It’s Settled: Uber Is Making NYC Gridlock Worse
The controversy over Uber’s impact on Manhattan traffic has been settled. Uber, Lyft, and other app-based ride services are unequivocally worsening gridlock in the Manhattan core as well as northern Manhattan and the western parts of Queens and Brooklyn, according to a report released today by transportation analyst Bruce Schaller.
The new ride services, known as transportation network companies, or TNC’s, last year caused a net increase of 600 million vehicle miles traveled in the five boroughs — a 3 to 4 percent jump in citywide traffic, Schaller found. This trend marks a troubling inflection point — for the first time in many years, car-based services, not transit, account for most growth in travel.
To head off a downward spiral of increasing traffic and declining transit use, it’s incumbent on Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio to prioritize projects with wide-ranging impacts on the transportation system: subway signal upgrades, citywide off-board fare collection for buses, a comprehensive expansion of bus lanes and transit priority at intersections, and road pricing that factors in the impacts of TNC’s.
In 2013, the last year before Uber’s presence was felt, use of subways, buses, and bicycles grew substantially (see below). But by 2016, net growth in travel by Uber and other TNC’s far outstripped growth in those modes (see above).
Most of the upsurge is occurring outside the city’s Central Business District (Manhattan below 60th Street), Schaller reports. Nevertheless, he identifies growth in use of TNC’s as a prime cause of the 11 percent slowing of traffic in the Manhattan CBD from 2013 to 2016 noted in the mayor’s management report last September.
Schaller is highly regarded in transportation circles, and his report — “Unsustainable? — The Growth of App-Based Ride Services and Traffic, Travel and the Future of New York City” — will be widely read and carefully studied. Before serving as a top deputy to transportation commissioners Janette Sadik-Khan and Polly Trottenberg, Schaller’s career included stints at MTA NYC Transit and the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission, and his annual NY Taxicab Fact Books made him the go-to expert on for-hire vehicles.
In his new report, Schaller set out to determine not just how fast Uber and the TNC sector have grown, but which modes they are displacing. Here are some key findings:
- In a marked reversal from the transit-oriented growth that lasted from 1990 to 2014, growth in for-hire vehicle use (TNC’s, yellows, greens, and all car services combined) is outstripping growth in transit ridership, making it the city’s leading source of growth in non-auto travel.
- The estimated 7 percent net addition to vehicle mileage caused by TNC’s in Manhattan, western Queens, and western Brooklyn is the same magnitude as the decrease in vehicular travel that was expected from the 2007 Bloomberg congestion pricing proposal.
- These trends only became apparent in the last year and a half, as TNC ridership tripled between June 2015 (the end of the period that City Hall examined in its December 2015 for-hire-vehicle transportation study) and the fall of 2016.
These developments are virtually certain to continue, Schaller asserts, fueled not just by the convenience, dependability, and cachet of Uber and other TNC’s, but by their low fares. Traditionally, a ride in a taxicab was four to five times as expensive as a subway or bus ride, which acted as a brake on usage. Now, however, “TNC fare offerings for shared trips during rush hour in Manhattan put TNC fares at less than twice the transit fare, dramatically weakening the disincentive to travel by auto,” Schaller concludes.
The resulting “reversal from transit-led to TNC-led growth in travel,” as Schaller characterizes it, “will have profound implications for the city’s transportation network if current trends continue.”
The app-based ride services were expected to confer an efficiency upgrade as they replaced taxi cruising (driving between fare trips) with swift arrival of the nearest available vehicle. Instead, deadheading is more prevalent with TNC’s, as Schaller found by painstakingly examining trip records available from the Taxi and Limousine Commission. Whereas taxi cruising tends to add seven to eight miles for each 10 miles of fare trips, the app-based vehicles tack on 12 to 13 miles. The difference is a big force-multiplier to gridlock.
The prospect of unconstrained growth in TNC traffic — and the concomitant worsening of gridlock and rise in emissions — lends new urgency to efforts to improve subway and bus performance.
Instead of dubious projects like Cuomo’s AirTrain to LaGuardia and de Blasio’s Brooklyn-Queens streetcar, the city’s political leadership needs to shift focus and deliver projects that will speed up the transit system as a whole. Modernizing subway signals to allow trains to run closer together, speeding up bus boarding with off-board fare collection, and prioritizing transit on city streets are “far more critical than headline-grabbing but low-ridership distractions like the LaGuardia AirTrain and BQX streetcar,” Schaller says.
The report also “raises the need to return to the subject of road pricing,” he writes. The Bloomberg congestion pricing proposal won’t suffice, he notes, since it would have let for-hire vehicles operate all day and run up congestion costs while paying just one toll.
The Move NY plan devised by traffic guru and former City Traffic Commissioner Sam Schwartz surmounts that problem via the on-board GPS now found in all TNC vehicles as well as yellow and green taxis. Charging for-hire vehicles by the mile and by the minute in the “taxi exclusion zone” (south of 110th Street on the West Side, and 96th Street on the East Side), as Schwartz proposes, would discourage their use and also add to revenues to finance transportation improvements.
Read Schaller’s report and take the time to digest its implications. It touches on virtually every consequential transportation trend and policy question facing the five boroughs and stands as the most thoughtful and thorough analysis of New York City traffic and transportation issues since the Bloomberg years. Give it a deep dive, and join me in congratulating Bruce for advancing the discussion on many fronts.