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Posts from the Taxis & Limos Category

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Uber Should Pay an MTA Fee Like Yellow Cabs, But the Fee Should Be Smarter

One of the points of debate over Uber’s operations in New York is whether its trips should contribute the same 50-cent surcharge to the MTA that yellow and green taxis do. It’s an easy question to answer in some ways: It doesn’t matter whether a car is yellow, green, or black — if some for-hire vehicles have to pay an MTA fee, they all should. But as long as this taxi surcharge is in the public eye, there’s also an opportunity to rethink the fee itself and make it smarter.

It shouldn't matter what color your taxi is -- but it should matter where the trip goes. Photo: Shuggy/Flickr

It shouldn’t matter what color your taxi is — but it should matter where the trip goes. Photo: Shuggy/Flickr

Ideally, the surcharge paid by yellow taxis, Uber, and other for-hire services would be higher in the congested Manhattan core than in outer-borough neighborhoods lacking decent transit service. While that wouldn’t be a substitute for real congestion pricing of all motor vehicle trips, it could set a precedent and demonstrate the impact of congestion-based fees on a substantial portion of Manhattan traffic.

Here’s the way things are set up today: A 50-cent surcharge on all green and yellow taxi trips will generate an estimated $87 million for the MTA this year, according to the Citizens Budget Commission. Black cars, including Uber and Lyft, are subject to a sales tax that isn’t paid by metered taxis. A sliver of that — slightly more than one-third of one percent — will generate an estimated $7 million for the MTA this year.

Because of this imbalance, Uber’s growth is poised to eat into MTA funding. CBC projects the MTA will actually lose revenue as Uber trips grow and taxi trips continue to decline.

Mayor Bill de Blasio spoke about the problem on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show last week. “We also have to support the MTA, which is in the interest of all of us, and that happens right now through a certain number of taxis, but it doesn’t happen through Uber, for example,” he said.

The fee could also be restructured in a way that addresses problems beyond the MTA’s coffers.

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For Some, Uber’s Role in Congesting Manhattan Still Hidden in Plain Sight

Graph: I Quant NY

Graph: I Quant NY

Maybe it’s the sleekness. Or the digital disruptiveness. Or something slipped in the water bottle on your seat. Whatever it is, some data mavens are contorting into pretzels to deny the obvious — that Uber is contributing to the slowdown in Manhattan traffic.

The latest Don’t Blame Uber entry was a New Yorker post over the weekend by Ben Wellington, a Pratt statistics prof and mainstay of the “Open Data Movement” via his I Quant NY website. “Uber Isn’t Causing New York City’s Traffic Slowdown,” screamed the headline, though curiously, Wellington didn’t quite write that.

Here’s the gist of his post:

At the start of 2013, cabs were getting faster by about 0.0015 miles per hour per day. By mid-2014, they were getting slower by about 0.0013 miles per hour per day — or about one mile per hour every two years. In other words, every day, cabs were getting slower less quickly than they had the previous day, even as Uber was expanding its fleet. This is the opposite of what we would expect if for-hire vehicles were the main force behind falling traffic speeds.

Let’s unpack that.

First, mining the Taxi and Limousine Commission’s humongous database of all yellow taxicab trips from 2011 through last month — the period in which yellows have been GPS-capable — Wellington computed daily and monthly average speeds for the entire fleet (excluding ultra-long trips that might skew the averages). As the graph shows, average taxi speeds climbed from 2011 before peaking in mid-2013 and heading south. This dovetails with City Hall’s insistence that traffic in the Manhattan core has been worsening, although the drop in Wellington’s graph is less severe than the city’s figures.

So far, so good. Wellington then zeroed in on the rates of change in speeds and produced the quoted passage above. Since use of Uber really took off only around two years ago, it makes more sense to focus on the most recent 24 months. Eyeballing Wellington’s graph, average cab speeds fell an estimated 0.48 miles an hour from mid-2013 to mid-2014 and another 0.32 mph from mid-2014 to mid-2015. In effect, the decline in speeds shrank by a third. Because Uber’s presence on NYC streets has been accelerating, he reasoned, the slowdown should have been getting more pronounced, not less.

