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NYC’s Uber cap won’t solve the city’s traffic problem

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What the city really needs is a limit on private cars

New York City Explores Congestion Pricing Options To Ease Traffic Snarls Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Yesterday, after the New York City Council voted to cap the number of for-hire vehicles from services like Uber and Lyft on the city’s streets, Mayor Bill de Blasio issued a statement promising an “immediate benefit” to New Yorkers stuck in traffic: “This action will stop the influx of cars contributing to the congestion grinding our streets to a halt.”

The moratorium on licenses for ride-hailing companies, among other regulations, is being sold as a way to address the city’s soul-crushing vehicular congestion. Especially in a city where Uber and Lyft cars now outnumber yellow cabs four to one, it might seem like freezing the number of those vehicles would solve the problem.

Unfortunately for New Yorkers, it won’t.

The vehicle cap was one of a handful of recommendations in a 2017 report by former NYC Department of Transportation official Bruce Schaller that looked at the impact of ride-hailing on the city. Services like Uber and Lyft are increasing vehicular trips, as Schaller and other similar studies have found, to the tune of 976 additional million miles of driving in New York City between 2013 and 2017. Some of these miles come from users who are switching to for-hire vehicles from other modes of transportation, as well as from the mileage added between trips when drivers travel to pick up passengers.

What’s more, Schaller’s study claims that 60 percent of ride-hailing users said they had used a company like Uber or Lyft to replace a public transit trip at least once. Half of ride-hailing users in New York City’s own mobility survey said the same thing.

But as Zipcar founder Robin Chase eloquently argued in a response to the study on CityLab, Schaller’s study, as well as New York City’s own mobility survey, do not address the major contributor to vehicular congestion: Private cars account for a larger fraction of trips and miles driven than hailed cars, and car ownership is on the rise. Private car trips are very likely replacing transit trips, but not even the Federal Highway Administration’s own travel survey asks Americans if they are choosing to drive their own cars instead of taking transit.

“Special taxes, fees, and caps on ride-hailing vehicles are not the answer,” Chase writes. “My strong recommendation for cities is to make walking, biking and all shared modes of transit better and more attractive than driving alone—irrespective of the vehicle.”

What is the answer, then? Congestion pricing—irrespective of the vehicle.

New York City’s traffic problem is caused by cars—many cars, traveling at peak hours. And not necessarily the cars of New Yorkers. Even though almost half the households in the city own cars, a majority of those car owners don’t use them to get to work on a daily basis. And New York City’s own mobility survey noted that only 35 percent of all New Yorkers have ever used ride-hailing services—fewer than own cars. What’s more, a majority of ride-hailing trips are used for entertainment and recreation, which are usually made at off-peak hours. Only 27 percent of New Yorkers report ever using ride-hailing for commuting.

The “influx of cars” that de Blasio so badly wants to staunch are the private, often single-passenger cars that will still be driven into the city, regardless of the number of Uber and Lyft vehicles. Ride-hailing certainly contributes to a portion of these trips, too, which is what makes congestion pricing such a good solution—it would affect all vehicles making trips into the city during its busiest times.

But the biggest benefit of congestion pricing is what the collected fees could give back to a city in desperate need of a funding source to fix a crumbling subway system. Just 15 years after London first implemented its congestion pricing scheme, it has generated $2.5 billion—all of which has gone to improve public transit options. This included a major investment in bike infrastructure, resulting in a huge uptick in bike trips, which have increased 230 percent since 2000.

If New York City—and its “climate mayor”—wants a more efficient transportation system, what its leaders need to do is support congestion pricing, which would appropriately price the use of its streets for all vehicles. This would not only address the “influx of cars,” it would make the city safer, cleaner, and healthier for the large number of New Yorkers who do not regularly use cars at all.