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Team de Blasio Makes Its Case for a One-Year “Uber Cap”

The scene at today's transportation committee hearing. Photo: Stephen Miller

The scene at today’s transportation committee hearing. Photo: Stephen Miller

The de Blasio administration made its case for temporarily restricting the growth of licenses for ride-hailing services like Uber at a City Council hearing this morning. With congestion in Manhattan getting worse, City Hall’s plan is to cap the number of new for-hire vehicles on city streets for the next year while it studies the impact of the industry on traffic.

Today, the city splits most car services into two categories: medallion yellow taxis and for-hire vehicles (FHVs), which include green boro taxis, livery services, limousines, and drivers for companies like Uber and Lyft. Each has different rules and regulations.

Yellow cabs, which are the only service subject to a surcharge that helps fund the MTA, are limited by the number of medallions. The number of boro taxis, which are supposed to pick up passengers outside the central areas of the city, is capped by state law. But the city has no mechanism to limit the number of black cars, hence City Hall’s need for legislation introduced in the City Council by Transportation Committee Chair Ydanis Rodriguez and Steve Levin.

Since the advent of Uber and other app-based services, the number of FHVs on city streets has boomed, growing 63 percent since 2011. Nearly three-quarters of trips made by the new FHVs originate in Manhattan south of 60th Street, according to DOT, and the city is worried that these trips are a major factor behind the recent increase in congestion in the center of the city, which in turn may explain why bus ridership is dropping faster in Manhattan than in the outer boroughs.

“This decrease in traffic speeds is happening at the same time that overall traffic into the Manhattan CBD has fallen,” said Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg. While traffic in 2014 was 9 percent slower in the Manhattan central business district than it was in 2010, the number of vehicles entering the CBD each day had dropped 6 percent over the same period. The implication: The spike in for-hire cars circulating Manhattan has more than offset the reduction in other vehicles driving into the city center.

Read more…

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With Congestion Getting Worse, City Wants to Stem Flood of Uber Licenses

The de Blasio administration and the City Council want to slow the growth in new black car licenses over the next year. With companies like Uber adding tens of thousands of black cars to the mix over the past few years, mainly in the most congested parts of Manhattan, the city wants to get a better handle on how the industry is affecting traffic.

Are for-hire vehicles like Uber making Manhattan traffic worse? The city thinks so, and wants to slow down new licenses to study the issue. Photo: Clemens v. Vogelsang/Flickr

Are for-hire vehicles like Uber making Manhattan traffic worse? The city wants to slow down new licenses to study the issue. Photo: Clemens v. Vogelsang/Flickr

“The rate at which new cars are coming on the road is tremendous. I think it’s something we all see traveling around the streets of Manhattan,” Taxi and Limousine Commissioner Meera Joshi said on a conference call this afternoon [PDF].

The for-hire vehicle fleet, which includes Uber and other black cars but not yellow or green taxis, has grown 63 percent since 2011. Over the past year, the city issued 2,000 new for-hire vehicle licenses each month, 64 per day. The surge has swelled the for-hire fleet from 38,000 to 63,000 vehicles since 2011. That’s 25,000 more vehicles in constant circulation.

Joshi said new app-based services have increased overall demand for car travel, with the growth of for-hire trips outpacing a drop in trips by medallion taxis. “The pie has grown,” she said. “The number of people that want to take for-hire vehicles from place A to place B has grown.”

While TLC has collected trip data from the city’s 13,587 yellow taxis for years, it only began collecting less-detailed information on for-hire trips last year. Crunching the new numbers, the city found that the fastest-growing for-hire companies do 72 percent of their business in the Manhattan core, which covers the area south of E. 96th and W. 110th streets.

“What happens to congestion in Manhattan when you start adding lots of new vehicles to the fleet, and they do most of their work in Manhattan?” Joshi asked. “It highlighted some of the negative externalities when we have a concentration of traffic in an already-dense area.”

There are early indications that this crop of black cars is making congestion worse. After seeing average speeds on Manhattan streets creep upward in recent years, traffic speeds dropped to 8.51 mph last year, DOT said, a 9 percent decline from 2010. Rush hour MTA buses were also 5 percent slower last year than they were in 2013, DOT said. Manhattan bus ridership has also suffered, dropping 5.8 percent last year.

