As Uber and Lyft burst onto our streets and smartphones, they promised benefits to all. Passengers would get a quick, convenient alternative to the hide-bound taxi industry. Shared rides would replace solo drivers. Uber promised to take “1 million cars off the road in New York City.”
Today in New York, we finally have the data to see how these promises are working out. It’s not a pretty picture. On-demand companies are fueling a cycle of increasing congestion and declining transit use, and it demands immediate attention by Mayor de Blasio and Gov. Cuomo.
Initially, on-demand companies grew mostly by attracting yellow cab passengers. A January 2016 report from Mayor de Blasio, which I helped prepare, concluded that growing Uber and trips were not the primary cause of worsening congestion.
But growth didn’t stop with the mayor’s study. Since June 2015, on-demand companies’ passenger volumes have tripled, to 500,000 per day. That has far outpaced the drop in yellow cab rides. And most trips are still exclusive rides, not the long-envisioned shared trips with passengers traveling on overlapping routes.
I’ve analyzed Taxi & Limousine Commission trip and vehicle odometer records to see how this translates to the streets of New York. The results: On-demand ride companies drove 600 million miles on New York City streets in 2016 — more than the same year’s total yellow cab mileage in Manhatta n. Most of the added driving is in Manhattan and congested parts of Brooklyn and Queens near the East River, piling more cars onto already crowded streets.
On-demand trips that aggravate already-slow traffic speeds undercut the essential role of mass transit in absorbing growth in residents, workers and visitors. In 2016, subway ridership fell for the first time in years. Bus ridership dropped for the third consecutive year. Uber, Lyft and the other companies are making up the difference. They — together with bikes — are now serving the new travel demands generated by our growing city.
That’s not a sustainable way to grow the city.
But we shouldn’t blame the companies or their customers for adding to traffic woes. Riders are voting with their feet for what they value most: prompt, responsive, reliable and comfortable transportation.
Mayor de Blasio has recognized the need for the city to act, promising an anti-congestion plan in his State of the City speech. His plan will need to more efficiently use scarce street space by tackling transit delays, slow speeds, and crowding so that buses and subways are a viable choice when up against deep-pocketed, nimble and aggressively customer-focused private sector companies.
He should aim to speed up bus service by rapidly expanding the number of bus lanes and vigorously enforcing bus lane and double-parking rules. And time traffic signals on avenues with high-ridership bus service so that buses get from stop to stop without wasting time at red lights.
Cuomo must act, too. He should direct the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to expand off-the-bus fare collection, enabling people to board through all doors on high-ridership routes where long delays for getting on and off buses are an everyday, every-stop fact of life.
He should also insist that the MTA implement all-door boarding on all high-ridership routes when the MetroCard fare payment system is replaced in a few years.
Finally, the MTA and state Legislature should revamp contracting procedures so that system-wide improvements like new subway signal systems can be built more quickly and cheaply. New signals can make possible higher frequency and more reliable subway service.
These initiatives are far more critical than splashy but low-ridership distractions like the LaGuardia AirTrain and BQX streetcar. Without system-wide improvements, the on-demand companies will keep attracting transit riders at an ever-increasing pace.
That will mean slower travel for everyone, from motorists to bus passengers to truck drivers, and higher costs for goods and services. It’s not the future we were promised. Nor is it one we can live with. Fortunately, it’s one that city and state officials can avoid, but only by acting now.
Schaller is the former deputy commissioner of traffic and planning in New York City