In 2016, Lyft co-founder John Zimmer set a bold goal for the company’s future by claiming most Lyft vehicles would be autonomous within five years. Now the ride-hailing giant has announced another forward-thinking effort—effective immediately, all its rides will be carbon neutral.
“Starting today, your decision to ride with Lyft will support the fight against climate change,” reads a statement published last week from Zimmer and co-founder Logan Green. “This is an intentional move to build into Lyft’s business a strong incentive to pursue shared rides and the displacement of gasoline-powered vehicles.”
As part of Lyft’s Green Cities Initiative, the company’s leadership is working with climate consultant 3Degrees to offset its carbon emissions. This means Lyft is buying millions of dollars of what are known as “carbon credits”—investments in renewable energy companies that will help erase Lyft’s negative climate impact. All of Lyft’s carbon credits will fund U.S. based companies, which the company claims will be equivalent to “planting tens of millions of trees or taking hundreds of thousands of cars off the road.”
As someone who has been trying to figure out how to reduce the climate impact from my own transportation diet, Lyft’s carbon neutral announcement piqued my interest. I wondered: Does it now make sense for people who drive gas-powered cars to switch to using Lyft exclusively?
For advice, I reached out to Jerry Weiland, managing director of the mobility team at the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), a nonprofit focused on clean energy transportation solutions. In fact, RMI is partnered with Lyft on some of its climate initiatives, like the Shared Mobility Principles for Livable Cities, where most major ride-hailing and bike-sharing companies have pledged to “lead the transition towards a zero-emission future.”
Carbon credits are good because these investments help the sustainable transportation industry as a whole, says Weiland, who notes that Lyft’s efforts are “well-intentioned” and “multifaceted” among what cities call transportation network companies (TNCs). So Lyft’s offsets might accelerate electric vehicle infrastructure like charging stations or smarter grid solutions, he says. “It’s definitely better than nothing.”
This announcement also fits into Lyft’s long-range plan, which not only includes automated vehicles but an entirely electric fleet. Currently, Lyft is offsetting the 50 million rides it claims its users take globally each month, but as more of its rides are in electric vehicles (EVs), the company won’t need to offset as much. Buying carbon credits is really just a temporary solution.
But carbon offsets don’t erase externalities like vehicular congestion or particulate pollution, and various studies have revealed that ride-hailing is actually increasing vehicle-miles traveled in cities. So Lyft's cars—your ride—will still be sitting in traffic, producing all sorts of localized negative impacts like longer commute times and worsened air quality.
A more effective approach for Lyft might be focusing on electrifying its fleet now, says Weiland, which would also be more profitable for its drivers.
“Instead of $100 million or whatever Lyft is spending, I’d rather see them take that money to provide incentives for their drivers to purchase or access EVs, and just drive those,” says Weiland. In fact, RMI’s own research shows how TNC drivers that switch to electric vehicles will save gas and maintenance costs up front, and even more money due to the car’s efficiency over time.
Only about 1 percent of Americans currently own an electric vehicle—although sales are increasing every year—but that doesn’t mean more Americans need to buy new cars; it means access to EVs needs to be increased through these types of shared fleets. So the real holy grail here, from a sustainability perspective, is increasing the electric vehicle adoption rate while decreasing car ownership overall—which is something that Lyft has always claimed to be one of its goals.
There are lots of promising ideas on the horizon—like Waymo’s partnership with Jaguar to provide one million electric autonomous rides a day by 2020—but few EV-only ride-hailing fleets operating right now. Since you can’t, as a Lyft customer, “choose” to ride in an electric vehicle—although you might very well end up in one—the next best thing is investing in a low-carbon future by joining Lyft on its path to electrification.
But what does Lyft’s pledge mean to someone who wants to move around a city responsibly today? And should you use Lyft instead of your own fossil-fuel powered car?
In the U.S., transportation recently surpassed power plants as the greatest contributor to climate change, and chances are your motorized vehicle trips (including airline trips) make up the largest chunk of your personal greenhouse gas emissions. Unless you never step foot in a vehicle, or exclusively use an electric vehicle that’s only powered by solar or wind—which, depending on where you live, is more and more likely due to the plunging costs of renewables—you’d have to buy your own credits to offset the impact of getting around town.
Even though it’s fairly easy to do, most Americans don’t offset their emissions, so having it built right into your in-app travel decisions is a good way to reduce your carbon footprint without having to do anything at all. (There are also plenty of other social and ethical impacts that aren’t as easy to offset, of course.)
But the bigger problem for U.S. transportation is the single-passenger car trip. Choosing an offset trip over a ride in your own fossil-fuel powered car is good, but using technology to share that trip is better, says Weiland. “Pooling and sharing rides has more of an impact than carbon credits.” If we’re talking about Lyft, that means using Lyft Line or Lyft Shuttle pretty much exclusively.
If you have a gas-powered car, says Weiland, you don’t necessarily have to get rid of it, but leave it at home and find better ways to accomplish major trips during peak hours—like your daily commute—using walking, biking, or public transit.
Or, if you must drive, also consider a car-sharing membership, where more and more cities are adding electric vehicles to their fleets. In Los Angeles, the city recently launched an electric car-sharing program called BlueLA that’s focusing on serving low-income communities. Joining means your dollars are making a direct local transportation investment—and will help fund cleaner, healthier options for you and your neighbors right away.