Since it didn’t, something other than Uber must have caused the slowdown.

Q.E.D.? No. For a host of reasons:

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Why Traffic Congestion Has Rebounded in the CBD

Traffic congestion in the Manhattan core is rebounding. Travel-speed data culled from taxicab GPS and released last month by City transportation and taxi officials suggest that average motor vehicle travel speeds in the Central Business District fell by 8.5 percent from 2012 to 2014. The slowdown follows years of flat or even rising speeds — a phenomenon that predated the 2008 financial collapse and undermined congestion pricing proposals by making car, bus, truck and taxi travel in the heart of the city a little more efficient and predictable.

The speed data were issued during the recent Uber controversy, but they bear on a host of other policy issues including Vision Zero, cycle infrastructure, and bus priority signals and lanes. To inject some rigor into these discussions, I’ve created a special section of my Balanced Transportation Analyzer spreadsheet to approximate various factors’ roles in re-congesting the CBD. My preliminary findings are summarized in the graphic. (Readers interested in a deep dive should download the BTA and navigate to the new tab, CBD Congestion.)

Table of Congestion Causation _ 28 July 2015

Graph: Screen shot from the Balanced Transportation Analyzer

The task is to account for an “adjusted” 10.5 percent drop in CBD travel speeds. That figure tacks 2 percentage points on top of the observed 8.5 percent reduction to reflect the fact that the 20,000 a day decrease in motor vehicle entries from 2012 to 2014 also reported by DOT should have increased CBD travel speeds by 2.0 percent. Here are details:

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The Real Reason Uber Traffic Matters in NYC

concourse_redesign

Where traffic is worse, the politics of turning a wide, car-centric street into a safe, efficient street are tougher. Rendering by the Street Plans Collaborative and Carly Clark via Transportation Alternatives

For a moment yesterday, it seemed like the big clash between the taxi medallion industry and app-based car services, framed in terms of Uber’s effect on snarled Manhattan traffic, might veer into unexpectedly brilliant territory. There was Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris in the Daily News, telling the MTA that City Hall would consider the Move NY traffic reduction plan to fund transit investment. Finally, a sign that some of the big players are getting serious about a comprehensive fix for the city’s congestion problem.

But the moment didn’t last long, with Governor Cuomo extinguishing the road pricing talk right away. Soon after, Mayor de Blasio beat a sudden retreat from his proposed cap on for-hire vehicle licenses, getting a few concessions from Uber, and now the whole episode will fade from the news cycle, at least for the time being.

The Uber fight was a rare case where transportation issues became front-page news, but the arguments about streets and traffic tended to descend into stupid talking points really fast. Uber NYC General Manager Josh Mohrer was hardly the only person who tried to blame bike lanes and other safety measures for the recent downturn in average Manhattan traffic speeds. Council Member Dan Garodnick, someone who generally gets how streets work and chooses his words carefully, was the first public figure on record to toss around that theory.

When you’re talking about the downsides of congestion, it’s tough to avoid framing the problem like an old-school traffic engineer, placing paramount importance on the movement of cars. Even on Streetsblog, we’ve run plenty of posts talking about the effect of Uber in terms of average traffic speeds. The trouble is that when you focus on how easily people can drive around the city, you create an opening for people to point their finger at anything that might slow down cars — like bike lanes, or a lower speed limit.

You can try to reason with these people and explain the difference between peak speed and average speed, or show the data about bike lane redesigns that had no discernible effect on traffic. And that might win some arguments. But if you want streets where bus riders have swift trips, where people of all ages feel safe walking and biking, you’re going to have to make some changes that — at least for a while, before a new equilibrium sets in — slow down cars.

We need to come at the problem from a different angle. So how about this: Traffic congestion in New York is terrible because it’s an obstacle to designing streets that work best for our city.

