Uber’s Own Numbers Show It’s Making Traffic Worse

Uber blasted out an Excel spreadsheet to reporters this morning, accompanied by a story and editorial in the Daily News, with data providing a snapshot of how many Uber vehicles are on Manhattan streets south of 59th Street, New York’s central business district. While Uber claims the data shows its vehicles aren’t responsible for congestion in the city core, transportation analyst Charles Komanoff has crunched Uber’s own numbers and estimates that the service has actually reduced traffic speeds in the central business district by about 8 percent.

Photo: Wikipedia

Uber’s data dump [XLS] released hourly information on the number of pickups and drivers below 59th Street and in the rest of the city between May 31 and July 19. It used that data to calculate the number of Uber vehicles in the central business district, where half of the company’s trips originate. Between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., there were an average of 1,904 Uber cars on the road below 59th Street.

That seems like a small number at first glance, and Uber highlights that fact by proclaiming it “is not the source of Manhattan congestion.” But the question isn’t whether Uber is the root cause of all congestion — it’s whether Uber is making the current traffic situation worse.

So how do 1,904 for-hire cars circulating the congested Manhattan core actually affect traffic? To answer the question, Streetsblog turned to Komanoff, whose “Balanced Transportation Analyzer” [XLS] models the impact of toll proposals and other changes to city traffic. Uber’s data release provides more detailed information than what was previously available to the public.

The volume of Ubers is similar to the 2,000 yellow taxi medallions the Bloomberg administration proposed to auction off in 2012, which Komanoff calculated would make average traffic speeds 12 percent worse. To understand what happens to Manhattan traffic with 1,900 Ubers in the mix, Komanoff adjusted his model in a couple of key ways to account for the fact that each Uber vehicle likely affects Manhattan traffic less than each yellow cab.

He assumes that while Uber trips cover as much distance as yellow taxi trips, the app-based vehicles cruise half as much as yellows, which spend about 35 percent of their total miles looking for fares. He also assumes that a quarter of Uber trips would otherwise have been taken as yellow cabs.

Even with those tweaks in Uber’s favor, Komanoff estimates that having 1,900 Ubers in the city’s core between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. reduces average travel speeds by 7.7 percent. Without the favorable assumptions, that number jumps to 12 percent.

“Uber is entering a system of vehicles — cars, trucks, cabs, buses — which had settled into a more or less stable level of congestion. The Uber vehicles perturb that system,” Komanoff wrote.

Uber “isn’t totally wrong” to claim that it is not responsible for Manhattan congestion, Komanoff noted. “But that’s the wrong question,” he wrote. “The question before the City Council is: Is Uber the source (or a leading source) of the increase in Manhattan congestion? The answer is assuredly: Yes.”

Correction, 4:17 p.m.: After publication, Komanoff emailed Streetsblog with a revised estimate of Uber’s impact on CBD traffic speeds — a 7.7 percent reduction, not 9 percent, as originally reported. The post has been updated to reflect the revised estimate.

  • Ben Ross

    Manhattan street space is a scarce commodity for which many users compete. The supply is fixed and cannot increase. Uber/Lyft is the only competitor that is allowed to sell this commodity to the highest bidder. (Yellow cabs are limited to a fixed portion of the street space, and the value of that street space is shared between the owners and riders by limiting fares.) Effectively, Uber is seizing this commodity from the public and appropriating its monetary value to itself. Each Uber vehicle should be required to carry a medallion purchased at full price from the city or from an existing owner.

  • Seems like this is arguing that Uber is the “straw that broke the camel’s back.” Sure, the yellow taxis and private cars are a much bigger factor in all the congestion, but Uber is the newcomer, so, absent Uber, traffic would be slightly less horrible.

    Also worth noting that Uber may in part be making congestion worse by forcing yellow taxis to cruise around for fares longer. On the other hand, Uber is likely replacing some private car trips, which improves the parking situation and reduces time spent cruising for parking by other drivers.

  • Bartleby

    It actually sounds like a lot – 1,900 cars below 59th Street is about 190 cars per avenue. Manhattan between Houston (street zero) and 59th street is about 4 times the area of Manhattan below Houston, so let’s say there about 15 “blocks” below Houston, that puts us at 190 cars per 75 blocks, or over two cars per block on the avenues.

