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As the New York Subway Melts Down, the City Moves to Cap the Number of Ubers and Lyfts on the Streets

Making the Big Apple less mobile.

Richard B. Levine/NewscomRichard B. Levine/NewscomUber and Lyft have gotten too popular too quickly for city councils across the country over. In June, D.C. raised its tax on rideshare trips from 1 percent to 6 percent. A similar proposal is working its way through the San Francisco. And yesterday New York City Council President Corey Johnson threw his support behind legislation to freeze the number of licenses granted to new rideshare drivers for a year. The bill would also restrict when and where they can offer rides in the city.

"This is the plan that we came up with and in my heart I believe it's the best path forward," Johnson tells The New York Times. "Our goal has always been to protect drivers, bring fairness to the industry and reduce congestion."

Noticeably absent from Johnson's stated goals: helping people get around town.

The idea of a cap is not new. In 2015, Mayor Bill De Blasio pushed for a limit on rideshare vehicles but backed down after stiff opposition from city councilmembers (including Johnson). The mayor's office has issued supportive statements for Johnson's latest initiative.

A day before Johnson made his announcement, former New York City transportation official and longtime rideshare skeptic Bruce Schaller released a report that purports to show that these services have added 2.8 vehicle miles travelled for every mile of personal auto travel they have eliminated. The report likewise claims that carpooling services such as Lyft Line and UberPOOL add 2.6 vehicle miles for every mile of personal auto travel that they remove.

The reason for this, according to Schaller, is that ridesharing services mostly scoop up riders who would otherwise be biking, walking, or taking mass transit. His report argues for aggressive government intervention to prevent rideshare companies form swallowing cities whole, through higher taxes, possible caps on rideshares, and "space-efficiency" requirements for rideshare fleets. (The latter is basically a mandate to operate buses instead of personal vehicles.)

Ridesharing companies hotly contest these findings. A Lyft spokesperson points Reason to the San Francisco Bay Area, where traffic congestion dropped 5 percent last year while the number of Lyft rides increased by 49 percent. A study from the UCLA's Institute for Transportation Studies found little evidence that people were making the switch from public transit to ridesharing services in California.

These findings focus on California, not New York City, where both ridesharing and traffic congestion have increased in the past couple years. But if congestion can rise in one city where ridesharing is growing while falling in another, that suggests other factors are at play. Like, say, the New York subway system being in a state of crisis.

Plummeting on-time rates. Constant maintenance problems both at the stations and along the tracks. Sewage pouring from ceilings. The subways are in such terrible shape these days that Gov. Andrew Cuomo promised emergency repairs last year. But as The New York Times noted this week, little progress on these fixes has had been made, "despite the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on repairs."

That miserable situation doesn't just help explain why subway riders would be switching to Uber and Lyft. It shows what a dismal idea it is to put a cap on ridesharing services just when they're needed the most.

With a cap in place, rideshare drivers would be more likely to confine their trips to the busiest parts of town, where both demand and fares are high. Citizens of the outer boroughs would lose out.

Arva Rice, president of the New York Urban League, made this very point in a May article for Crain's. A rideshare cap might reduce congestion in the central business district, she notes, but it could also "devastate transportation options in the rest of the city, predominantly communities of color, which have long been underserved and overlooked by transportation officials and independent cab drivers."

Meanwhile, Uber has rolled out a "De Blasio's Uber" mode on its app, which tells users there are either no cars available or that there will be a 25 minute wait.

No city in America currently caps the number of rideshare vehicles, and past efforts to impose a cap in New York City have failed. But rideshare companies' reputation has fallen since then, making the industry an easier target. If this idea takes hold, New Yorkers will get to have two hobbled transportations options instead of just one.

Photo Credit: Richard B. Levine/Newscom

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  • Microaggressor||

    Meanwhile, Uber has rolled out a "De Blasio's Uber" mode on its app, which tells users there are either no cars available or that there will be a 25 minute wait.
    Very nice. I want to see more stunts like this.

  • Rich||

    "Our goal has always been to protect drivers, bring fairness to the industry and reduce congestion."

    Noticeably absent from Johnson's stated goals: helping people get around town.

    "Your safety is our top priority. That's why we don't provide a service."

