Feigon also said the survey was distributed by the transit agencies and ride-sharing companies in each of the target cities to their users to get responses. Therefore the respondents were a random sampling of people who use these modes of travels, rather than a sampling of "the whole universe."

Other research teams are also looking at the societal and environmental impact of Uber and Lyft. The National Resources Defense Council and the University of California-Berkeley are conducting a yearlong study right now, with a specific focus on the effects of those companies on personal car ownership. Bruce Schaller, a New York City-based transportation consultant, said that study is likely to be more definitive than APTA's survey. Still, Schaller said the fact that a national group representing the interests of public transportation would openly embrace companies like Uber and Lyft is fascinating.

"There's been a lot of concern in the transit industry about the impact of Uber and Lyft," he said. "Initial, deep concern that's mellowed considerably. A lot of transit agencies have been discussing, or implementing partnerships of some variety. Which is another subject here: the potential of such partnerships to help transform the types of transportation offerings."