  • Bartleby

    The problem with a free market medallion system is that the taxi rider ends up riding in a dirty jalopy, driven by a driver who is unskilled and desperate, and paying high rates so that the financiers of the million dollar medallion can get paid. Everyone loses except the financier.

  • What??!! That sounds very misleading, as those cars are spread over multiple side-streets as well. I did my own math. Manhattan is 33 square miles, and the CBD covers about 40% of Manhattan, so let’s call that 13 square miles. Of that, about 20% is asphalt, 10% sidewalk, and the rest is buildings, parks, etc. So there’s roughly 2.6 square miles of city streets for those ubers to drive, park, make drop-offs and pick-ups, etc. A typical car is taking up an entire lane (11 feet), and let’s be generous and say that it is taking up 40 feel of distance (average following distance, even though much of the time Ubers are stopped at lights, parked, etc.). Then the entire Uber fleet is using up AT MOST 440 * 1900 = 836,000 square feet, or 0.03 square miles. This is 1.2% of the space available.

  • c2check

    (I don’t think a 20′ following distance is too generous—from my office window I can see lots of cars following with a larger distance. Some cars I can see stopped at lights still have ~20′ between them and the car in front.)

  • joe shabadoo

    taxi drivers take an 80-hour training course, cars must be no more than 3 years old, have 3 or 4 safety inspections per year, and are subject to fines for being dirty inside or out. Check out a car wash around shift change time and you’ll see dozens of cabs being washed every day.

  • joe shabadoo

    what’s Uber’s share of VMT in the district?

  • calwatch

    Uber is not just taking trips from private vehicles but from walking and transit. Someone who would be inclined to budget an hour for a trip on a slow bus might switch to Uber and cut that time in half, but that adds a car on the road. That person may not have ridden taxis because they were unsure of who would show up or were turned off by the cost, but with Uber’s driver and cost certainty they are substituting the trip.

  • c2check

    If they submitted this data to the city as I bet they’re supposed to, we might not be having this conversation 😉
    They’ve been fighting against city and state requirements all across the world to keep from revealing such data.

  • scastro87

    In my experience, Uber cars are almost always more comfortable than yellow taxi cars, except for the brand new, taxi of the future nissan cabs.

  • Geck

    Adding more cars to New York City Streets is not the way to get to more livable streets. Yellow cabs are limited. All for-hire vehicles should be limited. They are using a scarce commodity inefficiently.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    Uber needs to strongly support MoveNY

    and protected bike lanes

  • c2check
  • Andres Dee

    “We’re into traffic calming. We’re Uber.”

    😉

  • Kenny Easwaran

    Ford, Toyota, BMW, etc. also all sell Manhattan street space to the highest bidder.

    Why charge a fixed price for a vehicle, rather than charging every vehicle a time-based fee for how much space it’s using and for how long? Charge one rate for parking, and another rate for space used while driving, and then let Uber/Lyft/taxis figure out whether they can pass that price on to passengers and still make a profit, or whether they should move out of Manhattan and make their money elsewhere.

  • baklazhan

    I think it’s entirely possible that Uber would add trips to walking and transit, too. For example: person wants to go shopping after work, but doesn’t want to carry her purchases on the bus (and doesn’t like taxis for the reasons you mention). Uber lets them ride the bus/walk until it’s time to go home from the store.

    Likewise, someone who sporadically needs the ability to get to their child’s school at short notice would have to drive to work every day. Reliable car service lets them take the bus instead.

  • Ezra Goldman

    This is totally unsurprising- both that Uber is causing congestion by adding more single occupancy vehicles which compete with taxis and transit, and their denial of this fact. I don’t get the 50% reduced circling and 25% taxi replacement assumptions though. Best data I’ve seen suggest 39% taxi trip modal shift (33% transit, 6% driving trips) from UC Berkeley 2014. Only data I’ve seen suggest 2 miles driven for every mile with a fare. Are these assumptions based on data or just arbitrary assumptions?

  • AndreL

    The medallion is part of the problem to begin with.

  • JoshNY

    “Uber’s Own Numbers Show It’s Making Traffic Worse”

    Oh, I’m sorry, you must’ve mistaken Uber for someone who gives a shit.