  • Restoras||

    *golf clap*

  • Tionico||

    Yup. If no one rides Uber or Lyft then no one gets hurt on Uber or Lyft.

    Flawless logic. Epic fail.

    One can say the same thing about airine travel. Yet people still fly, often.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Consumer Choice: The Bureaucrat's Bane

  • Jerryskids||

    "This is the plan that we came up with and in my heart I believe it's the best path forward," Johnson tells The New York Times. "Our goal has always been to protect drivers, bring fairness to the industry and reduce congestion."

    Christ, what an asshole dick.

  • Happy Chandler||

    Implementing user fees for people looking to use common goods for commercial enterprises? The horrors!

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    In this case, do you mean roads?

  • Happy Chandler||

    Yes, roads.

  • Tionico||

    roads as capital investments are largely paid for by property taxes, on the idea that those who live in an area and pay property taxes directly(they own) or indirectly (landlord owns, part of the rent) benefit directly from the use of those roads, moving either themselves or goods/services on those roads.

    Vehicle registration fees and taxes, and fuel taxes, then are supposed to pay for the maintenance of those roads, on the idea that they who use them more, wear them out more, and will burn more fuel to pay their share of the wear and tear and resultant repair.

    So, that being the case, WHY shoud Uber/Lyft pay more taxes? They are not about moving themselves about on those roads, but about moving they who live in the area. The theoretical distriution of costs and revenues does not change. Joe used the roads near him whether he walks on them rides a bike, takes Yellow Cab, the bus, tram, train, Uber or Lyft.

  • JFree||

    There's no problem with user fees for that imo. The problem is that:

    a)user fees CAN NOT and should not be the means by which the capital costs of the infrastructure itself should be funded.
    and
    b)munis should get out of the business of trying to monopolize the operating functions of that infrastructure. IOW - they shouldn't be operating trains/buses/etc - they should only be operating bus stops and stations and such -- and THEN they can lease access to those to commercial enterprises

  • Tionico||

    that;s called FASCISM: government control of private means of production.

    Those rideshare cars are "means of production", and NYC seek to control how many, how, and when they can be used.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    It's fun watching the death of one crony industry and the birth of its replacement.

  • Rhywun||

    As the New York Subway Melts Down

    LOL get a fainting couch for Britches here. Dude, we are no where near "melt-down" levels. Ask anyone who lived through the 1970's.

  • JFree||

    The reason for this, according to Schaller, is that ridesharing services mostly scoop up riders who would otherwise be biking, walking, or taking mass transit.

    He is absolutely right.

    His report argues for aggressive government intervention to prevent rideshare companies form swallowing cities whole, through higher taxes, possible caps on rideshares, and "space-efficiency" requirements for rideshare fleets.

    And then turns into a moron.

  • Rhywun||

    He is absolutely right.

    I'm skeptical. In NYC, Uber is exactly as expensive as the car services (or "limos") they used to be known as (which is to say, at least as expensive as a taxi and often much more). Not a lot of us have the funds to switch from a $2.75 subway ride to a $30 or $40 car fare for anything but one-off trips (airport, late-night partying, etc.). And even then, we were already using taxis or car services for those trips if we could afford it.

    The folks who use Uber the most are Manhattanites who could already afford to take a taxi short distances all the time. Those people weren't using the subway before and they're still not.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    I've always been a little fascinated with how Uber is received by the public in a place like Manhattan where a cab can be called by raising your arm on a curbside. For most other cities, especially left-coast cities, that's not really an option, so you're either riding the bus which is very cheap, but you're going to wait anywhere from a few minutes to an hour plus possibly make a couple of transfers, depending on how well the system is working at a given moment, or a cab which, except in a few areas, has to be called by telephone and dispatched*. Of course, the dispatched cab has to come from wherever the hell it is which probably isn't that close, yadda yadda. Uber has been a boon to those cities because I don't even live in the central core, and I can call an Uber that will be at my doorstep literally in two minutes.

    Also, the fact that I don't even have to carry a wallet to pay for the Uber is also a bonus.

    But in Manhattan, is it really faster/better to call an uber than just grab a cab?

    *Until recently of course when the old-world cab companies started allowing hailing by app.