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Uber’s Own Numbers Show It’s Making Traffic Worse

Uber blasted out an Excel spreadsheet to reporters this morning, accompanied by a story and editorial in the Daily News, with data providing a snapshot of how many Uber vehicles are on Manhattan streets south of 59th Street, New York’s central business district. While Uber claims the data shows its vehicles aren’t responsible for congestion in the city core, transportation analyst Charles Komanoff has crunched Uber’s own numbers and estimates that the service has actually reduced traffic speeds in the central business district by about 8 percent.

Photo: Wikipedia

Uber’s data dump [XLS] released hourly information on the number of pickups and drivers below 59th Street and in the rest of the city between May 31 and July 19. It used that data to calculate the number of Uber vehicles in the central business district, where half of the company’s trips originate. Between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., there were an average of 1,904 Uber cars on the road below 59th Street.

That seems like a small number at first glance, and Uber highlights that fact by proclaiming it “is not the source of Manhattan congestion.” But the question isn’t whether Uber is the root cause of all congestion — it’s whether Uber is making the current traffic situation worse.

So how do 1,904 for-hire cars circulating the congested Manhattan core actually affect traffic? To answer the question, Streetsblog turned to Komanoff, whose “Balanced Transportation Analyzer” [XLS] models the impact of toll proposals and other changes to city traffic. Uber’s data release provides more detailed information than what was previously available to the public.

The volume of Ubers is similar to the 2,000 yellow taxi medallions the Bloomberg administration proposed to auction off in 2012, which Komanoff calculated would make average traffic speeds 12 percent worse. To understand what happens to Manhattan traffic with 1,900 Ubers in the mix, Komanoff adjusted his model in a couple of key ways to account for the fact that each Uber vehicle likely affects Manhattan traffic less than each yellow cab.

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Uber Makes the Case for NYC Cyclists to Download Lyft

It’s hard to make livable streets advocates take the same side of an issue as the taxi medallion industry, but Uber’s general manager in New York, Josh Mohrer, is giving it his best shot.

In a Q&A with Kevin Roose about Uber’s clash with City Hall, Mohrer completely flubbed his chance to make a pitch for congestion pricing or Donald Shoup-inspired curbside parking reform as the alternative to a cap on new for-hire vehicles.

If it’s not limiting new Ubers on the road, what should New York be doing about congestion?

Well, first of all, the mayor’s never cared about congestion before. It’s kind of a new thing for him. But if I were mayor and congestion was my top priority, I would think about: why are 2.7 million people coming into the city every day in their own car? What is behind that? And what are the real reasons for congestion? We’re all ordering on Amazon, and UPS and FedEx trucks are double-parked during the day? I love Amazon, I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t have it. But maybe it’s impacting congestion. Or bike lanes, which I love! But that’s one less lane of traffic.

Bike lane scapegoating from a company whose professed intent is to upend private car ownership. Another ingenious PR moment for Uber, whose NYC customer base must include many thousands of people who also make trips by bike.

Blaming a safety improvement like bike lanes for congestion is emblematic of the farcical public debate about Uber in New York right now. Rethinking the for-hire vehicle industry should be an opportunity to put big ideas on the table. But instead of talking about what we want from our streets and transportation system, we’re having a big shouting match about what’s responsible for traffic and congestion.

City Hall, Uber, and even Streetsblog have played into this framing of the problem. I think we can do better, and tomorrow I’ll post some thoughts about how to reframe the discussion.

In the meantime, I’m downloading Lyft.

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NYC’s Taxi Regulations Are Obsolete. How Should They Change?

The de Blasio administration’s proposed slowdown in new for-hire vehicle licenses for a one-year study period could be the opening move in a major rewrite of the rules governing the city’s taxi and livery industry. The current system is an anachronism, and a big overhaul could harmonize the city’s growing array of medallion taxis, green cabs, and Uber-type services in a way that lessens the need for private car ownership without contributing to congestion in the city core. But what, exactly, would that system look like?

