Capping for-hire vehicles won’t solve NYC’s traffic woes

Uber car in New York City
Uber car in New York City
Mike Dotta/Shutterstock

Capping for-hire vehicles won’t solve NYC’s traffic woes

Better road management and transit service are more efficient answers.
August 6, 2018

On the heels of a failed attempt to secure a congestion pricing plan in Albany this spring and the ongoing reordering of the taxi industry that has seen six drivers commit suicide and medallions once worth over a million dollars resold at deep discounts, the New York City Council is discussing new regulations on for-hire vehicles – including a temporary cap on new for-hire vehicles and initiating a study to examine their impact. The rapid proliferation of these competitors to cabs, largely through ride-hailing apps such as Uber, Lyft and Via, has driven down the value of medallions, caused cabs to often go without passengers, and clogged city streets. A cap could potentially mitigate these problems and drive up the cost to riders by constricting supply, boosting for-hire vehicle drivers’ low take-home pay. Additional proposals under consideration, such as creating a minimum wage for ride-hail app drivers, would serve the same purpose.

But a cap doesn’t address the underlying problems within the taxi industry or on New York’s congested streets. From a transportation perspective, the City Council needs to think more broadly about a plan that creates better access to jobs, services and the promise of the city rather than one that tinkers on the margins by focusing exclusively on for-hire vehicles. Moreover, the study of their impact could be, and should be, conducted on an ongoing basis by city agencies – and it doesn’t require an act of the council to do so.

This debate is nothing new. In the early 1970s, Mayor John Lindsay created the Taxi and Limousine Commission to strike a balance between yellow taxis that rarely left Manhattan and the illegal “gypsy” taxis that abounded in New York’s outer boroughs. Then-Commissioner Michael Lazar understood that taxis were an important complement to the existing transit system and that regulating gypsy cabs off the road would eliminate a vital option for New Yorkers in the outer boroughs. Rather than running gypsy cabs off the road, the commission created rules and a process for the non-medallioned cabs to operate legally. The street hail – the practice of flagging down a taxi from the curb – and meter would remain the provenance of yellow taxis, while non-medallioned for-hire vehicles, which New Yorkers called car services, would be dispatched from a base that quoted passengers a fixed fare. In the age of smartphones, the distinction between what is a street hail and what is pre-arranged is unclear.

Today, we can safely make the same argument that Lazar did: For-hire vehicles enable people without access to a car to achieve the same speed, reliability and convenience of a car when they need it. They also, according to civil rights activists and academic studies, are less discriminatory toward black passengers and better serve areas outside the core of Manhattan.

A problem emerges when these services overwhelm the limited capacity of the road network. There is no question that Uber, Lyft and Via have pushed New York’s road network to its limit by adding millions of additional miles to it – travel speeds in Manhattan south of 60th Street have fallen to 7.2 miles per hour, a decline of two miles per hour since 2010 – but the primary answer is the reallocation of space rather than the prohibition against new for-hire vehicles. Since the proposed legislation doesn’t call for removing existing for-hire vehicles from the road, there’s no reason to think that conditions on the roads would improve in the short term without additional interventions.

The first and best solution to the traffic problem is expanding and improving the public transit network so that riders would be less inclined to take cars. (Transit ridership is dropping, in part because riders are fleeing unreliable and slow service.) The more reliable and ubiquitous it is, the more likely New Yorkers will use it. This requires both adding to the existing subway system, which is currently prohibitively expensive, and reallocating street space for buses, which is politically difficult.

The second solution to overcrowded roads is a congestion pricing plan that charges all vehicles to access the most congested parts of the city. If priced appropriately, the fee would disincentivize automobile trips into these congested areas, which would improve travel speeds and encourage more people to use alternative modes. (It also could create a dedicated revenue stream for mass transit improvements.) Any plan that raises new revenue requires state approval, which has allowed the Legislature to stymie the most recent attempts, and Mayor Bill de Blasio has shown no interest in fighting for congestion pricing.

But if New York City cannot charge for road usage or pay for transit upgrades itself, what can it do? It should reimagine the roadways and surface-level transit. The city has the power to reallocate space on its streets by removing on-street parking and prioritizing surface-level transit and more space-efficient modes of transport, such as bicycles, scooters or electric bicycles. If existing infrastructure cannot accommodate more automobiles, the city should expand bus lanes, examine parking requirements for new constructions, and ban private automobiles along key corridors to squeeze more people into the same amount of space.

Like limiting the number of taxis or their competitors, these ideas aren’t brand new. In the 1970s, there were discussions of restricting access along 34th Street to buses, commercial vehicles and taxis. Brooklyn’s Fulton Mall – a stretch of Fulton Street in Downtown Brooklyn – has been a bustling transitway for buses for nearly 40 years. With the impending L train shutdown in April 2019 looming, it has been proposed that a new transitway along 14th Street be created to accommodate displaced L train passengers.

While the human costs of the current taxi industry reordering are unfortunate, the answer isn’t a temporary cap on for-hire vehicles. The decline of yellow taxis will continue with or without a cap, since it doesn’t eliminate existing for-hire vehicles or fundamentally challenge the smartphone’s growing power over trip planning.

The city should tailor its solutions to the specific problems at hand. If the city wants to help taxi drivers who are in financial straits, it should attempt to negotiate a buyout from the flush e-hail companies to the handful of individual cab drivers who own their medallions. And if the council wants to improve New Yorkers’ ability to travel around the city and access more jobs, housing and services, it needs to focus on transit upgrades and the reallocation of space on the street network, rather than legislating more studies and implementing a cap that has the appearance of being tough without any of the bite needed to tame the for-hire vehicle industry.

Eric Goldwyn
is a research scholar at New York University’s Marron Institute and an affiliated faculty fellow at NYU Shanghai.
20181214