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Room to breathe

Room to breathe
10 Mar
As Uber shores up its African stronghold, how will urban air quality fare?

Air pollution is not the first issue that comes to mind when you think of the African continent, but a study commissioned by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) suggests that dirty air is actually contributing to over 700,000 premature deaths in the region annually, more than both malnutrition and contaminated water. In sub-Saharan Africa, particularly the west where emissions are carried by prevailing winds, booming growth is driving increases in air pollution.

In 2012, a World Health Organisation (WHO) report found that most air pollution in Africa originates disproportionately from inefficient fuel use and indoor stoves, however, as shown in this real-time map, the atmosphere is saturated with dangerous pollutants associated with vehicle emissions; carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and tiny PM2.5 particulates.

The WHO has linked air pollution with heart disease, strokes and numerous other respiratory illnesses, even in developed cities; over 9,000 premature deaths are attributed to it every year in London aloneaccording to a report from King’s College London. Getting cars off the road is therefore a paramount concern for the well-being and development of places like Nairobi, Lagos and Accra: fast growing megacities where environmental or congestion regulation is almost non-existent.

Step forward Uber. Currently operating in over 580 cities globally, sub-Saharan Africa is now one of its fastest growing markets. In under two years it has bloomed around twin hubs in Kenya and Nigeria, and is now expanding into Ghana, Tanzania and Uganda. In Lagos – home to over 21 million people – Uber grew 30 per cent faster in its first 16 months than it did following its launch in London, and despite fragmented protests from the established taxi sector, it shows no sign of slowing.

According to Samantha Allenberg of Uber Africa’s communications department:

‘We see the future less about car ownership and more about car-sharing as smart cities look for smarter solutions to increase mobility while reducing pollution, infrastructure costs and environmental impacts.’

Allenberg claims that by decreasing the reliance on car ownership, Uber aims to:

‘cut pollution and work towards cleaner cities, helping reduce congestion by complementing public transit.’

Furthermore, Uber’s supposed commitment to electrification means that the cars which do remain on the road could be pumping out fewer toxic substances. In South Africa, ‘UberGREEN’ was recently piloted, for example, partnering with Nissan and BMW to promote 100 per cent emissions-free transit at the click of a button, and similar schemes have been met with success elsewhere.

Electrification hinges on technological developments that may be some way off, however. Some believe that the cultural shift towards ‘shared-mobility’ has the potential for far more immediate impacts. Speaking with the Inter-American Development Bank, Professor Susan Shaheen of Berkeley University said that:

‘Shared-mobility comes in many different forms; car-sharing, bike-sharing, on-demand ride services, courier network services. There’s a long history in the literature, particularly in the area of car-sharing that round-trip car-sharing can lead to up to a 30 per cent reduction in vehicle miles travelled and approximately the same in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.’

Professor Shaheen, co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Centre (TSRC), and her fellow researchers will be utilising anonymised data obtained for the first time from on-demand ride services to analyse trends in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington DC. The study, due to be published this month, aims to quantify whether services such as Uber are living up to their grand environmental claims.

Smog in NairobiAir pollution in Nairobi (Image: John Wollwerth/Shutterstock)

There are problems with generalising the results of their research, however. UberGREEN was merely a promotional campaign to raise awareness, and taking fossil fuels off the road takes time. Uber has appeared willing to make concessions to local economies: even in thriving Nairobi, Lagos or Accra, bank accounts and mobile internet are not prevalent, and to stimulate demand the transaction policy was relaxed to include cash and M-PESA mobile payments. The issue is that on the supply-side, vehicle standards were also dropped. Uber may champion the use of low-emissions hybrid vehicles but they are by no means mandatory: throughout the sub-Saharan region, any four-door car manufactured after 2006 is accepted.

Furthermore, while car-sharing services – such as Zipcar where users flexibly rent vehicles by the hour – have been shown to demonstrably reduce the number of cars on the road, on-demand ride services such as Uber occupy a somewhat more ambiguous area in the market. Uber’s ride-sharing function ‘UberPOOL’ is only available in a few select cities around the globe, and was unavailable anywhere on the African continent at the time of writing. Research from the TSRC has found that a shared vehicle at full capacity can take anywhere between nine and 13 cars off the road, however the data detailing the use of these services is typically kept under lock and key.

It will be enlightening to see the results of the latest research, however until then, the claims that Uber complements better public transit systems remain unsubstantiated.

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