Green, yellow, black? Does it matter? And do they reduce congestion or make it worse? Photo: Johannes Ortner/Flickr

How should yellow taxis, green cabs, and black cars be regulated to lessen dependence on private cars without making Manhattan congestion worse? Photo: Johannes Ortner/Flickr

It’s a big task. Set aside, for a moment, the merits of a one-year cap on new for-hire cars. Let’s start with the basics and go from there.

First off, New Yorkers use car services in vastly different ways. “New York City is two worlds,” said Elliott Sclar, a city planning professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Urban Development at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. “There’s Manhattan below 96th Street, and then there’s the rest of the city.”

Outside the Manhattan core, car service options consist mainly of black cars and, more recently, green boro taxis. They tend to serve journeys that would be indirect and slow using transit. And congestion outside the city center is mainly due to private vehicles, not car services, so there’s not much reason to discourage new taxis and black cars in most of the city.

Meanwhile, sky-high demand for travel in the Manhattan core is like a black hole sucking in for-hire drivers from across the city. Most taxi customers in or near the Manhattan core have a decent transit alternative, but they hire a car for speedier service or a more luxurious ride. According to TLC, 94 percent of yellow taxi pick-ups are either in Manhattan or at the airports, and the fastest-growing for-hire companies, powered by e-hail apps like Uber, do 72 percent of their business in Manhattan south of 60th Street.

The result is a crush of taxis and black cars driving around the central business district.

The de Blasio administration says it needs to slow down the increase in for-hire licenses to study congestion, but given the large campaign contributions the mayor received from the yellow taxi industry, the surface explanation is hard to swallow. In the end, the one-year cap on new for-hire licenses might have more to do with navigating tricky political waters, where the administration faces hard-charging Uber on one side and medallion interests on the other, than with alleviating Midtown congestion.

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DOT Drops Sheepshead Bay Plaza Plan After Oppo from Deutsch, CB 15

The plan would have added pedestrian space, straightened out a bus route, and created a taxi stand. The local council member and community board aren't interested. Image: DOT

The plan would have added pedestrian space, straightened out a bus route, and created a taxi stand. The local council member and community board turned it down. Click to enlarge. Image: DOT [PDF]

More space for people near the Sheepshead Bay subway station? Council Member Chaim Deutsch and Community Board 15 aren’t interested.

A proposal from DOT to add pedestrian space near the Sheepshead Bay express stop [PDF] was panned last month by Deutsch and the CB 15 transportation committee (that would be these guys). The project now appears to have been dropped by the agency.

Sheepshead Bay Road snakes across the neighborhood grid. It’s busy with shoppers and people heading to the subway, as well as illegally parked livery vehicles waiting for passengers getting off the train.

There were seven severe injuries in the area from 2009 to 2013, according to DOT, including five pedestrians and two cyclists. A pedestrian was killed on Avenue Z beneath the train overpass in 2008. But Deutsch and CB 15 rejected DOT’s proposal to shorten crossing distances and eliminate potential conflicts between pedestrians and motorists.

Under the plan, a “slip lane” from E. 17th Street to Sheepshead Bay Road would be converted to a pedestrian plaza, as would E. 15th Street between Sheepshead Bay Road and Avenue Z.

The B36 bus route would stay on Avenue Z instead of detouring to the subway station entrance on Sheepshead Bay Road. Bus riders would walk along the E. 15th Street plaza to get between the subway and the relocated bus stop. An extra-wide crosswalk and painted curb extension would link the E. 15th Street plaza to the station entrance, and a taxi stand would be added west of the subway station.

New pedestrian islands and crosswalks were also in store for two triangle-shaped intersections on Sheepshead Bay Road.

Deutsch and community board members panned the proposal last month, concerned that a pedestrian plaza would become a gathering place for the homeless, especially if no one is in charge of maintaining the space. Deutsch also opposed having people walk a block to transfer between the subway and the B36.

“I wasn’t happy with it, and I didn’t think [community board members] were going to be happy with it,” Deutsch said. “If they come up with something that the community is able to agree on, then I would be happy with that.”

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Uber and Manhattan Gridlock Are Rising Together

How responsible is Uber for the 9 percent drop in Manhattan travel speeds that New York City transportation officials reported last month? The answer appears to be: quite a lot. 

