The Real Reason Uber Traffic Matters in NYC

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Where traffic is worse, the politics of turning a wide, car-centric street into a safe, efficient street are tougher. Rendering by the Street Plans Collaborative and Carly Clark via Transportation Alternatives

For a moment yesterday, it seemed like the big clash between the taxi medallion industry and app-based car services, framed in terms of Uber’s effect on snarled Manhattan traffic, might veer into unexpectedly brilliant territory. There was Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris in the Daily News, telling the MTA that City Hall would consider the Move NY traffic reduction plan to fund transit investment. Finally, a sign that some of the big players are getting serious about a comprehensive fix for the city’s congestion problem.

But the moment didn’t last long, with Governor Cuomo extinguishing the road pricing talk right away. Soon after, Mayor de Blasio beat a sudden retreat from his proposed cap on for-hire vehicle licenses, getting a few concessions from Uber, and now the whole episode will fade from the news cycle, at least for the time being.

The Uber fight was a rare case where transportation issues became front-page news, but the arguments about streets and traffic tended to descend into stupid talking points really fast. Uber NYC General Manager Josh Mohrer was hardly the only person who tried to blame bike lanes and other safety measures for the recent downturn in average Manhattan traffic speeds. Council Member Dan Garodnick, someone who generally gets how streets work and chooses his words carefully, was the first public figure on record to toss around that theory.

When you’re talking about the downsides of congestion, it’s tough to avoid framing the problem like an old-school traffic engineer, placing paramount importance on the movement of cars. Even on Streetsblog, we’ve run plenty of posts talking about the effect of Uber in terms of average traffic speeds. The trouble is that when you focus on how easily people can drive around the city, you create an opening for people to point their finger at anything that might slow down cars — like bike lanes, or a lower speed limit.

You can try to reason with these people and explain the difference between peak speed and average speed, or show the data about bike lane redesigns that had no discernible effect on traffic. And that might win some arguments. But if you want streets where bus riders have swift trips, where people of all ages feel safe walking and biking, you’re going to have to make some changes that — at least for a while, before a new equilibrium sets in — slow down cars.

We need to come at the problem from a different angle. So how about this: Traffic congestion in New York is terrible because it’s an obstacle to designing streets that work best for our city.

For readers who are new to Streetsblog, I’m talking about dedicated lanes for transit on avenues and major crosstown streets, so 60 people riding a bus don’t stew in traffic behind a few people in Suburbans. An extensive grid of protected bikeways on wide streets, so fear of speeding traffic doesn’t keep people from getting around on a bicycle. Pedestrian zones and generous sidewalks that don’t compel people to squeeze by each other and weave into the roadway for blocks at a time when things get too crowded.

A citywide curb-to-curb overhaul like this would do wonders. If you could snap your fingers and make it happen tomorrow, we’d have streets that are tremendously more productive, efficient, equitable, safe, and sociable than they are today. Way more people could get where they’re going, faster; way fewer people would get hurt or killed on the streets; and generally speaking we’d be in a much better mood.

But imagine the honking that first week! There might be riots during the adjustment period. Then, eventually, a lot of people accustomed to driving would figure out better ways to get around, and congestion would return to the same level as before.

Traffic congestion, in this sense, is a political problem. Where congestion is worse, the adjustment to a street redesign is more wrenching and the political cost is higher. Congestion makes City Hall more hesitant and DOT more timid when it comes to implementing things like bus lanes and Vision Zero projects.

I’m not saying that congestion is a valid excuse to do nothing, or to water down a project, but there’s no escaping the fact that it makes change harder. And it’s getting worse in Manhattan.

Ideally, New York would deal with its congestion problems through a better system of pricing for roads and parking than the jumble of traffic-inducing free bridges and cheap curb space we have today. This would free up street space to be more easily repurposed for transit, walking, and biking. With a good system, even on streets without transit lanes, buses would travel much faster. So would commercial traffic, which is much more important to the city than private car trips.

A well-designed system would have a specific price structure for taxi and livery trips, which contribute hugely to Manhattan congestion because of the intense incentive to pick up fares in the most crowded parts of town. This could be doubly beneficial, making for-hire vehicles more readily available in neighborhoods where transit service is not so copious.

That’s the ideal, anyway. But New York City can’t enact road pricing if the governor won’t let it happen, and so far Andrew Cuomo is implacably opposed. (De Blasio and his DOT could do a good chunk of the parking piece on their own, but that’s a separate post.)

What options does that leave City Hall right now? A citywide “Uber cap,” as proposed, is a blunt instrument — too blunt! Still, as Charles Komanoff has shown, the justification for it is rooted in the very real observation that Uber traffic is a major factor in the recent intensification of Manhattan congestion.

This is a problem for the de Blasio administration, and not just because the mayor got a lot of medallion money during his campaign. City Hall has laid out goals for street safety and bus improvements that will require shifting significant amounts of street space away from cars. If Uber traffic continues to grow at its current rate, that’s going to be an obstacle to Vision Zero and great bus service in the city core.

While an Uber cap for the congested heart of the city makes sense, limiting app-based car services outside the core is a different story. In places without good transit, services like Uber can fill gaps in the bus and subway network and make it easier to forgo owning a car. At the Awl, Matt Buchanan suggested a simple tweak to a citywide ceiling on for-hire vehicle licenses: capping app-based pick-ups in the center city, while leaving the rest of the five boroughs alone. Uber GM Mohrer called it “an example of a creative solution I would love to have with City Hall.”

