Cheaper Gas and Uber Have Manhattan Gridlock Poised to Get Worse

Traffic gridlock in Manhattan has been on the wane for some time. Newly released 2013 traffic counts from the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council show 747,000 motor vehicles entering the Manhattan Central Business District on a typical weekday. While that still constitutes a crushing load, it’s 5,000 fewer cars each day than in 2012 and a drop of 80,000 daily vehicles from the apparent peak year of 2004. As a result, average CBD traffic speeds are on an upswing, from 8 mph in 2006 to 9-9.5 mph in 2012. (Sorry, no figures available for 2004 or 2013.)

Photo: Rgoogin/Wikimedia Commons

A one mile an hour rise is just statistical noise on a fast highway, but summed across hundreds of stop-and-go city blocks over thousands of hours it generates genuine value and significant time savings. Not surprisingly, public aggravation over traffic congestion appears to be less pronounced today than a decade ago. And tellingly, the Move NY toll-reform plan is making headway as much for its promise to fill the funding gap in the MTA capital plan and to bring about “toll equity” by lowering tolls on the MTA bridges, as for its potential to bust gridlock by charging a fee at every CBD entrance and exit.

Nevertheless, I’m betting that Manhattan traffic is about to worsen. The reasons can be spelled out quickly: cheaper gasoline and Uber.

Let’s start with the price of gas, which has already fallen below three bucks a gallon after averaging about $3.60 nationally in 2013 and $3.70 in 2012. Unlike some prior falls that proved transitory, this one looks like it could have staying power owing to the boom in U.S. production, the stutter-stop world economy, and Saudi Arabia’s disinclination to curb production to stabilize prices.

Though conditions vary greatly (especially parking costs), I estimate that a dollar a gallon drop in pump prices would shave 6 percent off the cost of a typical CBD commute. That correlates to an additional 12,000 or so motor vehicle trips to the CBD, on top of the current 640,000 baseline. (My baseline figure differs from NYMTC’s 747,000 because I adjust for through-trips that NYMTC counts as two entries; note also that the rise would be 20,000 but for the “rebound” effect of new trips crowding out some current trips.)

Then there’s Uber. Smartphone-hail services like Uber and Lyft have established a beachhead in the for-hire vehicle industry in New York and other cities. Though solid data isn’t available, these companies appear to be expanding rapidly, and not necessarily at the expense of the traditional yellow-cab and livery sectors or the new green cabs that have expanded the zone of legal street hails. Rather, Uber appears to be creating brand-new demand for travel by motor vehicle, especially within the high-gloss citadel of finance and fashion, the Manhattan CBD.

Currently, yellow cabs provide roughly half-a-million fare trips daily, of which an estimated 85 percent have at least one leg inside the CBD. If smartphone hails bump up the total by just ten percent, that would have the same impact on CBD traffic as 45,000 additional car commutes. Add that to the estimated 12,000 new commutes because of cheaper gas, and the number of vehicle trips to the CBD would rebound to roughly the same level as in 2005 (810,000 CBD entries).

At this point, calculating these effects is mere speculation. And the forces that have shrunk CBD traffic over the past decade — safer and more frequent and reliable transit; unlimited Metrocards; better and more convenient biking; and the generational shift from valorization of cars — are still strong, for the most part (except for the final force, costlier gasoline, which is doing a U-turn).

So my figures here aren’t fact, but a warning: After a decade of slightly less oppressive traffic congestion, Manhattan gridlock could be poised to come roaring back. In which case, some form of pricing on entering the CBD will be even more valuable than it appears right now.

  • Jesse

    Upvote if you’ve ever fantasized about jumping on the hood of a car that some selfish jerk stops in the crosswalk because they don’t want to wait for the next light cycle.

  • stairbob

    Interesting post, Charles. But the second part doesn’t jibe with my (unsubstantiated) theory that e-hail apps decrease overall traffic because a livery vehicle without a passenger doesn’t have to cruise aimlessly looking for business anymore.

  • Bolwerk

    Fantasize? I’ve done it.

  • Bolwerk

    Interesting ideas, but some reasons for hope….

    Choking crossings is bad, and creates jams that back up far and wide. Uber and Lyft probably aren’t going to be choking the crossings the way 80,000 extra bridge and tunnel commuters did. They’ll be distributed across the street network, at least somewhat, and I would think the trips will tend to be intra-borough or at least intra-NYC.

