Can Cab-Sharing Reduce Traffic on NYC Streets?

With Albany lawmakers unwilling to properly fund the MTA, transportation planners are looking
to plug the gaps that have opened up in the transit network and expand New Yorkers’ travel options using existing resources. That’s certainly a big part of the thinking behind the Bloomberg Administration’s recent decision to expand private van service where bus lines were cut. One of the other ways New York will try to wring more value out of the infrastructure we already have is cab-sharing.

Group_Ride.jpgA sign advertises the TLC’s cab-sharing stand at 72nd Street and Third Avenue. Photo: New York Times

Can the city’s 50,000 licensed livery vehicles better serve New Yorkers stranded by service cuts and help keep streets from getting more clogged with private motor vehicles? Both the city government and at least one start-up business are trying to find out.

Since February, the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission has been operating a handful of group-ride stands, where multiple passengers can jump into a cab together. They pay a flat fare and each can be dropped off at different locations, along a route that is loosely defined by the TLC. 

For example, the newest group-ride stand is located on York Avenue, between 70th and 71st Streets [PDF]. After each passenger pays $6, the cab drives all the way downtown on the FDR and then lets riders off at locations of their choice between Pearl Street and the World Financial Center. That particular route replaces the MTA’s discontinued X90 express bus. 

"The goal," said TLC Commissioner David Yassky, "is to expand the capacity of the cab fleet by opening up seats that otherwise would be unoccupied." Group rides have the added benefit, he argued, of providing cheaper rides for passengers while offering more revenue for drivers.

The TLC isn’t the only one trying to figure out how to get New Yorkers to share cabs, though. David Mahfouda is the founder of Weeels, a smartphone application that allows New Yorkers to order livery cabs electronically and share rides with other Weeels users. "Sharing offers users a big discount," explained Mahfouda, "and it’s also a way to save energy and gasoline."

So far, Weeels is just getting started. It’s only available for the iPhone and only connects to one Brooklyn-based livery car company, though the plan is to offer connections to more companies with more technologies, including text messaging. Even so, Mahfouda’s ambitions are sizable. "Ultimately," he said, "the idea is to create a new kind of public transit system out of existing infrastructure."

If cab-sharing takes off — Yassky admitted that group rides still aren’t popular, though he hopes new locations, like the airports, will jumpstart the program — it could help cut traffic on New York City’s streets, but the potential effects are tough to predict.

Yassky thinks that cab-sharing, by reducing the price of a ride, would attract more people to take cabs. "My gut instinct, I think it will expand the market for taxi service in the way that credit cards did," he said. If that’s so, one question is how those new riders would have gotten around otherwise. Are they switching from buses and trains or ditching their cars? Neither Yassky nor Mahfouda was willing to speculate.

Regardless, Yassky expects that cab-sharing, by expanding transportation options for car-free New Yorkers, could ultimately help reduce congestion. "That’s the overall goal here," said Yassky, "to make each component of the transit network as inexpensive and convenient as it can be, so that people won’t be driven into using private automobiles."

That both the public and private sectors are looking at cab-sharing right now is no coincidence. "In an era where the subways and buses aren’t able to do everything we’d like to see them doing," argued Yassky, "the need for the taxi and car service segment to step up to the plate gets greater and greater." With transit service shrinking and expensive infrastructure improvements seemingly out of reach, cabs may have to pick up some of the slack. Yassky said this would happen bit by bit over a period of years. For example, the first five commuter van routes will open in late August or early September.

The TLC’s approach, therefore, actually makes cabs function a little bit more like traditional transit, with fixed routes and fares. "It enables taxis to occupy even more fully their niche in the transit network," said Yassky. 

That’s where the digital approach to cab-sharing has an advantage, argued Mahfouda. "They’ve missed an opportunity," he said, "insofar as they ended up routing taxis as they would buses." The whole advantage of taxis, Mahfouda argued, is that they are responsive, driving the exact route you want, when you want. Both Mahfouda and Yassky praised the other’s approach to cab-sharing, though, calling them complementary.