Photo: Wikipedia

If — and it’s a big if — the surge in use of Uber and other app-based car services is not offset by a decline in use of yellow cabs and private autos, then three-quarters of the speed reduction can be laid at the feet of Uber, Lyft, et al. That’s according to my “Balanced Transportation Analyzer” (BTA) traffic model that calculates benefits from toll plans like Move NY, but can also assess the impact of almost any traffic-related change in NYC, especially Manhattan.

The finding about Uber’s traffic impact runs counter to the Daily News’ bald assertion in an editorial last Sunday: “From a traffic perspective, a few thousand new cars in Midtown and downtown (where 72 percent of the app cars make pickups) is a tablespoon in a lake.” 

The News would be right if we were only talking about another two or three thousand private autos joining the three-quarters of a million motor vehicles that are driven daily to or through Manhattan’s Central Business District, which would worsen CBD traffic speeds by a minuscule 0.2 percent, according to the BTA. But as the News itself pointed out, Uber now commands some 19,500 cars in the city, a figure that is growing by up to 2,000 a month. Compounding this, each Uber vehicle racks up five to six times as many CBD miles as one private car.

Even allowing that a third of Uber cars are inactive on a typical day, according to the News, that still means the remaining two-thirds are traveling approximately 190,000 miles daily in Manhattan south of 60th Street. (This assumes the average Uber trip consists of two miles with the passenger and half a mile without.) These miles are enough to add 5.7 percent to the 3,385,000 daily CBD “baseline” miles covered by cars, cabs, trucks and buses.

It would take an awful lot of private cars to gum up CBD traffic to the same extent. Indeed, based on my estimate that a typical auto driven into the Manhattan core covers about 2.7 miles before leaving the area, the extra number required would be 72,000 a day. When that number of additional daily cars is run through the BTA, the result is a projected 6.7 percent slowing of vehicular travel averaged across the entire Central Business District.

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Cooper’s Law Is Not Getting Dangerous Cab Drivers Off NYC Streets

A Vision Zero law intended to get dangerous cab drivers off the road has been applied just two times since it took effect nine months ago, according to the New York Press.

TLC vehicles were involved in thousands of crashes in the months after Cooper’s Law took effect. The TLC has applied the law two times. Image: CBS 2

TLC vehicles were involved in thousands of crashes in the months after Cooper’s Law took effect. The TLC has applied the law two times. Image: CBS 2

Adopted last September, Cooper’s Law gives the Taxi and Limousine Commission discretion to suspend or revoke the TLC license of a cab driver convicted of a traffic violation or a crime following a crash that causes death or critical injury. The law was named after Cooper Stock, a 9-year-old Manhattan boy who was fatally struck by a yellow cab driver who failed to yield.

In a recent story on the Transport Workers Union’s campaign to weaken traffic safety laws, New York Press reporter Daniel Fitzsimmons spoke with Dana Lerner, Cooper’s mother, about the law named after her son. “An investigation by this paper found that since the law went into effect nine months ago,” Fitzsimmons wrote, “it has only been used twice.”

According to agency crash data issued in compliance with city transparency laws, TLC-licensed vehicles were involved in over 18,000 crashes between last October and March of this year. TLC drivers were involved in eight crashes resulting in critical injury, and five crashes resulting in death, during that period.

Of the crashes that caused death or critical injury, NYPD determined three cab drivers to be at fault. The agency reported that the TLC licenses of all three drivers were “summarily suspended” — but not revoked, as Cooper’s Law allows for. It is conceivable that not a single cab driver has lost his TLC license under Cooper’s Law after injuring or killing someone.

Before Cooper’s Law took effect, Streetsblog reported that its effectiveness would depend on NYPD, which rarely tickets or charges drivers involved in serious crashes. TLC Commissioner Meera Joshi confirmed months later that application of the law would hinge on how often NYPD issues summonses and charges

We contacted TLC to confirm that the agency has used Cooper’s Law just two times. We’ll update this story if we get a response.