With Congestion Getting Worse, City Wants to Stem Flood of Uber Licenses

The de Blasio administration and the City Council want to slow the growth in new black car licenses over the next year. With companies like Uber adding tens of thousands of black cars to the mix over the past few years, mainly in the most congested parts of Manhattan, the city wants to get a better handle on how the industry is affecting traffic.

Are for-hire vehicles like Uber making Manhattan traffic worse? The city thinks so, and wants to slow down new licenses to study the issue. Photo: Clemens v. Vogelsang/Flickr
Are for-hire vehicles like Uber making Manhattan traffic worse? The city wants to slow down new licenses to study the issue. Photo: Clemens v. Vogelsang/Flickr

“The rate at which new cars are coming on the road is tremendous. I think it’s something we all see traveling around the streets of Manhattan,” Taxi and Limousine Commissioner Meera Joshi said on a conference call this afternoon [PDF].

The for-hire vehicle fleet, which includes Uber and other black cars but not yellow or green taxis, has grown 63 percent since 2011. Over the past year, the city issued 2,000 new for-hire vehicle licenses each month, 64 per day. The surge has swelled the for-hire fleet from 38,000 to 63,000 vehicles since 2011. That’s 25,000 more vehicles in constant circulation.

Joshi said new app-based services have increased overall demand for car travel, with the growth of for-hire trips outpacing a drop in trips by medallion taxis. “The pie has grown,” she said. “The number of people that want to take for-hire vehicles from place A to place B has grown.”

While TLC has collected trip data from the city’s 13,587 yellow taxis for years, it only began collecting less-detailed information on for-hire trips last year. Crunching the new numbers, the city found that the fastest-growing for-hire companies do 72 percent of their business in Manhattan south of 60th Street.

“What happens to congestion in Manhattan when you start adding lots of new vehicles to the fleet, and they do most of their work in Manhattan?” Joshi asked. “It highlighted some of the negative externalities when we have a concentration of traffic in an already-dense area.”

There are early indications that this crop of black cars is making congestion worse. After seeing average speeds on Manhattan streets creep upward in recent years, traffic speeds dropped to 8.51 mph last year, DOT said, a 9 percent decline from 2010. Rush hour MTA buses were also 5 percent slower last year than they were in 2013, DOT said. Manhattan bus ridership has also suffered, dropping 5.8 percent last year.

To get a better handle on the data, the city is proposing to cut down on new for-hire vehicle licenses over the next year while it prepares recommendations to deal with the industry’s growth, including potential long-term restrictions on the number of licenses.

Here’s how the slowdown will work: New for-hire vehicles must be affiliated with a base. Under the plan, bases with more than 500 or more vehicles will be able to grow by 1 percent over the next year, bases with between 20 and 499 vehicles will be able to grow by 5 percent, and small bases with 19 or fewer vehicles may grow 15 percent over the next year.

The slowdown is necessary “so we’re able to have a clear picture of what it is that we’re studying,” said Council Member Steve Levin, who is sponsoring the legislation with Transportation Committee Chair Ydanis Rodriguez [PDF 1, 2]. “If we didn’t put limits on it, the study would be obsolete by the time it is finished.”

“Part of this study is going to be unpacking what is happening with the congestion. Is it for-hire vehicles? Is it economic growth? Are we doing a lot of construction?” said Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg. “Those are trends where we want to see what’s happening, and they’re clearly related to increased congestion.”

City officials seemed most concerned about the impact the slowdown in Manhattan vehicle speeds is having on bus ridership and air quality. Asked if the study will consider congestion pricing, Trottenberg said it is “not part of what we’re talking about today.” Also not mentioned: the impact of the black car industry on street safety and Vision Zero.

Joshi said TLC has begun working with DOT and the city’s Department of Environmental Protection on the study. Joshi pointed out that London is considering its own curbs on for-hire vehicles. Earlier this year, the Committee for Taxi Safety, which is affiliated with medallion owners, proposed a cap on the number of for-hire vehicle licenses.

Not surprisingly, Uber blasted the city’s plan. “Three months ago, the taxi industry put forward a proposal to protect the status quo, and limit competition and innovation. Today, the de Blasio administration and City Council members revived a nearly identical proposal,” said spokesperson Matt Wing. “Unfortunately, this would reverse improvements made by Uber and others to our transportation system and most notably, stand between New Yorkers looking for work and their opportunity to make a better living.”

An earlier version of this story said 72 percent of FHV trips originated in an area south of E. 96th and W. 110th streets. That percentage of trips actually originate south of 60th Street. The story has been corrected.

  • ohnonononono

    The idea that the increase in the number of Uber vehicles alone is significant enough to slow down buses seems far-fetched to me, but even if they do contribute to general congestion to that extent, exclusive bus lanes, that are actually enforced, would be a lot more effective than trying to limit the number of Ubers.

    The vast majority of congestion issues I witness on the bus are due to institutional vehicles parked in the bus lanes and bus stops. Police, ambulance, Con Ed, construction vehicles, etc.