  • Noah, what does Mark Gorton think of these developments, which would seem to blend with his idea of peer-to-peer ride sharing

  • J:Lai

    This, along with the encouragement of dollar van service, are good ways to fill in the gaps in the transit network. Creating taxi stands would also be helpful, especially when paired with cab sharing (it would have a side benefit of eliminating some the fare-cruising from empty cabs.)

    It would be nice to have some located in the outer boroughs, where there are more gaps in the transit network.

    People use cabs usually for one of 3 reasons.

    Sometimes it is because there are no good transit options, and that is where cab sharing should be popular.
    Sometimes it is when service is suspended or infrequent, like late night. That probably won’t draw too much sharing.
    Finally, cabs are used when public transit is too inconvenient, such as when transporting heavy cargo, or by people who don’t like to in large, dense crowds. These trips are also unlikely to be shared.

  • JamesR

    Reason #4: There’s also a class of people who “never take the subway”. We all know at least one person who balks at the idea of boarding a subterranean train and being forced to get up close and personal with their fellow city residents. Most of these types are well to-do Manhattanites living and working below 72nd St. For these folks, sharing a cab is probably too close to the idea of transit for them to be willing to give this a try.

  • Dave

    Are you serious in thinking that taxi shares will have a real impact on traffic in Manhattan? Get real.
    To reduce traffic in Manhattan:
    – Toll all the bridges (the $612 million bill to replace the Willis Ave bridge should help answer the skeptics about why they should pay for bridges)
    – Re-introduce two-way tolls at all crossings to eliminate toll-shopping and keep trucks on the highways instead of lower Manhattan (are you listening Deb Glick)
    – Permit parking. Such a simple solution why hasn’t it been done (I have extolled about this 10 times before)
    – Reintroduce 7-day meters (separation of church and state is only the beginning)
    – Placard control. Come on already with the lazy cops and their holier-than-thou attitude to off-duty freedom to clog the city. And what about their free EZ-passes?
    Any one of these will go a lot further than shared cabs. Is Streetsblog afraid to tackle substantive issues and focus on itty bitty issues liked shared cabs?

  • DJM

    Dave, all of your ideas sound great. They are big and would change a lot. Your delivery however stinks and you completely miss the point of the idea and the article.

    1) Yes, I think cab sharing, if used on a wide scale could definitely reduce congestion, especially during peak times, like weekday rush hours and weekend evenings.

    2) This idea, is not that radical, its done in countless cities already and works well ex) Cape Coast, Ghana and Puerto Escondido, Mexico.

    3) Yes the real changes should be made on a state funding level and and city level. I hate the cuts too. But I think there is a time an a place for all kinds of modes of transit and what Weeels is introducing is just another way. Its creative – and you cant hate on creativity.

    4) With regards to your last comment “Any one of these will go a lot further than shared cabs. Is Streetsblog afraid to tackle substantive issues and focus on itty bitty issues liked shared cabs?” You forgot to write “nana nana poo poo”. I think there is substantial evidence of Streetsblog’s broad coverage of a range of issues, so that hit ’em where it might hurt approach is uncalled for.

    5) J:Lai, there are plenty of other reasons, I would say more common reasons for taking cabs than the ones you mentioned and situations unforeseen why someone would share a cab. Remember, its cab sharing not cab taking so we cant talk about the public as if there are only two groups. Cab SHARING gets at the people who WOULD take cabs not the ones who already do, and if you think about it, could be a HUGE number, if suddenly the cost of a cab was half of what it is now.

    What about: regular cab sharing like: sharing from the airport, from a super market for once a week grocery shopping, for the elderly, when it’s freezing outside in winter, it suddenly starts raining, going crosstown in Manhattan, parent’s running late to pick up children, when in a general hurry, are you suggesting that late night cab shares are less safe than late night train rides? i would disagree.

    I can personally attest to countless positive experiences with sharing cabs and cars, be it though, craigslist, after a free concert, a bar closing, from the airport etc.

    With the savings of money, time, gas and space, it seems like an obvious choice with huge benefits with just a little bit of cooperation.

    Am I the only one who can see the potential?


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