It’s Settled: Uber Is Making NYC Gridlock Worse

Graphic: Bruce Schaller
Graphic: Bruce Schaller

The controversy over Uber’s impact on Manhattan traffic has been settled. Uber, Lyft, and other app-based ride services are unequivocally worsening gridlock in the Manhattan core as well as northern Manhattan and the western parts of Queens and Brooklyn, according to a report released today by transportation analyst Bruce Schaller.

The new ride services, known as transportation network companies, or TNC’s, last year caused a net increase of 600 million vehicle miles traveled in the five boroughs — a 3 to 4 percent jump in citywide traffic, Schaller found. This trend marks a troubling inflection point — for the first time in many years, car-based services, not transit, account for most growth in travel.

To head off a downward spiral of increasing traffic and declining transit use, it’s incumbent on Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio to prioritize projects with wide-ranging impacts on the transportation system: subway signal upgrades, citywide off-board fare collection for buses, a comprehensive expansion of bus lanes and transit priority at intersections, and road pricing that factors in the impacts of TNC’s.

In 2013, the last year before Uber’s presence was felt, use of subways, buses, and bicycles grew substantially (see below). But by 2016, net growth in travel by Uber and other TNC’s far outstripped growth in those modes (see above).


Most of the upsurge is occurring outside the city’s Central Business District (Manhattan below 60th Street), Schaller reports. Nevertheless, he identifies growth in use of TNC’s as a prime cause of the 11 percent slowing of traffic in the Manhattan CBD from 2013 to 2016 noted in the mayor’s management report last September.

Schaller is highly regarded in transportation circles, and his report — “Unsustainable? — The Growth of App-Based Ride Services and Traffic, Travel and the Future of New York City” — will be widely read and carefully studied. Before serving as a top deputy to transportation commissioners Janette Sadik-Khan and Polly Trottenberg, Schaller’s career included stints at MTA NYC Transit and the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission, and his annual NY Taxicab Fact Books made him the go-to expert on for-hire vehicles.

In his new report, Schaller set out to determine not just how fast Uber and the TNC sector have grown, but which modes they are displacing. Here are some key findings:

  • In a marked reversal from the transit-oriented growth that lasted from 1990 to 2014, growth in for-hire vehicle use (TNC’s, yellows, greens, and all car services combined) is outstripping growth in transit ridership, making it the city’s leading source of growth in non-auto travel.
  • The estimated 7 percent net addition to vehicle mileage caused by TNC’s in Manhattan, western Queens, and western Brooklyn is the same magnitude as the decrease in vehicular travel that was expected from the 2007 Bloomberg congestion pricing proposal.
  • These trends only became apparent in the last year and a half, as TNC ridership tripled between June 2015 (the end of the period that City Hall examined in its December 2015 for-hire-vehicle transportation study) and the fall of 2016.

These developments are virtually certain to continue, Schaller asserts, fueled not just by the convenience, dependability, and cachet of Uber and other TNC’s, but by their low fares. Traditionally, a ride in a taxicab was four to five times as expensive as a subway or bus ride, which acted as a brake on usage. Now, however, “TNC fare offerings for shared trips during rush hour in Manhattan put TNC fares at less than twice the transit fare, dramatically weakening the disincentive to travel by auto,” Schaller concludes.

The resulting “reversal from transit-led to TNC-led growth in travel,” as Schaller characterizes it, “will have profound implications for the city’s transportation network if current trends continue.”

The app-based ride services were expected to confer an efficiency upgrade as they replaced taxi cruising (driving between fare trips) with swift arrival of the nearest available vehicle. Instead, deadheading is more prevalent with TNC’s, as Schaller found by painstakingly examining trip records available from the Taxi and Limousine Commission. Whereas taxi cruising tends to add seven to eight miles for each 10 miles of fare trips, the app-based vehicles tack on 12 to 13 miles. The difference is a big force-multiplier to gridlock.

The prospect of unconstrained growth in TNC traffic — and the concomitant worsening of gridlock and rise in emissions — lends new urgency to efforts to improve subway and bus performance.

Instead of dubious projects like Cuomo’s AirTrain to LaGuardia and de Blasio’s Brooklyn-Queens streetcar, the city’s political leadership needs to shift focus and deliver projects that will speed up the transit system as a whole. Modernizing subway signals to allow trains to run closer together, speeding up bus boarding with off-board fare collection, and prioritizing transit on city streets are “far more critical than headline-grabbing but low-ridership distractions like the LaGuardia AirTrain and BQX streetcar,” Schaller says.

The report also “raises the need to return to the subject of road pricing,” he writes. The Bloomberg congestion pricing proposal won’t suffice, he notes, since it would have let for-hire vehicles operate all day and run up congestion costs while paying just one toll.

The Move NY plan devised by traffic guru and former City Traffic Commissioner Sam Schwartz surmounts that problem via the on-board GPS now found in all TNC vehicles as well as yellow and green taxis. Charging for-hire vehicles by the mile and by the minute in the “taxi exclusion zone” (south of 110th Street on the West Side, and 96th Street on the East Side), as Schwartz proposes, would discourage their use and also add to revenues to finance transportation improvements.

Read Schaller’s report and take the time to digest its implications. It touches on virtually every consequential transportation trend and policy question facing the five boroughs and stands as the most thoughtful and thorough analysis of New York City traffic and transportation issues since the Bloomberg years. Give it a deep dive, and join me in congratulating Bruce for advancing the discussion on many fronts.

  • Put enforcement cameras on the bus and then you’ll see a real cultural change!