  • Rhywun||

    I don't even live in the central core, and I can call an Uber that will be at my doorstep literally in two minutes.

    Same here. I've only used it to get to the airport and back myself - and thank God the company was paying for it because one time it was like 80 bucks.

    As for Manhattan, I bet Uber is much easier during rush hour or at 4AM - two times when it can be very frustrating to get a taxi.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    As for Manhattan, I bet Uber is much easier during rush hour or at 4AM - two times when it can be very frustrating to get a taxi.

    Is that because the uber is being called for you as opposed to the first-come-first-serve aspect of hailing a cab?*

    *I'm a yokel who's only tried to hail a cab in Manhattan once in my life.

  • stuartl||

    4 PM shift change time too

  • Peacedog||

    Uber is a godsend to those living in the outer boroughs. While slightly less expensive than a cab, it is really about accessibility. Before ride sharing if you asked a cabbie for a ride into the outer boroughs, or even the airport, they would either refuse or demand an off meter fare that was outrageous.

    And that is really what Manhatanites are upset about.

    New York is a feudal city where the nobility live in Manhattan and the peasants are relegated to the outer boroughs.

    Ride sharing is "unseemly" because it allows for the free movement of the plebes. Ever notice how the subway in the outer borough largely moves east to west with little ability to move south to north?

    It is to keep people in their place. That is the same reason for all of the tolls coming into Manhattan. Can't have the poor folks freely moving about.

  • JunkScienceIsJunk||

    I've always been a little fascinated with how Uber is received by the public in a place like Manhattan where a cab can be called by raising your arm on a curbside.

    I order uber even when a cab is sitting right in front of me. Four reasons: 1) I don't want to get screwed (cabs have ripped me off time and time again); 2) It's easier to pay; 3) Cabs are smelly death traps that throw advertisements as bright as the sun into my face; 4) Cabs are almost always more expensive.

  • JFree||

    I didn't realize that ride-shares were as expensive as the car services in NY.

    Not mentioned in this article - but do you think the recent taxi driver suicides are a reason for why NYC is doing what they're doing?

  • Chucknorrisjr||

    This is not true. I have lived in NYC for 10 years. Uber Pool and Via (uber competitor) offer pooled rides from wall street all the way to the top of upper West side for $5 to $10 during the day. A taxi would charge $30 to $40 for this. Sure, it takes a bit longer as the ride is pooled but it's still much more pleasant than the subway or a dirty taxi.

  • Bubba Jones||

    I use Uber as a substitute for car rentals and occasionally personal car trips.

    Uber can be cheaper than parking.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Even if it's more expensive than parking, once you subtract what you would have paid for parking, the ride gets much cheaper, plus, depending on the venue, you get curbside service.

  • DrZ||

    When in San Francisco I use Uber to get around. I use it to get to restaurants and plays, etc. because parking in downtown SF is prohibitive and the traffic can be ugly.

    I wonder if if the do-gooders who want to penalize Uber realize there is a lot more than rides going on. Uber is getting moving people to places where they spend money.

    I would never go to a restaurant on the spur of the moment using public transport, my car or a cab.

  • JunkScienceIsJunk||

    I live in a major city that has poor public transit. But when I moved here, I sold my car because I don't need that added expense and hassle. Nowadays I would say I use Uber approx 10 times a week. Most rides cost me about $4-$5 after tip because I'm content using Pool or Line most of the time. It's even less than that because I can use pre-tax dollars for rides to/from work. So in effect, we're talking $3-$4 per ride. Long trips I use Enterprise. Quick trips to the suburbs I use Zipcar (also a good emergency option). These services have made it so I can completely go without car ownership in a city with shitty subway/bus services, and I save money in the process.

  • sharmota4zeb||

    The New York City of the future will be very pedestrian friendly. The new residential skyscrapers going up have sections of affordable housing that low income people apply for. That penthouse apartment will come with a pre-screened low income neighbor who will work on your block rather than look for employment in distant areas. It's the progressive utopia.

  • Don't look at me.||

    Because the weather in New York is always so nice for walking. Even in the winter.

  • Earth Skeptic||

    Actually, in the NYC limo-liberal version, that pre-screened prole will work in your penthouse. Part of the screening will address tendencies to murder rich people in their sleep.

