Why Is There So Much Traffic in NYC? It’s the Free Roads, Stupid

Since the de Blasio administration attempted to cap for-hire cars this summer, the debate over Manhattan traffic has gotten louder, but not more productive. Uber claimed it definitely wasn’t the problem. Some council members wondered if bike lanes were slowing down cars. Amid all the noise, something important got lost.

When roads are free, traffic is clogged. Photo: Kevin Coles/Flickr
When New York streets are free, New York streets are clogged. Photo: Kevin Coles/Flickr

At a hearing about Manhattan traffic this morning convened by Borough President Gale Brewer, a simple consensus emerged: The fundamental issue is the limited amount of street space in the Manhattan core and the practically unlimited demand to use it. Unless New York puts a price on roads, traffic congestion is going to remain intense.

“We can’t unsnarl our streets unless vehicles that take up the space on the street are charged a price. Otherwise, the space that we clear out today — by capping tour buses or Uber cars or 18-wheelers — will be filled tomorrow by other vehicle owners,” said transportation economist Charles Komanoff. “And the price needs to apply to all vehicles… based on the space that they take up. Because space is a finite resource.”

“The least efficient mode of transportation is the single-occupant car,” said “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz, who in addition to his Move New York toll reform proposal, backed the elimination of parking placards for most government employees. “There is no reason to be parking for free on the most valuable land possibly on Earth.”

Others proposed more aggressive ideas, like banning personal cars completely. “Private vehicles coming into Manhattan is insanity,” said Steve McLoughlin, an organizer with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers District 15, a union for black car drivers. “I don’t think that Manhattan can handle much more than the professional drivers, than the trucks that are necessary to supply our businesses, and the first responders.”

McLoughlin, who commutes from Monmouth County each day, backed Move New York toll reform as a step in the right direction for reducing congestion.

Uber also backed Move New York, which would include surcharges for taxi and for-hire vehicles below W. 110th and E. 96th streets. (The Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade, which represents medallion owners, backs the plan too.)

“There are many potential solutions to congestion,” said Uber’s Nicole Benincasa. “The Move NY fair plan and congestion pricing is a very smart idea.”

The only path forward for Move NY runs through Albany, where Governor Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly rejected it. Meanwhile, the city is working on its own for-hire vehicle congestion study, setting the stage for what the mayor says is a “new deal” that will “rationalize the whole picture” of taxi and for-hire regulation.

Right now, the “whole picture” of the industry isn’t completely clear.

The Taxi and Limousine Commission doesn’t know the extent to which app-based trips are replacing traditional street hail trips or increasing overall demand for car travel, said TLC special advisor Bill Heinzen.

Complicating matters, TLC receives more data about yellow and green taxi trips than it does about for-hire vehicles, which only have to tell regulators where and when they pick up passengers, not where the trips end or how long they last.

“Ideally, all TLC-regulated vehicles would provide complete trip and fare data to the TLC on a regular and unmediated basis,” Heinzen said. “We have a lot of data, but we are always looking for more information.”

Uber said that it in addition to the data already required by TLC, it will soon give the city requested information on the time, distance, and endpoint of each trip. There’s a catch: At the city’s request, Uber said, the data is aggregated by hour and by taxi zone, an approximately zip code-sized area the commission uses to aid number-crunching. The records, which won’t be released to the public, are being used as part of the city’s congestion study, expected for release in November.

Today, Uber released its own report claiming the city’s study should take at least a year [PDF]. That earned a rebuke from City Council Transportation Committee Chair Ydanis Rodriguez, who criticized Uber for agreeing to give data to the city’s fast-tracked study, then turning around and badmouthing the timeline it had previously supported.

When it comes to a long-term fix for New York City congestion, of course, the sniping between City Hall and Uber is a sideshow. The main event is in Albany, where Governor Cuomo and the legislature have the power to untangle the city’s traffic mess.

Stay tuned.

Update 6:30 p.m.: An earlier of this story reported that Uber had already shared additional trip data with the city. Uber says it has reached a data sharing agreement with the city and will be sending those records to the city imminently.

  • Ray

    People never debate congestion in it’s simplest form. There are two types of cars, first a private vehicle that needs a parking spot, second is a taxi or uber taking people to a destination. The first problem is that cities allow more parking spaces in a neighborhood than the surrounding streets can reasonably support. So the first solution is to have a parking diet to a reasonable level, which will reduce the number of private vehicle that use the streets. The second problem is the amount of taxis/ubers in a neighborhood. The only reasonable way to control these vehicles is to institute road pricing. Parking diets combined with road pricing will easily make road congestion a thing of the past. Since this will increase the cost of private car transport, the city must then put a dedicated public transit corridor on every street, and increase the number of buses dramatically.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    plus – we are talking a dozen people per Day at most Fall Into this catagory.

    its a miniscule percentage of the issue. charging market clearing prices for parking and entering the CBD solves the situation.

    another argument in da our Of MoveNY

  • Br’er Rabbit

    People see bigness and heaviness of MVs as equating protection. Unfortunately, as you say, it takes a lot of fuel to move tons of steel & glass. You see mini Coopers and other ultra-small MVs on the road – you know they are just going to crumble if they were ever in a collision with a truck or SUV. People want to have an edge or a chance in case of a collision – given that everyone else is driving a big heavy MV, so they keep buying big, heavy MVs. It’s an unending cycle that feeds on itself. If everyone immediately switched to EV – as you say – then there wouldn’t be a danger from being hit by big, heavy MVs. But how will such a sea change occur?

