A Flat “Congestion Charge” for Taxis and Uber: Yea or Nay?

Would a new surcharge on taxi and for-hire vehicle trips in Manhattan below 59th Street thin out traffic on congested streets? Not much it won’t, according to transportation economist Charles Komanoff, whose traffic analysis has helped shape the Move NY toll reform campaign.

It shouldn't matter what color your taxi is -- but it should matter where the trip goes. Photo: Shuggy/Flickr
Photo: Shuggy/Flickr

Every year the city’s Independent Budget Office releases a list of options to cut expenses and raise revenue for the city budget [PDF]. This year, the IBO suggests a surcharge of $2.25 for taxi trips and $2.75 for FHV trips beginning below 59th Street (page 88). The difference makes up for the $0.50 surcharge earmarked for the MTA that’s currently levied only on taxi rides.

The IBO’s taxi surcharge idea comes at an intriguing moment. The de Blasio administration is currently finalizing its report on the effect of Uber, Lyft, and other app-based car services on Manhattan congestion. And the Move NY plan still has an opening in Albany in the next few months, as Governor Cuomo and the state legislature search for ways to pay for the MTA capital program and upstate roads and bridges.

On the surface, the surcharge proposal seems to have some appeal. Implementing the fee only for trips starting in the traffic-choked central business district could hypothetically ease congestion by spreading taxi and FHV traffic outward. And adding an MTA surcharge on Uber, Lyft, and similar services could help make up for the $10 million in annual revenue the agency says it has lost due to the rise of e-hail apps.

But Komanoff says a flat surcharge, as opposed to one based on trip length, won’t do much as a traffic reduction strategy, because it privileges long rides over short ones, which would be “both unfair and inefficient.” In addition, a taxi/FHV charge alone, without broader toll reform, would have a marginal effect on congestion. Komanoff put the IBO’s proposal to the test in his Balanced Transportation Analyzer and found that a $2.25 surcharge on taxis would lead to a 1.4 percent increase in traffic speeds — and a 1.8 percent decrease in FHV usage.

A surcharge, preferably tied to the length of a trip, would make much more sense within the context of the Move NY toll reform plan, which would put a price on the free East River bridges and driving across 60th Street into downtown Manhattan, while reducing tolls on outlying crossings. “That would thin out traffic within the CBD sufficiently to generate more fares per hour (benefiting drivers) and speed trips (benefiting passengers) — enough to more than offset the added direct cost of the surcharge,” Komanoff said.

The IBO does suggest bridge tolling, but not the Move NY plan. Instead, it proposes a one-way toll of $11.08 on East River bridges and $5.08 on Harlem River bridges. Moving the northern cordon from 60th Street to the Harlem River, however, would both yield less revenue and shift the burden to outer borough residents, going against the political imperatives that Move NY has tried to follow.

Move NY’s Alex Matthiessen commended the IBO’s focus on addressing gridlock, but questioned “why they’re trying to reinvent the wheel.”

  • Alexander Vucelic

    a $11 toll on East river & a $5 on Harlem River Bridges does sound rather nice. 30% of motor traffic in CBD has no destination in CBD, they are símply driving through Manhattan from Long Island to Jersey. 30% !!!!

  • rao

    The 60th street cordon would be politically hard. Wait till the local CBs get wind of it. Probably somebody in the IBO lives on the UES and doesn’t want to pay a toll to drive downtown. Whereas the Bronx is more easily ignored.

  • ZB

    There aren’t enough taxis on the road anyways – the yellow medallion cabal has made sure of that (it’s also why Uber makes so much money). This won’t do anything for congestion.

  • tbatts666

    We are all traffic. Dumb to single out Essentially shared vehicles. It’s basically giving solo driving a subsidy over other modes.

    Cars take up space is they are parked or moving.

  • Flakker

    Stupid, stupid, stupid. The city and its agencies flat-out refuse to do anything the simple way. Just match the surcharge for FHVs and taxis across the board, regardless of where trips start or finish. And privileging long trips over short ones is GOOD, that’s the way the current system is set up and it is appropriate given that a car will beat a subway or bus over most long-haul runs, in a route that puts it on a highway instead of clogging a street.

  • bolwerk

    For taxis, it’s not good because more expensive short trips encourage drivers to drive recklessly. The price should be pretty evenly proportional to the time spent in the vehicle to avoid that.

  • Flakker

    I assume the existing fare structure was established to discourage runarounds. If you want to change that, let’s have that discussion, but it’s a separate issue from this overcomplicated surcharge which doesn’t go to the driver or taxi owner anyway.

  • Bernard Finucane

    I agree. I don’t understand why taxis should be given better treatment. Maybe because they don’t take up parking space?

  • tbatts666

    How are taxis given better treatment?

  • Bernard Finucane

    Depends what city we’re talking about. In London taxis are exempt from the congestion charge. Many cities allow taxis to use bus lanes. And so on.

    Some of these exemptions are obvious, like allowing taxis better parking spots at train stations and airports. But that seems related to where they park as opposed to their movements.

  • New York

    Y’all just so dumb, aren’t you? Why don’t you go back and pay the tax on tea from China to the British too?

    New Yorkers are dumb for tolerating this nickel and diming us…

    I won’t take any car service that charges me any fee for the MTA, period.

    If I didn’t use the service, then I won’t pay it. Period, end of debate.

  • New York

    Isn’t it enough that they use armed employees of the department of the executive branch to pay extortion fees for a privilege to drive when most of this state don’t fit the statutory definition of a DRIVER?

    You people need to stop bending over for them to nickel and dime you for services you don’t get.

    You need to stop that entitlement crap fighting for a privilege that is inferior to your protected right to travel.

    Search for the Senator Wayne H. Stump letter announcement that you don’t need a drivers’ license, registration or even plates because it’s legal to not have them… Educate yourself, ignorance is not bliss, it’s enslavement and it’s expensive.

  • New York

    Are you insane or mad?

    Traffic is a term of commerce and if you aren’t engaged in trafficking persons or goods for a fee, then you don’t even need a license registration or even plates… Educate yourself, and free your mind.

    Google the Senator Wayne H Stump letters and announcements about this topic…

  • New York

    Hey you! Do you even know the statutory definition of a DRIVER?

    If you are not paid to be behind the wheel, you don’t even need to have plates registration or even a license, period.

    And you definitely are not obligated to pay bridge tolls either.

    Google the Senator Wayne H Stump letters and announcements about this topic.