Uber and Manhattan Gridlock Are Rising Together

How responsible is Uber for the 9 percent drop in Manhattan travel speeds that New York City transportation officials reported last month? The answer appears to be: quite a lot. 

Photo: Wikipedia

If — and it’s a big if — the surge in use of Uber and other app-based car services is not offset by a decline in use of yellow cabs and private autos, then three-quarters of the speed reduction can be laid at the feet of Uber, Lyft, et al. That’s according to my “Balanced Transportation Analyzer” (BTA) traffic model that calculates benefits from toll plans like Move NY, but can also assess the impact of almost any traffic-related change in NYC, especially Manhattan.

The finding about Uber’s traffic impact runs counter to the Daily News’ bald assertion in an editorial last Sunday: “From a traffic perspective, a few thousand new cars in Midtown and downtown (where 72 percent of the app cars make pickups) is a tablespoon in a lake.” 

The News would be right if we were only talking about another two or three thousand private autos joining the three-quarters of a million motor vehicles that are driven daily to or through Manhattan’s Central Business District, which would worsen CBD traffic speeds by a minuscule 0.2 percent, according to the BTA. But as the News itself pointed out, Uber now commands some 19,500 cars in the city, a figure that is growing by up to 2,000 a month. Compounding this, each Uber vehicle racks up five to six times as many CBD miles as one private car.

Even allowing that a third of Uber cars are inactive on a typical day, according to the News, that still means the remaining two-thirds are traveling approximately 190,000 miles daily in Manhattan south of 60th Street. (This assumes the average Uber trip consists of two miles with the passenger and half a mile without.) These miles are enough to add 5.7 percent to the 3,385,000 daily CBD “baseline” miles covered by cars, cabs, trucks and buses.

It would take an awful lot of private cars to gum up CBD traffic to the same extent. Indeed, based on my estimate that a typical auto driven into the Manhattan core covers about 2.7 miles before leaving the area, the extra number required would be 72,000 a day. When that number of additional daily cars is run through the BTA, the result is a projected 6.7 percent slowing of vehicular travel averaged across the entire Central Business District.

That 6.7 percent is an upper limit, since at least some of those Ubers are displacing yellow cabs, black cars (corporate liveries), or even private cars, and, thus, not adding to traffic. To what extent, no one knows yet, including DOT, which is embarking on a new CBD traffic study while it puts a hold on new for-hire vehicles (FHVs). But even if just half of Uber rides are additional rather than replacement auto trips, the impact is still noteworthy: 3-4 percent slower travel for everyone in a motor vehicle… and rising.

These aggregate figures are pretty abstract, so let’s bring them down to the level of the average trip. Another nugget from the BTA is that each mile driven by one automobile in the CBD slows down all other vehicles by a combined 10 minutes. (Note that the lost time varies enormously depending on the time of day, from less than half a minute in the middle of the night to as much as 18 minutes between 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.).

Taking into account the value of time, those 10 lost minutes equate to an estimated $7.25 worth of wasted time imposed on truckers, drivers, and passengers (to say nothing of pedestrians and cyclists, whose lost time and added stress from the extra traffic aren’t counted here). Thus, an Uber trip entailing 2.5 miles driven, as estimated above, is imposing an $18 “social delay cost” that easily exceeds the amount paid by the rider.

This vast gulf between Uber’s customer cost and its social cost makes a mockery of the contention that expansion of app-based FHVs is a win-win for everyone but medallion owners and yellow-cab drivers. In reality, adding vehicles to the CBD and much of NYC re-enacts the classic “tragedy of the commons” in which each participant is practically coerced into biting off another chunk of a finite resource until the whole is largely eaten away, leaving everyone with little or nothing.

The antidote to creeping Uber? Capture at least some of the damage from chipping away at CBD street space, by putting a price on it.

This means enacting congestion charges that compel drivers to anticipate the costs their car trip is about to impose. That’s what the Move NY plan does, via a “cordon fee” on cars and trucks entering and leaving the CBD, coupled with a “taxi surcharge” on yellow and green cabs and app-based FHVs (in lieu of the cordon fee).

By my estimates, this plan will put a price on more than 90 percent of all miles driven in Manhattan south of 60th Street. The benefits of reduced traffic and fully-funded transportation infrastructure will ripple across the city and the region.

