Congestion pricing, not a cap on Uber, will fix NYC traffic woes, report says

A broad cap on e-hail vehicles would hurt, not help, New York City's dire congestion issue, according to a recent report by the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.
A broad cap on e-hail vehicles would hurt, not help, New York City’s dire congestion issue, according to a recent report by the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

Congestion pricing, not an Uber cap, would be the best way to manage the city’s mounting traffic, according to a new report to be published Tuesday.

The brief from the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, titled Hire Congestion, argues that a hard cap on the number of e-hail vehicles on the street would negatively impact service in lower-income, outer-borough neighborhoods by potentially creating an unsavory secondary market similar to that of taxi medallions.

“It speaks to one of the failures of the capping system of yellow cabs; the more expensive this is, the less likely that a yellow cab operator would go to places where there are marginal profits,” said Nick Sifuentes, the executive director at the nonprofit and author of the report. “Making the barrier to entry lower, in terms of cost, for a driver means that more people can actually access the service. Just doing a blanket cap is only going to sort of recapitulate existing failed structures.”

The report comes as the city scrambles to regulate the surging number of e-hail vehicles as traffic congestion continues to worsen and drivers struggle to make ends meet. There were 85,200 for-hire vehicles in 2016 — more than double the 41,200 vehicles recorded in 2010, according to a recent city mobility report. At the same time, travel speeds in Manhattan below 60th Street slowed to 7.2 mph last year, a drop from 9.1 mph in 2010.

Looking at Taxi & Limousine Commission data from the last six months of 2017, TSTC found that 36 percent of e-hail pickups and drop-offs are made in neighborhoods where the average income is below $45,000. That rider base makes up 26 percent of yellow cab service and more than 40 percent for green cabs, which were introduced in 2013 to try and fill gaps in yellow cab service outside Manhattan. That chunk of e-hail service could be wiped away if the city instituted a blanket cap on the vehicles, Sifuentes warned.

Congestion pricing, like the model proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Fix NYC panel early this year, would be a more equitable solution and could be coupled with time-based service limitations for the most congested parts of the city, according to the report, because revenue from congestion fees would also fund the MTA’s subway system.

“A cap on vehicles or other mechanisms of controlling [e-hails] doesn’t actually do the core thing that we need, which is improving the transit system,” Sifuentes said. “It just basically says, ‘There’s too much congestion, so let’s give people fewer options.’”

Both Mayor Bill de Blasio and City Council speaker Corey Johnson have offered support for more regulation of Uber as the Council weighs a package of bills on the topic, including one from Brooklyn Councilman Steve Levin that would institute a temporary cap on the number of e-hails.

“The majority of Uber trips are happening outside of Manhattan and a cap would harm New Yorkers who live in underserved communities long ignored by yellow taxi,” said Alix Anfang, a spokeswoman for Uber. “Transit advocates and academics agree that comprehensive congestion pricing is the best way to solve for congestion in Manhattan, and Uber will continue to work alongside them to push for its passage.”

Levin’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment. The Taxi & Limousine Commission has indicated that it would be open to seeking other forms of growth control, besides a cap.

“This report highlights the need for managing growth in the for-hire vehicle sector in a way that takes into account the mobility needs of New Yorkers outside of Manhattan,” said Rodney Stiles, assistant commissioner for data and technology, in a statement.

Cuomo, who said congestion pricing was an “idea whose time has come” last year, has failed to gain support for the plan, though at an unrelated news conference Monday he pledged to make it a “priority” during the next legislative session in January.

“We have to reduce volume and congestion in the city,” Cuomo said. “It’s not just about the resources from congestion pricing, we can’t handle the volume. The rail system has to be advanced because we can’t handle the vehicular volumes.”

Sifuentes reasoned that the governor could have a better shot getting approval for congestion pricing next session because revenue from a pricing plan could help fund the MTA’s recently released and widely respected “Fast Forward” initiative to modernize subway and bus service, which has been estimated to cost $19 billion, though the authority hasn’t finalized a cost.

“Fast Forward is basically the answer we’ve been waiting for,” Sifuentes said. “Funding it is 100 percent on legislators. And it’s going to be much, much harder for legislators to hide behind that, oh, they don’t know how the MTA is going to spend the money.”