  • Joe R.

    Of course that’s true, but do you not see something horribly wrong with this automotive arms race? Besides putting those who choose to drive sensible vehicles in harm’s way, the attitude of those who get larger vehicles “to be safe” borders on sociopathic. This attitude is more easily translated into “I’m fine with more people dying in a vehicle I hit if it means I’m safe.”

    A sea change would have to occur legislatively. You limit the size and weight of passenger vehicles by legislative fiat. You can also mandate other things like efficiency and battery-electric propulsion at the same time. Any vehicle which is larger or heavier, say for a special purpose, would be classed differently, and only sold to people who could demonstrate a regular need for it. For example, an SUV or a pickup truck might only be allowed to be sold to someone who regularly carries large loads as part of their business. The use of this vehicle would be restricted to their business, and they would have to park it in nonresidential areas when not in use. You might even require a license endorsement to operate such a vehicle. The general idea though is to make owning larger or heavier vehicles full of restrictions and higher costs to prevent people from driving them solely as passenger vehicles. You might also have limits on how many the automakers can manufacture. In fact, if we did that, while also counting trucks/SUVs into the CAFE calculation, these vehicles just wouldn’t exist in large enough numbers for everyone and his brother to be driving one. They’re really an abomination.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    SUVs are insanely dangerous cars – for their occupants

  • CJ

    they just need to build underground roads criss crossing the city.

  • Teddy

    There is a distinction lost in all of this, with regard to ‘personal’ vehicles.

    If you a resident of NYC, home address in the city, and you own a car, it is no different than if you live in Princeton, or Rockland County, or Tenafly, NJ — you have every right as a full-time resident of that locality to own and operate a car.

    Here’s the distinction…if you are a COMMUTER who’s driving your personal car into the city, then perhaps we do regulate and / or restrict THOSE vehicles by shifting ALL commuters onto mass transit.

    The REALITY is that the city resident with a car, particularly in Manhattan is NOT using that car on a daily basis to drive Uptown or Downtown to go to work or the grocery story. We’re already riding the subway, walking, biking, or hopping a cab/ride service.

    So when we see people saying ‘restrict ALL personal cars’ you can’t – a voting, tax paying NYC resident has every right to own their car in the city.

    For the rest of you – for sure, keep your car at home – the majority of those personal cars jamming the tunnels, bridges and streets ARE NOT NYC RESIDENTS.

  • Andrew

    you have every right as a full-time resident of that locality to own and operate a car.

    There is no such right.

  • brainburst

    The big problem with new york traffic is #1 Manhattan-centricity. There needs to be more commercial/office/business development at the outer edges of the city. This would also help decongest the subways since everyone wouldn’t be going to Manhattan in the rush hour. Making the Subways less crowded would encourage drivers to take the subways. It’s all related as you can see.
    Furthermore there needs to be a quick convenient way via mass transit to get around the city WITHOUT PASSING THROUGH MANHATTAN FIRST. There should be a couple of express bus routes going from the Bronx->Queens->Brooklyn->Staten Island and back stopping at critical transit hubs along the way. At least two lines an inner loop and an outer loop Perhaps with a crossover point at the Norhern and southern ends of the runs. Getting all pass through passengers off Manhatten bound trains would ease over crowding thus again making it more convenient for people that actually need to be in Manhattan to leave their cars home.

  • brainburst

    In terms of Medical centers we should provide incentives to move at least some of those centers to the out edges of the city.

  • brainburst

    Attack the idea on its own merits. If you can’t find any fault with an idea but who it is attached to, you’ve lost the argument.

  • John sams

    How about weekends? Are we allowed to drive out of the beloved city???

  • Joe R.

    Weekends are often just as horrid. Once when coming back from a relative’s in NJ we made the mistake of taking the Lincoln Tunnel instead of the Throgs Neck. It took us over 30 minutes to go from there to the Queensboro Bridge, and this was after midnight. The bottom line is we need tolling to keep traffic levels sane 24/7, not just during weekday rush hours. My own preference to to monitor traffic levels and adjust the tolls in real time. If it’s 3AM with virtually no traffic in Manhattan the toll could be zero. Same thing on weekends or during any other time when an additional vehicle doesn’t add to existing congestion. On the flip side the toll might be $50 or $100 during the height of weekday rush hours. Such real-time pricing would let those who can adjust their travel schedules or mode of travel to do so, which is the real goal of congestion pricing.

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