  • Flinch||

    Socialism is never friendly. The amount of force required to maintain pickpocket politics as an ongoing enterprise is brutish. NYC will be mean and nasty - at least that's where we stand today with denizens voting in goons like DeBlasio.

  • DrZ||

    Uber is the product of capitalism. It must be punished so that it understands that only the government can offer rides.

  • Longtobefree||

    I think the phrase is "take you for a ride", not "offer rides"

  • Rock Lobster||

    Comrade Chairman De Blasio and the NYC Central Committee illustrate yet again why communists should all be killed.

    For the People!

  • JunkScienceIsJunk||

    One of the things that's not often mentioned is that the artificially high barrier to entry imposed by government policy means that there are in effect only two rideshare companies. What if there were ten rideshare companies instead? Would prices go up or would prices go down? (I think we know the answer to that...)

    If prices went down, more people would choose to use these services, which means that the ratio between number of miles driven to number of miles eliminated would go down. It would mean higher consumer benefits, even if it meant that a ride was less lucrative for a driver (which would be the reason the ratio would go down).

    So if Mr. Johnson is so interested in reducing the ratio, as he says he is, he should consider lowering the barrier to entry. This is why I have a feeling that's not his true motivation. His true motivation, most likely, is saving someone else's failing industry (the cab drivers, rail, etc).

  • SimonP||

    Every Reason story on transit issues ought to carry a huge disclaimer: "Reason receives material financial support from the Koch Family Foundation, which has systematically opposed expansion of mass transit networks across the country."

    Not to put too fine a point on it: Rideshare is not a suitable substitute for mass transit. Not in NYC, not anywhere. It certainly serves a purpose - and rideshare caps are more about protecting medallion owners than anything else. But it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever to assert - as Reason contributors typically do - that rideshare can be any kind of meaningful substitute for mass transit, particularly in a city as dense as NYC.

    Every one of these stories that amplifies the issues of the NYC subway just smacks of disingenuous, pro-car propaganda.

  • Flinch||

    As a percentage play, opposing mass transit is a winner. It only seems to work in NYC and Chicago, where the city is more vertical than horizontal in mass. Some observations from my travels and visits around the country over the decades...
    Typical wait time for a bus in greater LA? 40 minutes. Add the walking time to/from the stop and you burn two hours of your day getting nothing done [assuming round trip].
    Houston? Might as well get a bicycle if you don't want to drive. No discernable service in that town, but Texans love their cars. With enough buses, it too can be as horrible as LA.
    Detroit? I was there mid winter in the late 80s and the neighborhood I visited didn't get plowed until 3 days after big storms. The blight was in its infancy... Own a snowmobile and a firearm.
    Mid sized cities: They want to be big, but need to give it up. Really. I happened across Baton Rouge and noticed that despite there being plenty of land to get easements, that city has not put turnout #1 in place anywhere for their buses which they label CATS - I dubbed it Clog All The Streets, as city buses all have to stop in the lane and block traffic for every pickup/dropoff. I note by comparison that despite precious square footage being available in NYC, they have turnouts.
    DC? Is a special case: their problem is too many work exactly the same hours [at 19th century style centralized locations designed to cope with moving paper]. Otherwise, it falls into the mid-city category.

  • Clara Morris||

    I really do not understand why some countries and cities literally start to hunt down Uber and Lyft. They provide services where countries/cities do not have a solid alternative to public transportation.

  • Flinch||

    I don't use uber or lyft, but it occurred to me that places like NYC and DC are run by imbeciles. Their business model does not purchase a fleet to stuff inside a city [like taxi service does] - existing local private autos serve double duty, providing transportation to more than just the owner. This "adds" to congestion? Not likely. The arguments being made by elected hacks border on outright fraud. Ridesharing companies need to step to the plate and sue for relief... before the jackals raise taxes on them so high as to cease commerce. Come to think of it, NYC should sunset taxis. Yes there's a quaint history, but smart phone technology is a sea change that allows paid drivers to not troll the streets looking to get flagged for a fare [needlessly using energy which drives up total costs] - they can park and wait for the request. That gets them OFF the road when there's no passenger. The business of having both taxis and city buses is a model that is ready to die.

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