We’ll see if that idea gets traction. The issue isn’t going away, and when City Hall’s study of the for-hire vehicle industry wraps up in a few months, we’ll get to argue about it all again. The next time around, let’s have a smarter debate.

  • ahwr

    The median bike lane in the graphic is asking for trouble. Pedestrians use the median as a refuge, don’t take that away by turning it into a through lane for bikes who will have a green when pedestrians are stopped.

  • ohnonononono

    Yeah, it looks like the sole ped in the rendering itself is standing in the bike lane! Poor design.

  • Jesse

    I agree. Since we are placing medians in, how about swapping the bus lane and the bike lanes? Center-running buses are so much better because you don’t have to worry about turning cars.

  • c2check

    And how are our intrepid bicyclists supposed to get to things along the street? Especially if there’s more than one bicyclist in the lane in front of you.

  • Alicia

    Revise the design to allow for both a bike lane and a proper median that do not overlap.

  • Alicia

    Sidewalk-adjacent bus lanes have one benefit, and that is facilitating easy boarding. To make center-running buses workable, you have to have a design that takes passenger boarding into account.

  • Reader

    There’s one group that has been notably absent from this discussion: major business leaders. A consortium of real estate firms, tech companies, banks, UPS, FedEx, etc. should come together and tell the city and state that congestion, not to mention crumbling transit, is killing the economy, draining the supply of middle class workers, and causing New York to lose ground to other cities that are investing in better subways, BRT, safer bike lanes, and infrastructure in general.

    Cuomo isn’t going to listen to city Democrats and transportation advocates. It’s all a cheap political power game to him. And de Blasio doesn’t have the guts to tell motorists that for the good of the economy and safety, their days of unfettered access to every inch of Manhattan are numbered. Major business groups might be the only ones who can snap NYC out of its provincialism and point decision makers to other ways of doing things that work the world over.

  • NYCyclist

    Excellent summary of our current situation, and what an ideal alternative can look like. But even under the more favorable administration of JSK, the overall speed of traffic remained a concern. Until our leaders (and citizens) accept that auto traffic speed (and congestion) should be last on our list of concerns, things won’t be able to change.

  • Joe R.

    I wholehearted agree. I’ve often disagreed with people here who think slow travel speeds are just part and parcel of living in a big city. The hard fact is NYC is huge. Everyone can’t be located near work or other points of interest. However, that doesn’t mean we should continue to accept that it’ll often take an hour or more to go 10 miles no matter what mode you use. That’s giving into defeat. The subways should move somewhat faster, there should be more subway lines in the outer boroughs. There should be congestion pricing so essential motor vehicles can make their rounds faster. There should be a backbone of “express” bike route where cyclists can cover most of their trip nonstop. There should be exclusive bus lanes and traffic signal priority for buses. You’re 100% correct that NYC’s world famous congestion is killing our economy, increasing the costs of goods and services, and making NYC an unattractive place to live or work. I say this as a life long NYer, but also as one who is glad given the difficulty of getting around nowadays to be working from home. I would hate to deal with the mess I read about on a daily basis but many others have no choice.

  • Komanoff

    This whole post is worth quoting. But this especially:

    “Traffic congestion, in this sense, is a political problem. Where
    congestion is worse, the adjustment to a street redesign is more
    wrenching and the political cost is higher. Congestion makes City Hall
    more hesitant and DOT more timid when it comes to implementing things
    like bus lanes and Vision Zero projects.”

    A simple yet revolutionary point? (Seems obvious now, but it never occurred to me.)

  • Rob

    28,000 new Uber cars on streets of New York City with 72% concentrating in Manhattan, and, nonetheless, Uber claims it’s “not a problem”. I for one am living here – not in California – and am unable to find parking – all spots are taken by black cars with “Uber” signs on them.

  • KeNYC2030

    Case in point: the recent changes in Central Park. Less-traveled North Loop, now miraculously car-free! The more “congested” South Loop: Commissioner Trottenberg says we need to “monitor” it.

  • Pittsburgh is a great example of Uber filling a transit void. Living in Center City Philly, I never use Uber. In my hometown Pittsburgh, I use it regularly.

  • Cars cause congestion. The more cars the more congestion. More road causes more cars. More cars cause more congestion.

    The only solution to congestion is less cars. Less road then less cars then less congestion. Taking road for transit and bikes and walkers takes road from cars. Less road. Less cars. Less congestion.

    Cabs are cars. Cabs are transit. Cars that get reused throughout the day mean less parking is needed. More cabs on the road means more cars. But more transit on the road means less cars. Cabs are net zero congestion-wise. Some people get off of transit and take a cab while some people get out of their car and take a cab.

  • Miles Bader

    Cabs are better than private cars, but they’re a far, far, far less efficient use of space than buses / streetcars / other mass transit that shares street space.

  • Like I said, cabs are net-zero as regards to congestion, Granted that is an unsupported by science opinion on my part. But I bet it’s close.

    As you allude, the logic that supports taking road from cars/cabs is that the same geometry can support moving more people. The plus for cars of taking road away from them is less congestion.

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