To get a better handle on the data, the city is proposing to cut down on new for-hire vehicle licenses over the next year while it prepares recommendations to deal with the industry’s growth, including potential long-term restrictions on the number of licenses.

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It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way

Broadway, New York, NY. Photo: Clarence Eckerson

Quick thought experiment…

Imagine for a moment that New York City has a toll system where there are no free rides. No reason for drivers to toll shop, clogging up the routes to free bridges. There is, effectively, a uniform fare for every car trip into the incredibly crowded center of town, revenue from which is plowed into the transit system.

Now imagine scrambling the tolls so some crossings are free and others are not, bringing about all this horrible stuff:

  • Massive traffic jams every morning and evening in some of the city’s most densely-populated neighborhoods
  • Heavy trucks barreling through neighborhood streets, killing several people every year, to avoid paying the one-way toll on the Verrazano
  • Severe and immediate slowdowns on dozens of bus lines, with hundreds of thousands of passengers losing time stewing in traffic
  • Transit fares backed by tens of billions of dollars in debt, guaranteeing future fare hikes and constraining the capacity to operate more service
  • Pressure to design streets to handle peak-hour car volumes, to the detriment of safe walking and biking

No governor in his right mind would choose to switch to this completely messed up arrangement.

End of thought experiment, back to reality: It looks like Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature are not going to plug the gap in the MTA capital plan, and by extension, they’re going to condemn New York to at least a few more years of epic traffic dysfunction.

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Trottenberg: DOT Skipped Its Legally-Required Data Report Last Year

DOT is almost six months past due on a report card required by city law that measures whether the city is meeting its goals of reducing car use, improving safety, and shifting trips to walking, bicycling, and transit. Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg says her department is skipping a year and will instead issue a report covering two years of data in the fall.

DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg. Photo: NYC DOT

DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg. Photo: NYC DOT

A city law passed in 2008, known as Local Law 23, requires DOT to issue an annual report measuring citywide data on car and truck volumes, traffic speed, bus ridership, bicycle and pedestrian crashes, and more. The report is due each November, covering data from the previous calendar year. After years of issuing the report later and later (but still on time) as the “Sustainable Streets Index,” DOT is now almost six months past due in releasing the numbers from 2013. The latest available information is from 2012.

The de Blasio administration has issued other transportation-related reports, including a summary of the first year of Vision Zero. But the report didn’t include many of the metrics required by Local Law 23, and failed to analyze the safety impacts of city programs like speed cameras or improved tracking of city-owned vehicles.

DOT will release an updated version of the Sustainable Streets Index “towards the end of this year,” probably in the next six months, Trottenberg said this morning, after an event hosted by the General Contractors Association of New York.

“We’ve come in and taken a fresh look at it,” Trottenberg said. “It’s going to be two years of data. [We’re going to] try and get ourselves caught back up and retool it and look at some fresh indicators… We’re going to keep some of the indicators, but we’re going to add some of the things that are now more of a focus of this administration.”

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Margaret Chin: Toll Reform Will Protect New Yorkers From Truck Traffic

Photo: Brad Aaron

Photo: Brad Aaron

City Council Member Margaret Chin today introduced legislation to require the city to examine the effects of New York City’s dysfunctional bridge toll system on traffic safety. The bill would also mandate regular DOT safety audits for all city truck routes.

Trucks account for 3.6 percent of vehicles on city streets but are involved in 32 percent and 12 percent of cyclist and pedestrian fatalities, respectively, according to city data cited by Chin. At a press conference outside City Hall this morning, Chin said her bill “should be welcomed by the [de Blasio] administration as a component of Vision Zero.”

Chin cited the un-tolled Manhattan Bridge as a major cause of traffic chaos on Canal Street, which cuts through her district. Drivers have killed at least four pedestrians on Canal Street since 2012, according to crash data compiled by Streetsblog.

Chin’s bill would have DOT conduct studies at five-year intervals to “examine the impact of tolling policies on the city’s network of truck routes,” according to a press release. Crashes and traffic violations would be measured, with information collected on whatever street safety measures are implemented on each route. DOT’s last comprehensive truck route study dates to 2007, the press release said.

