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Long and Winding Road

eye on the news

Long and Winding Road

New York may get congestion pricing the hard way. August 2, 2018
New York
Economy, finance, and budgets

New York’s streets are clogged with cars and trucks, and the proliferation of tens of thousands of for-hire Ubers and Lyfts over the past half-decade has crowded traffic even more. In less than a decade, speeds on New York City’s busiest streets have plummeted. In 2010, the average car or truck travelled at 9.1 miles per hour in Manhattan (below 60th Street); by 2016, the average speed was 7.2 miles per hour, a 21 percent decline. Near-standstill speeds at peak hours aren’t just bad for drivers. Walkers and cyclists must thread their way through cars and trucks stopped in crosswalks, bike lanes, and even on sidewalks.

While Uber, Lyft, and others have undeniably added a service for city residents, especially those living in the outer boroughs—more than 60 percent of Uber trips neither start nor end in core Manhattan—their presence has also clearly added to the city’s traffic woes. When Uber and its smaller competitors entered the market, advocates claimed that the addition of tens of thousands more cars on city streets would actually cut traffic by making car-hailing more efficient. A yellow-cab driver, after all, had to trawl the streets for a random fare; a Lyft driver is directed via his app. Evidence over the past half-decade, plus a new study by consultant Bruce Schaller, a former city transportation official, has disproved this theory. New supply has induced new demand: in a survey of 616 New Yorkers, half said that if it hadn’t been for the availability of Uber and its competitors, they would have taken mass transit; another 16 percent would have walked or cycled.

The most logical solution is a congestion-pricing system, along the lines of what former mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a decade ago, but updated for technological advances, including the ability to price for miles driven or time idling in Manhattan, not just a fee to enter the borough. In January, a panel commissioned by Governor Andrew M. Cuomo proposed congestion pricing for all vehicles, but Cuomo hasn’t pushed for it in the state legislature. The state approved a $2.75 fee on hired-car rides in core Manhattan as part of the state budget ($2 for yellow cabs), but the fee, effective next January, is likely more of a nuisance than a deterrent. Schaller calculates that the state and city would likely have to charge $50 an hour to make a dent in Manhattan traffic. Mayor Bill de Blasio, for his part, has not shown much interest in congestion pricing, except to say, incorrectly, that it’s a tax on the poor.

The city council has announced a spate of new bills to govern traffic, which it may vote on next week. The headline-grabber among them is a one-year cap on the issuance of new for-hire car and SUV registrations (except for wheelchair-accessible vehicles), a proposal that punts on the issue; a three-month cap should be long enough for the city to find a permanent fix. The council’s bills, taken together, are a crude form of congestion pricing, as they would direct the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission to use fines and penalties levied on each e-hailing company (not the driver) in order to spur the companies to meet new, to-be-determined standards on waiting and travel time when a driver doesn’t have a passenger and on actual sharing of rides, to spur car companies to become more efficient on public streets. E-hail companies could then pass those costs on to customers: if Lyft knows that it can’t meet its efficiency goal for a particular day, for example, it could jack the price up for a ride into Manhattan, thus directing many would-be passengers to find another way into town. Allowing the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) to impose this rough form of congestion pricing on the e-hail industry would, in turn, spur the industry to lobby the state legislature harder for congestion pricing on everyone, rather than be alone in facing the new levies.

Yet for any congestion fee to be a fee for service and not just another tax, New York must improve its increasingly unpredictable mass-transit system, which is forcing subway and bus riders to find other ways to get around: after falling slightly in 2016—0.3 percent—subway ridership cratered last year, dropping 1.7 percent, and bus ridership is down by much more. The Bronx and Queens saw the steepest drops, with subway ridership in the Bronx down 6 percent in the first five months of 2018 alone, and Queens ridership down 5 percent—the very places where e-hail ridership is increasing.

Last week, Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman Joe Lhota, the gubernatorial appointee ultimately responsible for the subways, said that some of this decline stems from people exercising free choice: “Some days I drink Coke, and some days I drink Pepsi,” he said. But to exercise free choice, people must have a choice. On Monday, the MTA abruptly shuttered a Brooklyn tunnel and rerouted trains due to “failing beams,” leaving riders stranded. An increasing number of commuters are resorting to Coke—often at 10 times or more the cost of Pepsi—because the unreliable, state-run MTA has ensured that Pepsi isn’t worth waiting for, at any price.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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