Uber is lobbying for a congestion charge in NYC — but whether it will work is uncertain

Two months ago New York City approved a limit on the number of Uber, Lyft and other on-demand ride services and voted to halt issuing for-hire licenses for 12 months while it studies the industry in more detail. During the cap, both companies will still be granted licenses for wheelchair-accessible vehicles and by 2021, 25 percent of vehicles in their fleet will be required to be wheelchair accessible, which Uber isn’t happy about.

Now Uber is putting its money and resources into helping fix New York City’s traffic congestion problem, by investing $10 million over three years on a “campaign for sustainable mobility” — with the centrepiece being congestion pricing in high-density parts of the city. This is surprising, coming from a company that accounts for 65,000 of the 103,000 for-hire vehicles in NYC.

The idea is already used in London, Stockholm and Singapore, and Uber sees it as the answer to solving the traffic issues the city is facing. London has seen much success in its own congestion charge program, generating $2.5 billion since it began which has gone towards improvements like new bike infrastructure and more investment in public transit.

Traffic speeds in NYC are bad and are getting even worse each year. In 2010, the average taxi moved at 9.35 mph in downtown Manhattan, but that number dropped to 6.8 mph in 2016 — a speed which can be matched or beaten in rush hour conditions by just walking instead.

Taxi speeds in Manhattan CBD and Core in miles per hour

A report from Fix NYC, a group put together by Governor Andrew Cuomo to brainstorm transit solutions, estimated that congestion will cost metro New York $100 billion in the next five years. The report estimates that congestion pricing can generate up to $1.5 billion annually to fund public transportation in the city.

Uber has paid $100,000 to lobby the plan already and is advocating for it because the company believes it will help increase trip speeds, especially with UberPool. It is being backed by other organisations in the city, including the Real Estate Board of New York, according to CNBC.

Under the proposed plan, people using ride share services with multiple other people (ie. UberPool, but not just Uber) would only be charged an extra $0.75, while taxi rides would cost an additional $2-5 for rides below 60th Street. It calls for passenger vehicles to be charged $11.52 and $25.34 for trucks driving in lower Manhattan on weekdays.

The proposed charge is good for several reasons, addressing the influx of cars throughout the downtown core, but also making the city clearer and safer for New Yorkers who aren’t car-reliant.

In a new report from Riders Alliance, it found that express bus riders coming from the outskirts of Brooklyn and Queens could save one to two hours a week on their commute if congestion pricing was introduced. Some of these riders are classified as “supercommuters” by the government, meaning they spend more than 90 minutes commuting to and from work. The group explained that the fee could bump speeds by up to 20 percent, making trips quicker for bus riders.

However, the main issue with introducing a charge to get into downtown Manhattan is that the public transit infrastructure alternatives suck. Before a charge like this can be introduced, there needs to be reliable and accessible alternatives which is a challenge with the current state of the MTA’s subway system — especially in the outer boroughs where there’s not as much subway service and where the buses move as slow as a crawl.

In London, bus ridership was increasing significantly and the bus lanes throughout the capital were implemented before the congestion charge was introduced. The buses carried more riders and helped shift people from cars to buses, bikes and walking, being designed as a specifically because of the infrastructure already available. With NYC there’s not as many bus lanes and when they are in place, they’re being patrolled by police instead of cameras, who are far less effective at catching drivers and much of the time, break the laws surrounding bus lanes themselves. Bus lanes in Manhattan, Brooklyn and the other boroughs are essentially non-existent, accounting for barely 50 miles of roadway.

To make New York match London’s success, buses need to become prioritized better on streets and needs to be reorganized to promote the use of bus-only and HOV lanes. The main aspect of the bus system is how roads are prioritized and with the current state of the city’s transportation, this is just one fix in a list of many.