    Do we have any idea how Uber and Lyft will impact demand for taxis? Might be they’ll put some black cab business out, but not create a long-term increase in demand.

    Services like ZipCar probably already had a similar effect on traffic. Vehicle usage in Manhattan could be up even if B&T entries are down.

    Likewise there is another Uber to consider: the uber-wealthy, who have been moving to Manhattan and likely bringing some vehicles with them when they do. Another reason to think some more trips are being generated within Manhattan wihtout generating B&T traffic.

  • Jesse

    Did the driver try to retaliate? I’m scared that they might have a gun or something or they’ll attack me with the car itself. If more people jumped on hoods (or, God forbid, cops actually ticketed for it instead of directing drivers into the crosswalk) people wouldn’t block the box.

  • Alex

    Remember “Don’t Block the Box”? The NYPD doesn’t.

  • qrt145

    I remember reading that they stopped enforcing, arguing that the enforcement was causing more gridlock that the initial violation.

  • Bolwerk

    Hmm, no one ever tried to physically retaliate for that, but I only did it a few times, never without pretty compelling reason – once a reflexive jump, and the others I literally had no other way around that wasn’t more dangerous. If there is only a foot between one car and the next, an accidental touch on the accelerator is enough to crush anyone passing between.

    I get threats and racial/homophobic slurs from nonplussed drivers, especially when cycling, but maybe two have ever actually even positioned for a physical confrontation. Both times I kicked cars that nearly killed me. One guy got out of his car and immediately got back in when he saw how much bigger I was. The other made a scene of running around his minivan yelling threats at pretty much no one and everyone and punching…his own car.

  • LuisD

    I often walk around with a briefcase. Now, you should never EVER vandalize property, but If you cut me off while I have priority on a crosswalk and startle me by almost hitting me, I might just accidentally lose my balance and hit your car with my briefcase. Just sayin’

  • Cold Shoaler

    I’m always surprised at how often people cation me about voicing my displeasure with dangerous/rude driving (e.g. tapping on windows and telling drivers blocking the bike lane how selfish they are, smacking the hood Ratso style of a driver blocking the box) because ‘you never know who has a gun’. This doesn’t strike me as a rational fear in NYC. Obviously there are guns out there, but anyone in a car who wants to hurt me and chooses a gun over the CAR THEY ARE DRIVING is both an a-hole and an idiot. If they shoot me, the will get in trouble with the law.

    I told a woman (who had passed my bike within about 2″) that she could go ahead and kill me with her SUV and get away with it if she wanted to, but that I was going to use bad words on here anyway. It really confused her, and actually seemed to make her think.

  • KillMoto

    In DC, their speed and red light cameras have been so effective that they are now using them for ‘blocking the box’ tickets now too.

    Huh. An algorithm to charge drivers for being a douche. Oh, the future is bright!

  • Charles

    There was once a gentleman who used this technique on cabs that blocked crosswalks: He would enter through the rear door, climb across the seat, and get out the other side–taking care to leave both doors wide open.

    Of course, it only works if no one’s in the rear seat.

  • BikeTexter

    As a cyclist I’m not a huge fan of open car doors, but that’s brilliant. And I say, all the better if there’s an occupant. You can tell them not to tip as you pass through.

  • Andrew


  • r

    A better strategy is to tell a driver that his tail light appears to have been smashed and that he should pull over immediately to check it out. You’ll be long gone before you get to see them struggle to find a place to stop and get out only to find that nothing is wrong with their car, but it’s worth it.

  • Interceptor III


  • KillMoto

    Let me Google that for you.

    (There. That was easy.)

  • Ashley Miller

    Friends! compares the two most popular ride-sharing services. $30 of FREE ride credit for new passengers and up to a $250 sign-up BONUS for new drivers!! Drivers can make as much as $40/hr! Hope you can see what all the hype is about 🙂 Thanks!

  • jimbo_jones

    did you even read the article? of course not.

  • Jamie Hough

    Cars are pretty strong, they are designed to take very little damage when hitting sid things, like pedestrians. It would be quite hard for you to do damage to one with your hands or brief case. Try it some time and you’ll see.

  • Jamie Hough

    He does have a gun, it’s called a car. Metal machine that kills about the same statistically (in NYC at least). Stop the violence, stand up to aggressive driving.