    Obviously Meera Joshi’s job is to stick up for cabbies and fight Uber. Let’s be real here.

  • BBnet3000

    After seeing average speeds on Manhattan streets creep upward in recent years, traffic speeds dropped to 8.51 mph last year, DOT said, a 9 percent decline from 2010.

    There you have it folks, cycling is faster than driving!

  • Kevin Love

    “…traffic speeds dropped to 8.51 mph last year, DOT said…”

    So we can eliminate congestion and double traffic speeds with a car-free island of Manhattan.

  • Joe Enoch

    If only there was a way to reduce congestion that wouldn’t interfere with innovative forms of transportation such as uber….

  • Simon Phearson

    Indeed. Think, think… hmm… trams to Staten Island? Ferries to Rockaway Beach?

  • Andres Dee

    I hope that if the city does choose to limit black cars or Uber, it does not repeat the mistake of taxi medallions: Creating and protecting an investment vehicle in which the city barely shares in their appreciation (medallion transfers were not taxed by the city for decades and today at only 5%, not much more than what banks charge to process credit cards). Licenses should be subject to expiration and/or recurring fees, payable to the city, commensurate with their value.

  • AnoNYC

    Congestion pricing…

  • Canonchet

    Uber may be quicker more convenient than taxis in many NYC areas and more ‘innovative’ technologically, but it also represents a huge potential expansion of the town-car-ization of upper-income avoidance of public transportation, increasing congestion of the streets that are built and maintained with public money without contributing commensurately to those costs or those of city buses and subways – ultimately, more privatization of public space. There are other good reasons to push back against Uber – such as their bullying tactics against critical journalists and local politicians and their circumvention of labor and tax law through their ‘individual contractor’ fictions – but this issue is much broader than the behaviosr or misbehavior of any one company. The question is whether cars transporting passengers for a fee are simply private enterprise or a public service. For example: Would an Uber driver face suspension of a driver-for-hire permit if he/she declined a customer request to go to the Bronx?

  • Bolwerk

    I think you’re worrying too much. Uber doesn’t let upper income people shortcircuit traffic congestion anymore than they could before. I doubt they’re making a huge difference in demand for road usage – though, I admit, a small difference could still have a big impact on traffic congestion.

    They seem like a shitty company with shitty ethics, but they probably aren’t exactly an existential threat to transit or other urbanist principles. They aren’t exactly promoting them either.

  • Mike

    I don’t think the (very appropriate) concern is the upper income population short-circuiting congestion. The issue is that Uber et al undercutting taxi prices has an effect on mass transit demand, not just taxi demand, as evidenced by the fact the hire-car growth outpaced the decrease in taxi demand. A lot of the new rides formerly would have taken the train.

    Since our society considers money political speech, Uber at al have effectively reduced the reliance of the upper-middle class on mass transit, and therefore voices of support. Leave the working class with a half-broken, underfunded system.

  • Bolwerk

    Transit demand has been trending upward almost every year in the USA (2014 was a record), and NYC isn’t really any different. If I had to guess, I’d say the upper middle class is driving a lot of that.

    Yes, the working class is left with an underfunded system, but I still don’t see much correlation with Uber here.

  • Mike

    It’s not total demand, but demand among those to whom politicians actually pay attention. I’m not saying demand isn’t rising overall, but any system that has the most well-off users siphoned off doesn’t have a good long-term outlook. Here in SF it’s pretty obvious that this is a problem – we recently had a campaign trying to get local board members to even use public transit at all. I know east coast is a little different, with Biden / Amtrak being an example, and I think Bloomberg did the subway thing?

  • Atm

    I think city should look in to medallion system law that was made in 1930’s. This is a very old and not fit for present time. Things have changed revolutionary over the century. Also, if we look into the medallion business we find numerous amount of problems, for example driver don’t get paid, labor law violations, poor customer service, poorly designed environment, we heard about Woodside management, sls management taxi garages scandal and many others. In the tax system, revenue collection for city decrease many many problem in medallion system. 3/4 trips are done by FHV cars nowadays which proves New Yorkers welcome with FHV vehicles and refused medallion system cars. One person owns a thousand medallion license in a different company’s name or a cartel system, which is also a big harm in the yellow taxi. Drivers don’t own a medallion generally but few group own most of them, where it suppose be opposite. On the other hand Uber has made a revolution in NYC taxi industry. Lot of people mix medallion with Uber concept, Uber is not a taxi company, Uber has brought a different business concept and has introduced it to the NYC and it worked out successfully. Uber drivers are content, they see their income as they earn instantly, they get money right into their pocket as soon as they complete a fare. In medallion market drivers get credit card money at the end of the week, in fact money goes into garages pocket then they pay drivers, in this system often garages steal small amounts from driver. We have heard this from many medallion drivers. My intention is not to praise Uber and go against medallion market but giving a picture. So, City authority should do something better for New Yorkers not particularly Uber or medallion owners.

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