Traditional taxis vie for street space with ride-hailing vehicles from Uber and Lyft in New York City.
Traditional taxis vie for street space with ride-hailing vehicles from Uber and Lyft in New York City. Something has to give. Mary Altaffer/AP

City leaders need to reckon with the reality that sometimes shared ride services are not part of the answer to urban congestion, argues transportation researcher Bruce Schaller.

Last week, the New York City Council took a big step toward stemming the traffic-clogging proliferation of Uber and Lyft vehicles, temporarily halting issuance of new vehicle licenses as well as authorizing a wage floor for ride-hailing service drivers. The historic bills, which Mayor Bill de Blasio signed into law on Tuesday, signal that these companies can no longer run roughshod over legislative bodies in pursuit of growth and eventual profits.

But there has been pushback to the idea, contained in both the legislation and in my recent report, “The New Automobility,” that Uber and Lyft’s impact on big-city traffic needs to be contained. Some of this resistance comes, not unexpectedly, from the companies themselves, which strongly object to the moratorium while also accepting the wage-related provisions.

Perhaps more notable was criticism from other quarters. In a recent CityLab post, for example, Zipcar co-founder Robin Chase wrote that focusing on ride service growth “sets us up for failure” because Uber, Lyft, taxis and the like “account for just 1.7 percent of miles traveled by urban dwellers, while travel by personal cars accounts for 86 percent.” She calls for making “all shared modes of transit better and more attractive than driving alone.”

I agree with Chase and many others that cities should make transit the most attractive way to get around town, reallocate street space to support higher-capacity modes, and charge all vehicles for their contribution to emissions, congestion, and use of curbs.

But hard as it may be, I also think that we must recognize that sometimes shared modes are not part of the answer to urban congestion, emissions, and livability. My report showed that in large, dense cities like New York, Chicago, Boston, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, private ride services like UberX and Lyft add 2.8 new miles to city traffic for every mile in a personal auto taken off the road. Shared services such as UberPOOL and Lyft Shared Rides do not rectify this problem: These options only reduce new miles from 2.8 to 2.6 for every mile of personal auto taken off the road. Even if Lyft meets its 2022 target to deliver 50 percent shared rides, they would still add 2.2 new miles for every mile foregone in personal autos.

These findings are tremendously important in a place like Midtown Manhattan, where vehicle speeds average 5 mph during the business day. Yellow cabs, Ubers, Lyfts, and other for-hire vehicles are 50 to 80 percent of traffic flow today, and rapidly adding to congestion. Mileage of ride services and taxis is up by 33 percent since 2013 within the Manhattan business district, even as overall traffic entering the business district has fallen significantly.

Given these facts, it would be foolish to dismiss the notion of pressing the pause button on the spiraling growth of ride service vehicles. This is particularly important because they waste miles of precious street space, spending 40 percent of their time vacant between trips. New York City is right to stop and figure out how to prevent them from further overwhelming crowded Manhattan streets.

Other cities face similar challenges and might do well to follow New York’s lead in limiting the number of Ubers and Lyfts. The most notable is San Francisco, which has also seen intensification of downtown congestion amid a surge in ride-hailing vehicles. Other big cities should be watching too. Their streets could be similarly flooded when fares drop with the arrival of self-driving cars—or even sooner, if jitney operations like Uber Express POOL accelerate the shift of riders from buses and trains.

Today, however, circumstances are different in cities like Boston, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.; there, ride services are most concentrated in nightlife districts, such as Chicago’s Near North Side and D.C.’s Dupont Circle. It makes sense to manage rather than limit ride services with steps like directing drivers to pick-up and drop-off zones and cordoning off lanes for buses to speed down busy corridors. The point is to solve for the particular causes of saturated demand for street space, not decide in advance that single-occupant personal vehicles should receive front-and-center attention.

Sometimes, of course, they should. You cannot solve the rush hour traffic problem on East River crossings without addressing single-occupant vehicles. The same is true during commute times in many other cities.

But I am concerned when a focus on single-occupant personal vehicles is accompanied with the notion that congestion pricing is the only way to reduce traffic. We should recognize the practical limits to pricing. Even with $12.50 rush hour tolls on Hudson River tunnels, traffic backs up every morning and afternoon. Congestion pricing for Manhattan was expected to increase traffic speeds by 9 percent, only a fraction of the 22 percent decline in traffic speeds since 2012.

We all know about the political limits too. Congestion pricing has proven to be the steepest among all the hills we might choose to climb. It has not been adopted in any U.S. cities, and in only three large cities globally.

We should continue to push for pricing solutions. But equally valuable is pushing for everything else—and above all: better transit. Unless the bus and train—together with walking and biking—are the best way to get around town, there is little chance that pricing will be either adopted or effective. As Seattle has shown, making bus service work, combined with rail expansion and working closely with employers, can dramatically shift growth from auto to public transit.

European cities also show what is possible. Paris, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen have achieved greater reduction in traffic than London, which is famous for adopting congestion pricing in 2003.

Pursuing a full palette of traffic-reduction strategies will pay off in the push for congestion pricing, too. Imagine if Uber and Lyft passengers have to pay, and freight and commercial vehicles are also required to make more efficient use of city streets, like not double-parking, blocking the box, and hogging delivery zones all day? It will become increasingly clear to all that personal vehicles need to be limited too, whether by pricing or other means.

Anyone who wants to make our great cities function as social and economic engines of national growth and well-being can recognize that more traffic, slower buses, and the loss of transit riders to Ubers and Lyfts works against the goals of mobility, safety, equity, and sustainability.

As long as policies are practical and effective, we should not be doctrinaire in choosing which steps come first in pursuing these goals. The art of change is the art of the possible. We might take inspiration from another big-city denizen, Tammany Hall boss George Washington Plunkitt, who said a century ago (toward quite different goals), “I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em.”

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