  • TalkIsCheap55

    Here’s what we know: Passengers prefer Uber to Taxis. Uber technology means less cruising and idling (i.e. “greener”) than taxis. Uber keeps signing up more drivers and pax. City streets are a finite resource so more cars must mean more congestion. Medallion owners’ investment is threatened by ruination of the fixed supply of transport.

    Those are the facts. My conclusion is that Uber is the more evolved animal and taxis as we know them need to die. A surcharge on Uber and the like to buy medallions and retire them might smooth the transition. As competitors to Uber grow the city might consider something akin to wireless spectrum auctions for access to the finite streets. Those libertarians at Uber could not argue with that.

    What about the people without cell phones? I could argue that there are more people who can’t afford cabs but do have cellphones than the other way round, but won’t. The city could put hailing boxes on street corners (or require Uber to) and allow metrocard use to pay.

  • Mike Driver

    I am just gonna say, there is a 50.000!! other cars (yellow, green, black, Gipsy, for hire cabs…), so why we are talking about 1900 Uber cars at all?! If you want to fight congestion make delivery trucks and similar to deliver at night, let us use bus lanes in rush hours (for example), or free at least one Lane in EVERY street from parked cars (make parking elevators like in Tokyo), etc. There is a plenty of ways to do it, ruin someone business is just ridiculous. Also, traffic congestion is not Uber problem, or any company or any driver it is City problem!!! If you can’t do a job move over, there is a people who can.

  • Mike Driver

    I am just gonna say, there is a 50.000!! other cars at same time (yellow, green, black, Gipsy, for hire cabs…), so why we are talking about 1900 Uber cars at all?! If you want to fight congestion that’s not right direction. City will grow, what in 20 years? Are we gonna count cars?! There is a long-term solutions, we should go vertical, make overpasses for pedestrians, tramways all over the city like for Roosevelt Island instead of buses, or free at least one lane in EVERY street from parked cars (make parking elevators like in Tokyo), etc. Short-term solutions: delivery trucks and similar to deliver at night, allow use of bus lanes in rush hour, change some rules, make some streets two way… There is a plenty of ways to do it, ruin someone’s business is just ridiculous. Also, traffic congestion is not Uber problem, or any company or any driver, it is City problem!!! If you can’t do a job move over, there is a people who can, people who actually think about it. I know it is easier just to be stupid, take money and run, but we should leave something behind us…

  • PeterBelles

    Uber people my ass !! They ban more people than Uber

  • PeterBelles

    Uber drivers are so desperate to get to the client before they cancel they blow red lights, make crazy U -turns like in the middle of 34th street.
    Double, triple park and cruise with suburbans going 5 Mph

  • PeterBelles

    Drink the Uber kool-aid

  • chekpeds

    Taxi industry just released that they lost 10% revenue while there are 10 % additional cars . This seems to say the market is not increasing, jrest people are migrating to a better experience.
    The fact that uber drivers do not cruise as much is good news , unfortunately , the cabs with less customers are not cruising less in the same proportion.
    It would be good for the city to create a level playing field : everyone has to pay commuter taxes etc . And everyone has to be on a shared application where all the cabs ubers and limos are visible and hailable. this would reduce cruising from 12,000 cabs and really make a difference for all.

  • Steven Yampolsky

    The Komanoff BTA xls attributes Uber to 41% of the ~9% drop in speed in the CBD (see CBD congestion sheet G12). Therefore, Uber’s actual impact is~4.3% (same sheet, F12). So where is 7.7 coming from?

  • Dan Bartman

    What’s wrong with slower speeds? Sounds like a good thing for the pedestrian capital of the U.S.

  • mac

    Have fun in traffic you idiot

  • Dan Bartman

    Thats a healthy response. First, get out and walk…this research is showing that more people are taking uber rather than walking or taking public transit. That’s why there are additional cars (traffic). Also…on average, nine out of 10 pedestrians hit by a car traveling 20 mph would survive while only one out of 10 would survive if hit at 40 mph. Slower cars are better for everyone. The Mayor has implemented a Vision Zero program. Please do some homework prior to trolling.

  • He assumes that while Uber trips cover as much distance as yellow taxi trips, the app-based vehicles cruise half as much as yellows, which spend about 35 percent of their total miles looking for fares. He also assumes that a quarter of Uber trips would otherwise have been taken as yellow cabs.

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