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Can Uber and Lyft Move Cities Toward a More Sustainable Future?

Both companies have made big commitments to prove their eco-friendliness, but there's still debate over whether they will put the environment ahead of their bottom lines.

In a series of announcements from Uber and Lyft this week, the ride-hailing rivals are doubling down on their fight against private cars—and making some big claims about their eco-friendly bona fides.

Uber announced a $10 million commitment over the the next three years to sustainable transportation, including a $250,000 donation to the non-profit SharedStreets, which uses an open-data platform to help cities better map their streets, aiding in transit planning. Another chunk of that money will go toward their ongoing campaign to press New York City lawmakers to impose congestion pricing policies on Uber's biggest market, and beyond. In a blog post, Uber Chief Executive Officer Dara Khosrowshahi wrote that the company is "ready to do our part to help cities that want to put in place smart policies to tackle congestion—even if that means paying money out of our own pocket to pass a tax on our core business."

Uber's also pumping up the non-car side of its business: Having acquired the electric bikeshare start-up JUMP earlier this year, the company will also be launching charging stations for electric bikes while donating to advocacy groups like People for Bikes.

Meanwhile, arch-rival Lyft is engaged in its own campaign to claw the steering wheel out of America's collective hands. On Wednesday, the company expanded its "Ditch Your Car" program that started in Chicago to 35 cities. Participants accepted in the program—there will be 2,000 lucky winners nationwide—must agree to give up their private vehicles for roughly a month starting October 8th in exchange for free rides with Lyft, local car-sharing companies, and public transit.

In Washington, D.C., for example, a participant can get $300 worth of Lyft rides, month-long memberships to the car- and bike-sharing programs Zipcar and Capital Bikeshare, plus unlimited rides on the Metro system—altogether worth $746.

For Paul Mackie, director of communication and research at Mobility Lab, which studies transportation behavior and policy, the announcements are another sign of how these companies are adopting roles as "societal partners" rather than just ride-hailing services—ones that can change the way public transit is marketed to the masses. In moving into the bike- and scooter-sharing markets, Uber and Lyft are also encouraging more people to ponder driving alternatives, and making it easier for them to change their behavior.

Lyft's campaign resembles the new subscription service the firm is experimenting with in Salt Lake City, in which participants pay a flat $200 every month for 30 rides. But by integrating bikeshare and public transit, Lyft's "Ditch Your Car" initiative goes one step further, potentially demonstrating how public transit agencies could benefit from a new payment model. "You think of these other smart industries—like Netflix or food recipe subscriptions—those are working and its showing that its what people want," Mackie said. "Why is public transit is so slow to have that model?"

Yet despite their efforts to market themselves as champions of greener, more sustainable mobility (see also Lyft's earlier pledge to go carbon-neutral), Uber and Lyft retain plenty of skeptics. Abundant research has shown how for-hire vehicles have contributed to traffic congestion, making up as much as 50 to 80 percent of traffic flow in New York City, for example. In a scathing Twitter thread, Sidewalk Lab's head of policy and communication, Micah Lasher, pointed out that Uber's promotion of congestion pricing represents another example of a company trying to tackle "negative externalities" they themselves have caused. "[T]hey respond by paying out relative chump change in an effort to distract, buy love, and change the narrative," he wrote. "It's a very old-fashioned and obvious kind of influence-buying, and perhaps that's what makes it so jarring. Nothing innovative here."

(Indeed, for comparison's sake: The same week Uber made its $10 million commitment, the company also settled a lawsuit over the cover-up of the 2016 data breach for $148 million.)

"It would be naive for anyone to think that Uber and Lyft aren't thinking about what's best for their bottom line," Mackie said. The two companies also want a seat at the policy-making table, with both ramping up their lobbying spending over the last few years. (Uber's backing of congestion pricing, as CityLab previously reported, could be a win-win for both company and city.) Uber is still scrubbing its brand after the multiple scandals associated with former chief executive Travis Kalanick, while its smaller competitor Lyft is sticking with its famous "better boyfriend" strategy, donating to the American Civil Liberties Union and giving voters free rides to the polls.

But the companies are still leaving out the one thing cities really want: data. Uber's gift to SharedStreets may be a gesture toward handing over more of this precious resource, and Mackie thinks this could be another win-win for both sides. "Cities have curb space and parking—things that could really help Uber and Lyft," he said. "We like to think that if they did share their data, then the governments can work with them to make cities much nicer working grounds."

And Mackie also credits Uber and Lyft with encouraging more people to consider sustainable transit options. Despite the rise of ride-hailing, Americans are largely still holding on to their private cars, and the concept of shared mobility remains novel to many. "So it's another thing to be a bit of cheerleader for Uber and Lyft because we want them to incorporate this sharing mindset in all of us," he said. "It's a noble experiment in behavioral change."

This story originally appeared on CityLab, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to CityLab's newsletters and follow CityLab on Facebook and Twitter.