It's free

Trucker’s special: It’s free to drive over the East River, barrel across local Manhattan streets, and take a tunnel under the Hudson, but sticking to the highway and going over the Verrazano will cost a five-axle truck $80. Map: MoveNY

DOT would also be required to “develop new strategies” to improve pedestrian and cyclist safety along the city’s 1,000-plus miles of truck routes. Council Member Brad Lander pointed out that current truck route design — speed-inducing expanses of asphalt — leads to reckless driving regardless of vehicle type. Chin emphasized that the reports should lead to physical street safety improvements. 

City Council transportation chair Ydanis Rodriguez joined Chin to announce the legislation, along with Lander and Jimmy Van Bramer. Representatives from Transportation Alternatives, Families For Safe Streets, Move NY, the Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corporation, and Manhattan Community Boards 1, 2, and 3 also appeared in support of the bill.

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Streetsblog USA
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The Feds Quietly Acknowledge the Driving Boom Is Over

DOT_forecasts

After years of erroneously predicting rapid growth in driving, the FHWA finally made significant downward revisions to its traffic forecast last year. Graphic: U.S. PIRG/Frontier Group

The Federal Highway Administration has very quietly acknowledged that the driving boom is over.

After many years of aggressively and inaccurately claiming that Americans would likely begin a new era of rapid driving growth, the agency’s more recent forecast finally recognizes that the protracted post-World War II era has given way to a different paradigm.

The new vision of the future suggests that driving per capita will essentially remain flat in the future. The benchmark is important because excessively high estimates of future driving volume get used to justify wasteful spending on new and wider highways. In the face of scarce transportation funds, overestimates of future driving translate into too little attention paid to repairing the roads we already have and too little investment in other modes of travel.

The forecast is a big step forward from the FHWA’s past record of chronically aggressive driving forecasts. Most recently, in February 2014 the U.S. DOT released its 2013 “Conditions and Performance Report” to Congress, which estimated that total vehicle miles (VMT) will increase between 1.36 percent to 1.85 percent each year through 2030. This raised some eyebrows because total annual VMT hasn’t increased by even as much as 1 percent in any year since 2004.

Comparing the 20-year estimates of the “Conditions and Performance Report” issued at the beginning of 2014 to the new 20-year estimates shows the agency has cut its forecasted growth rate by between 24 percent to 44 percent.

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Streetsblog USA
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The Importance of Driving to the U.S. Economy Started Waning in the 70s

dafs

Americans drive much less per unit of economic output than we did a generation ago.

Earlier this year, following a slight uptick in U.S. traffic volumes, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a press release, “More people driving means our economy is picking up speed.” He’s not the only person to equate traffic with economic growth. Even former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg once said, “We like traffic, it means economic activity,” before his administration began to tackle traffic as a drag on the economy and embraced ideas like congestion pricing, bus lanes, and protected bikeways.

In fact, the amount Americans drive is an increasingly poor reflection of the nation’s economic output. A forthcoming analysis from Michael Sivak at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (sorry, no link available yet) finds that by some measures, driving has been “decoupling” from U.S. economic growth for a generation.

Sivak looked at two measures of driving activity in relation to economic growth: mileage per unit of gross domestic product and fuel consumed per unit of GDP. On both of those metrics, when GDP is adjusted for inflation, the amount of driving relative to economic output peaked in the 1970s.

Distance driven relative to economic output was highest in 1977. After that, it more or less plateaued until the 1990s, when it began to decline sharply, Sivak reports. Today it stands at about where it did in the 1940s.

Read more…

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Cheaper Gas and Uber Have Manhattan Gridlock Poised to Get Worse

Traffic gridlock in Manhattan has been on the wane for some time. Newly released 2013 traffic counts from the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council show 747,000 motor vehicles entering the Manhattan Central Business District on a typical weekday. While that still constitutes a crushing load, it’s 5,000 fewer cars each day than in 2012 and a drop of 80,000 daily vehicles from the apparent peak year of 2004. As a result, average CBD traffic speeds are on an upswing, from 8 mph in 2006 to 9-9.5 mph in 2012. (Sorry, no figures available for 2004 or 2013.)

A one mile an hour rise is just statistical noise on a fast highway, but summed across hundreds of stop-and-go city blocks over thousands of hours it generates genuine value and significant time savings. Not surprisingly, public aggravation over traffic congestion appears to be less pronounced today than a decade ago. And tellingly, the Move NY toll-reform plan is making headway as much for its promise to fill the funding gap in the MTA capital plan and to bring about “toll equity” by lowering tolls on the MTA bridges, as for its potential to bust gridlock by charging a fee at every CBD entrance and exit.

