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KOMANOFF: Adams’s ‘Green Rides’ Initiative is Bad Transportation AND Climate Policy

Mayor Adams has made a bad decision to waive the de Blasio-era cap on the number of ride-hail vehicles allowed in New York City, so long as the extra cars are electric.

12:00 AM EDT on October 20, 2023

Photo: Josh Katz|

As far as congestion goes, these cars call all be EVs … and there would still be congestion.

Mayor Adams has made a bad decision to waive the de Blasio-era cap on the number of ride-hail vehicles allowed in New York City, so long as the extra cars are electric.

Let’s get it straight once and for all: Replacing the existing 78,000 Ubers and Lyfts with electrics would be a positive step, albeit a modest one. But adding space-hogging vehicles — of any propulsion — takes us backwards. Not just in terms of worsening street and highway gridlock but because the added congestion ensures increased emissions from the combustion vehicles still on the road.

Why? Because increases in vehicular volumes intensify stop-and-go driving — a condition that degrades engine combustion efficiency. That means greater emissions of carbon dioxide, the main climate pollutant, and also of toxic pollutants like fine particulates, a consequence I wrote about in my 2021 post on this site, Beware the EV Congestion Boomerang.

PM2.5 (fine particulates) are the most toxic "local" pollutant. Figures are averages for "light-duty" vehicles in California in 2017.

Look at the line graph above, which draws on the mix of gasoline-fueled cars and “light trucks” on California roads a half-dozen years ago. Dropping the average speed to 8 mph from 10 raises tailpipe emissions of particulates by one-quarter and carbon emissions by one-tenth. 

That’s not to say that the Adams administration’s cap-lifting for Uber and Lyft EV’s will have that big of an effect; the extent of the impact will depend on how many people will take advantage of the loophole to buy electric vehicles and become "ride-share" drivers. But each additional EV will — contrary to what the mayor said at his presser on Wednesday — compound New York’s air pollution while pushing the city and state’s climate goals further out of reach.

The timing is terrible too, as traffic guru “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz told Gothamist: “City officials should wait for congestion pricing to be implemented before making significant changes” (like opening the streets to more Ubers and Lyfts). “Otherwise, congestion pricing may mistakenly be blamed for worsening congestion” — an outcome that could poison the well here and for other U.S. cities that will gauge not just New York’s congestion and revenue benefits, but public reactions before attempting their own congestion pricing programs.

There’s also the touchy matter of emissions from generating the additional electricity to continually recharge all those new EV taxis: the power grid from which the EVs will draw their supposedly clean fuel is startlingly dirty. As you can see in the chart below, it's even slipping backwards, i.e., getting more, not less dependent on carbon-spewing fossil fuels.

Here's a view of that over the past few years:

Graph: Isuru Seneviratne

New York State’s electric grid is bifurcated. The upstate part includes the New York Power Authority's hydro-electric dams on the St. Lawrence River and Niagara River as well as four nuclear power generators, making it majority carbon-free. The downstate part, however, encompassing the Hudson Valley and Long Island along with New York City, is more than 90 percent fueled by gas (methane)-burning fossil fuel plants. Here's a pie chart of the fuels that were turned into downstate electricity last year:

The non-carbon share of the downstate grid feeding the city is stuck under 10 percent, in other words. Just four years ago, in 2019, it stood at 30 percent, before the anti-nukers led by Riverkeeper effectuated the permanent shutdown of the Indian Point complex in northern Westchester.

Needless to say, its replacement by green energy has yet to materialize. And while the arrival of Canadian hydropower via the Champlain-Hudson Power Express powerline is expected to arrest the decline several years from now, the date at which most of the “incremental” electricity for additional EV’s will come from non-fossil sources is many years away.

The upshot is that churning out additional power to recharge downstate EV’s will require fossil fuel plants, from the newly built Cricket Valley power station in Dutchess County to NYPA “peaker” plants in the South Bronx, to stay in service and run more often. This, of course, isn’t a reason to hold on to combustion vehicles, but the increased emissions (as well as how the city will allocate public space for all the charging stations it intends to permit) needs to be taken into account before we allow thousands of new fleet vehicles to add to existing ones.

A gas-fired peaker plant in Port Morris, South Bronx.Doug Goodman

Does Mayor Adams’s cap-lifting for electric ride-hail vehicles warrant an environmental evaluation? Of course it does. Is one in the works? Hardly. As I was wrapping this post, Gridlock Sam forwarded me this meager (five-page) “study” that apparently constitutes City Hall’s entire environmental review of unleashing an unlimited number of EVs on city streets. 

So it’s up to one of our clean-air or livable-streets organizations to file an Article 78 petition to compel a careful analysis. If congestion pricing, which indisputably will cut down on vehicle volumes, warranted an exhaustive review, then certainly allowing additional vehicles on our streets should receive at least a cursory check.

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