  • Joe R.

    I know this is politically a hard sell, but now may be the time to institute a gas tax to help pay for transit (and to discourage driving). I doubt we could institute, say, a $3 per gallon tax nationally, but we might be able to have one at least in NYC and the closer in suburbs. The latter is important because we don’t want people driving across the river for cheaper gas. If the suburbs don’t play ball, then perhaps we can track NYC residents who gas shop, and bill them for the gas tax the way we do for the cigarette tax. In any case, let’s say we get the price of gas up to $6. We can use the tax to stabilize the price. If gas prices rise, the tax goes down, and vice versa, the idea being to keep the price at $6 per gallon. A stable, higher gas price is probably better economically than a constantly fluctuating lower price. You can plan ahead for the expense, preferably by using more efficient vehicles.

    There will be two effects of this. The more immediate effect will be a decrease in discretionary driving. The second, longer term effect will be a gradual transition to electric vehicles, with the fleets probably leading the way. The bottom line though is you don’t want an extended period with low gas prices. It just keeps people in inefficient vehicles like SUVs. It also encourages nonessential driving. If the gas tax does nothing other than to get everyone driving in NYC into electric vehicles, it will have been worthwhile in my opinion. The noise and pollution of gas vehicles are major detriments to the quality of life in this city. It’s long past time for the internal combustion engine to go on the scrap heap of history.

  • Bolwerk

    I prefer the idea of direct per-mile charges to gas taxes. It sends a price signal directly related to use. It’s easy enough to fill your tank and consider it a forgettable sunk cost. If you know what your next mile will cost you, you have to think a little more.

  • Paul H

    A huge percentage of NYC’s, and most city’s, street traffic is cabs cruising for hails and other motorists cruising for parking. Using technology can vastly reduce this, but it will lower the cost – and thus the demand – for driving. If the city and taxi “unions” were smart, they’d get ahead of this and institute rules and incentives for taxis and black cars to park while waiting for electronic hails in exchange for higher mileage rates to drivers (if technology reduces the cost of taxi provision, all of the savings should be used to provide living wages and benefits to the drivers). Oh, and parking while waiting for an e-hail saves gas and miles on the vehicle, a significant saving to both drivers and fleet operators. Uber should consider offering a phone dispatch service for folks who don’t have smartphones, perhaps only if the city agrees to subsidize the extra cost – there’s no question the avoided vmt and air pollution would pay off for the city (other programs to achieve this would be MUCH more expensive). Yes, this would lead to the day where you can only get a cab through your smartphone, by making a call, or by going to an established cab stand – but I bet for most of us the result would be much more convenient, consistent and reliable.

    Example of how services like Uber and taxis can work together:

    Then, all you have to do is institute demand-driven parking management, the easy and completely do-able way for the city to both institute congestion pricing and a commuter tax with zero involvement from Albany. Use the revenues gathered to lower property taxes and/or issue a dividend to each NYC resident.

  • Eddie

    More rich people in the city (Bloomberg’s main goal as mayor) means more cars on the roads, whether they are taxis, car services, Uber, or personal cars. With all the construction of new luxury condos in Manhattan over the last 10 years, why would anyone think that traffic would be lighter?

  • LuisD

    Well, my briefcase has metal corners. It’s happened that I’ve been cut off and startled and my briefcase went swinging into the side of a car. It didn’t do and real damage but it did leave a scratch/dent, a souvenir I suppose of the time the driver nearly killed a pedestrian who had priority.

  • Cold Shoaler

    But is amazing how drivers go from 0 to apoplectic in 0.5 seconds when you touch their car. They will get out and scream death threats at you if you put an open palm on their hood, or rap a knuckle on a window. It’s also interesting how often these fools are on the phone.

  • Amy Driver

    I’ve been using these transportation services for a number of years now and truly appreciate it. I do see why it might upset some individuals who drive for taxi cab firms. Yet it truly helps me and my family out. I do not have enough time to wait around on public transit and can not manage the price of taxi cabs so is perfect for me.

  • Atm

    Whoever wrote this report has a big problem in his/her head that cheap gasoline price and Uber is the reason of Manhattan traffic. I doubt about this report has been purposely.

  • I see where the writer is coming from, but I really don’t agree. Yes, people are trying to make money, but there are very few people who would put up with the traffic for just a few bucks here and there


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