  • J_12

    I agree with the basic assertion that car trips within the CBD, whether private or for hire, should pay a toll or a fee of some sort. This fee would help allocate a scarce resource, internalize some negative externalities, and improve travel times for those who do need or prefer to drive in this area.

    However, there isn’t enough information to attribute Uber’s contribution to congestion with any accuracy. Traffic is a complex, dynamical system. Many individuals can and do substitute modes based on feedback – people will switch between cars and transit based on the instantaneous amount of traffic, or whether there are delays on the subway. People will switch between yellow cabs and Uber based on a lot of different factors. People will switch between walking and a short cab ride based on the weather or how much stuff they are carrying.

    The point is that without much more granular data, it is impossible to say whether Uber adds to congestion, reduces it, or is neutral – it’s a higher order effect that is going to very difficult to capture in a linear model such as yours. I think it would be better to focus on the overall contribution of cars to congestion, where we do have decent data, and on accurately pricing and enforcing a congestion-charge type fee for all cars.

  • com63

    You should put forward a better model then if this model isn’t good enough. If this is the best model we have (and I’m not sure if it has been calibrated to predict other similar situations), then the results should carry some weight. We have to model things, we can’t just throw up our hands and say it is too complicated to try.

    Also, unrelated, but I think the city should push for Uber and similar ride sharing services to be subject to the same MTA surcharges that taxis are. People treat them like taxis and if they are taking money from cabs, they are taking money from the MTA.

  • As my wife just joked, you watch the newspapers blame closing Central Park above 72nd for this, even though the numbers were reported last month.

  • setb

    Uber blaming is beside the point–get congestion pricing and have all drivers/riders pay. The old monopoly that taxis medallion owners had was a terrible, unfair system–

  • Your model is the best model we have by far, and probably better than what any government officials could come up with in a year’s time, and it is nonetheless full of major caveats and huge assumptions. Your message that the Move NY plan should be implemented is spot on, but it must also be emphasized that merely limiting the number of new FHVs, as the City Council bill seeks, is a stab in the dark at best (and counterproductive at worst) at stemming the increase in CBD congestion.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    mass Motoring is lavishly subsidized. If drivers had to pay The full price Of their driving, very few would Drive

  • MarshallKohl

    Anyways I consider Uber is great service 🙂 I think taxi services should be controlled by companies, not by single drivers. Companies can provide safety, responsibility, I supposse. While travelling Europe and Asia I used http://kiwitaxi.com for private transfers, and I was surprised by the high quality of the service ( Uber is lil bit worse :))

  • Denny

    The horrible management and union greed is taking money away from the MTA. Don’t move next to the airport and then complain about airplane noise.

  • Joe Enoch

    I can’t disagree that Uber has contributed to congestion in Manhattan, but I also think it’s a bad idea to limit its growth. Eventually yellowcabs will be fazed out and technologies like Uber will take over. Do I wish to never see any car on the road in Manhattan? Absolutely! But Uber is the lesser of three evils (uber, taxis and private cars). Unlike TLC, Uber actually will deactivate dangerous drivers and from vast experience, Uber drivers are at least 10x safer than taxis because they held liable by a rating system and a company that won’t blink to eliminate drivers that will tarnish its name.

    Also unlike taxis, Uber legitimately has the potential to take private cars off the road. Example: in my job, I used to have to rent cars in Manhattan all the time because when I needed to go to a less dense neighborhood such as central queens, I knew I wouldn’t be able to get a cab back. For those naysayers who claim it’s just as easy to call a cab dispatcher, I dare you to go to jamaica avenue in a yellow cab and then try to find the local car service and give them a random street corner and see how well that works out….

    Are more cars bad? Absolutely. But I truly believe Uber is a viable future for people to live without private cars in NYC and beyond.

    Your move, cranks…..

  • Harjinder Singh

    Ppl who are saying they love uber ask uber driver how much this greedy company charging their drivers not only that the violating the city’s rule of 15 mins wait black car pik up rule too this company have a history of violating law instead of following them but ppl worries about themselves it’s better it’s fast it’s cheap no it’s not next time compare it with yellow green or any local car service it’s not. Charging ppl 3 to 4 times during rain or traffic. 5 to 6 times during snow is not customer friendly unless the customers are idiots

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