  • Frank Cicero

    Most app drivers dislike uber pool and related pool services for several reasons. Most of us do not accept uber pool and would rather let the app give ten minutes off the air. We are fighting for a driver opt out button and if it is approved ,most likely that option will delete itself.

  • Frank Cicero

    Ps, we are getting screwed with pool commissions on top of no tips which will likely change in the immediate future. Once that happens you will have more public transit ridership which should decrease gridlock

  • Frank Cicero

    Ps 2 , In order to level the field between apps, dial in car service and yellow , our union is petitioning the TLC to regulate mileage and time rates so that it will be a fair deal between the drivers and the public.

  • Willie Wilmette

    Why not deregulate taxis to put them on a level playing field.
    The playing field is already level, because taxi companies are able to switch to the rideshare model today if they choose to do so.

  • Willie Wilmette

    What would greatly help is lots of dedicated bus lanes so buses would have a level playing field or a slight advantage. Better yet, ban cars, including Uber, Lyft, & taxis from Manhattan. Can you imagine how much faster mass transit would be without traffic and the bus drivers make double or triple what taxi drivers make so it would be good for unions.
    Uber would of course offer UberBusSelect for those that are willing to pay twice as much in order to ride in a clean bus.

  • Willie Wilmette

    Wow, in Chicago it is just the opposite. In the morning, you are packing in like sardines. If it rains or snows, you may have to wait for the next train. More trains or car have not been added to solve this problem.

  • Willie Wilmette

    Except don’t NYC taxis pay a flat monthly amount that pays for all of their tickets?

  • Willie Wilmette

    Can taxis and limos be constrained from duplicating the A train?

  • Willie Wilmette

    The number of 20 year olds without drivers licences has decreased significantly in cities.

  • Willie Wilmette

    Only the rich should be able to avoid mass transit /sarcasm

  • Willie Wilmette

    Remove pedestrians from the street level and see how much better traffic moves. Raise the sidewalks to the 3rd or 4th floor and see what happens. Cover them like in Minneapolis & St Paul.

  • Frank Cicero

    The taxi medallion was put in place so that workers could make living and once it was paid off a driver could use it as a pension system. Too many envelopes passed under the table that ruined the system. Now we have yellow,green, apps, and car service bases. Totally unwarranted and ridcilious. The TLC forced uber to install a tipping option for the driver and I hope that will alleviate the app cesspool and tightwads which in turn will reduce gridlock.

  • Willie Wilmette

    Wow, from here it looks like it was put into place so taxi companies could restrain trade, jack up prices, and charge drivers so much that they need to drive 50 to 60 hours per week in order to make a living.
    When half of the medallions are owned by 10 companies, the owners were looking 10s & 100s of millions of dollars in their retirement.
    Medallions should be assigned to an individual, expire when he does, and then be put up for auction or leased by the city.

  • Frank Cicero

    Ok Willie ,I agree with your thinking as long as a driver does not have to work more than 50 hours per week , live conservatively comfortable and make a modest pension for him/herself at retirement age.

  • Never heard of that. But laws can be changed. (Well in theory. )

  • And self-driving cars will pull even more ridership off of public transit as they will do an infinitely better job of serving the first and last mile than mass transit does.

    About the only way I can see to keep urban rail mass transit viable once self-driving cars become the norm will be to build a bunch of high-density affordable mixed-use close to train stations.

  • When it snows hard you may never see another train for another couple of days.

    I have seen hordes of people standing on platforms on the O’Hare line waiting in-vain for trains in blizzard conditions when I was driving by on the Kennedy in my 18-wheeler.

  • Willie Wilmette

    Self-driving electric cars (and buses?) will be also better for the environment.

  • Andrew

    And self-driving cars will pull even more ridership off of public transit as they will do an infinitely better job of serving the first and last mile than mass transit does.

    Perhaps so for transit systems that exist for show or that are social services for the extremely poor, but real transit systems that people actually find useful are in far too space-constrained settings for self-driving cars to make any more sense than non-self-driving cars.

    About the only way I can see to keep urban rail mass transit viable once self-driving cars become the norm will be to build a bunch of high-density affordable mixed-use close to train stations.

    Well, yeah, as I was saying.

  • Marcin Jeske

    True, though you start hitting capacity limits of existing infrastructure eventually, like many North/South subway lines in NYC or DC’s Metro’s shared core tunnels. Certain central London streets can seem like a continuous bus belt. And unfortunately, in many cities the obstacles to expanding that infrastructure are perversely greater even though it provides greater capacity.

  • Contacto Dedocar

    Make no mistake.
    Car-Sharing (one person drives the car after another, but four seats are wasted on each trip because there is only one occupant), it is very different than Ride-Sharing (or CarPooling: a single car carries several people on the same trip).
    The first does not remove any car from traffic nor avoids traffic jams; But the second does, and also saves lots of costs and energy, and prevents a lot of air pollution.

  • Contacto Dedocar

    Self-driving cars could make gridlocks even worse:
    Once the car brings you to the centre (where there are no parking places) you send the car back to your garage, and command it to come pick you up a couple of hours later.
    That means that using a self-driving car allowed you to double the number of car trips, and two of them were 0 occupants (Efficiency = 0).
    Instead of making self-driving cars, we should develop ride-sharing (or carpooling) apps that help us to save expenses by sharing the travel costs between several people going in the same way, by harnessing our current cars’ empty seats during our daily trips to work and back home.
    This is what we are trying to do at DedoCar.

  • Will Mette

    Self-driving cars could make gridlocks even better:

    They could eliminate the need for parking lanes, so most streets could double the traffic. Self-driving buses would be an interesting developement.