Nevertheless, I’m betting that Manhattan traffic is about to worsen. The reasons can be spelled out quickly: cheaper gasoline and Uber.

Let’s start with the price of gas, which has already fallen below three bucks a gallon after averaging about $3.60 nationally in 2013 and $3.70 in 2012. Unlike some prior falls that proved transitory, this one looks like it could have staying power owing to the boom in U.S. production, the stutter-stop world economy, and Saudi Arabia’s disinclination to curb production to stabilize prices.

Though conditions vary greatly (especially parking costs), I estimate that a dollar a gallon drop in pump prices would shave 6 percent off the cost of a typical CBD commute. That correlates to an additional 12,000 or so motor vehicle trips to the CBD, on top of the current 640,000 baseline. (My baseline figure differs from NYMTC’s 747,000 because I adjust for through-trips that NYMTC counts as two entries; note also that the rise would be 20,000 but for the “rebound” effect of new trips crowding out some current trips.)

Then there’s Uber. Smartphone-hail services like Uber and Lyft have established a beachhead in the for-hire vehicle industry in New York and other cities. Though solid data isn’t available, these companies appear to be expanding rapidly, and not necessarily at the expense of the traditional yellow-cab and livery sectors or the new green cabs that have expanded the zone of legal street hails. Rather, Uber appears to be creating brand-new demand for travel by motor vehicle, especially within the high-gloss citadel of finance and fashion, the Manhattan CBD.

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Streetsblog USA
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Great Cities Don’t Have Much Traffic, But They Do Have Congestion

Image: Tomtoms 2013 via Cityclock

Places with less traffic have more congestion. Graphic: City Clock

Here’s a great visualization of what cities get out of the billions of dollars spent on highways and road expansion: more traffic.

Justin Swan at City Clock made this chart showing the relationship between congestion levels, as measured by TomTom, and car use. (Yes, it has no X axis — here’s Swan’s explanation of how to read his chart.) The pattern that emerges is that the places with the most traffic and driving also have the least congestion.

We know from the work of Joe Cortright that the traditional definition of congestion is a poor way to measure people’s ability to get around their city — because it doesn’t reflect the actual time people spend traveling. Drivers in Dallas and Houston may stew in gridlock less than people in other cities, but they spend more time on the road.

Swan notes that the most congested places are also the places where people have good travel options that don’t involve driving. His chart suggests that car congestion itself is not the problem that needs to be solved — as long as there are other ways to get around, in a congested city few people will actually have to sit in traffic.

Streetsblog USA
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It’s Happening: Washington State Revises Traffic Forecasts to Reflect Reality

Washington State has revised traffic projections downward, to reflect changing patterns. Image: Washington State via Sightline

The Washington State Office of Fiscal Management has revised its traffic projections downward to reflect changing patterns. Graph Washington OFM via Sightline

The amount that the average American drives each year has been declining for nearly a decade, yet most transportation agencies are still making decisions based on the notion that a new era of ceaseless traffic growth is right around the corner.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation, for example, has overestimated traffic on its roads by an average of 73 percent, according to a recent study. And Dallas-area planners recently produced traffic projections that predicted a much larger increase in driving than the state DOT was even predicting.

That’s why a new traffic forecast from the Washington State Office of Fiscal Management is so interesting: It actually acknowledges how travel habits are changing. Seattle-based environmental think tank Sightline spotted the above traffic projection in a new government report. In its most recent financial forecast, the agency has abandoned the assumption of never-ending traffic growth that it employed as recently as last year. Instead, the agency has responded to recent trends, even projecting that total traffic will start to decline within the next ten years.

Sightline’s Clark Williams-Derry says that’s huge:

By undermining both the rationale for new roads and the belief that we’ll be able to pay for them, a forecast of flat traffic should help inject a needed dose of reality into the state’s transportation debates.

Of course, there’s no telling whether this forecast will be right. As Yogi Berra allegedly said, predictions are hard, especially about the future. But if it turns out that this forecast underestimates traffic growth, budgeters won’t find it such an unpleasant surprise, since more traffic will bring more revenue from drivers.