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New York City Is Thriving. Why Is Transport Such a Nightmare?

Originally posted in NYTimes, July 30, 2018, Editorial Board

The New York City Council considers a package of bills to freeze the number of Uber-type cars on city streets. But that’s at best a partial answer to a systemic crisis.

New York is one of the most prosperous cities in the world, yet it has one of the world’s most dysfunctional transportation systems. Delays plague the subway a year after Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority promised to fix that mess. The roads, especially in Manhattan, are in not much better shape. Average traffic speeds south of 60th Street have fallen nearly 22 percent in the past seven years, according to the City Department of Transportation. At the same time, many taxi and livery drivers say that they can barely afford to make ends meet — six of them have killed themselves in recent months. One shot himself in front of City Hall to protest officials whom he accused of flooding the streets with for-hire cars and driving him to ruin.

The New York City Council will soon vote on a package of bills that lawmakers pledge would reduce congestion and improve the lives of taxi and Uber drivers. While the bills offer some important progress, they wouldn’t do nearly enough to address the city’s transportation woes.

The subway crisis is driving some frustrated commuters to the likes of Uber, Lyft and Via, which can offer pool rides for little more than subway fare. Even M.T.A. officials acknowledge that the number of trips on the subway fell in tandem with a surge in use of those services.

The legislation before the City Council aims to address the problems in the taxi and for-hire car business — the part of the transportation breakdown that the city can fix without the help of state lawmakers, who control the subway and bus system through the M.T.A. Two bills stand out: one to impose a yearlong limit on new for-hire cars, the category of vehicles that includes Uber, Lyft, Via and other app-based companies, and another to authorize the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission to establish a minimum wage for drivers who work for those businesses.

Supporters of the yearlong cap, which has an exemption for vehicles that are wheelchair-accessible, say it’s needed to give the city time to study the impact of the Uber-led gig economy on the city. They also argue that it would give taxi drivers who have seen their incomes plummet in recent years a brief respite. But the ride-sharing companies and their supporters say the cap would hurt residents who live outside the busiest parts of Manhattan and have come to rely on their services by limiting the supply of new cars, even as demand grows. They’re also concerned that the taxi commission could turn the temporary limit into a permanent cap, citing as evidence a 2015 proposal by Mayor Bill de Blasio to slow the growth of Uber.

In reality, this cap would do little on its own to reduce congestion or improve the lives of drivers. There are already so many for-hire vehicles in the city that merely reducing the number of new cars that come onto the roads temporarily would not change much. If anything, it could encourage some drivers to spend even more time in Manhattan where they are more likely to get fares and less time in mass transit-starved parts of the city. In addition, people who want to start driving for Uber and Lyft would find other ways to do so, like renting licensed cars from other drivers or fleet owners — a practice that is already common with yellow taxis. Uber cars that currently spend seven or eight hours on the road could be used twice as long if new licenses become hard to get.

Instead of capping new licenses, officials should devise policies that limit the number of cars on the busiest streets during the busiest parts of the day. This would have the benefit of not depriving people living outside the densest parts of the city access to car services. Ideally, Albany would adopt comprehensive congestion pricing in Manhattan, which would generate billions of dollars to improve subway and bus service.

The proposal to establish a minimum wage for for-hire drivers carries more promise. Properly designed, it could help people who work for Uber, Lyft and other apps earn a living wage after paying for expenses like leasing costs, insurance and fuel. A study commissioned by the Taxi and Limousine Commission found that setting the minimum pay at $17.22 an hour would increase driver earnings by 14 percent, or $6,345 a year.

A minimum wage could also force app-based companies to be more proactive about matching drivers with passengers. Today, app-based drivers spend about 40 percent of their time waiting for customers, according to Bruce Schaller, a transportation consultant and former city traffic deputy commissioner. That suits Uber and other companies because they don’t have to pay for those idle hours, and having lots of cars available means customers can always get a car pretty quickly.

Over time, a minimum wage standard could also help reduce congestion by forcing app-based companies to not flood the streets with cars. The businesses would also benefit because drivers who know they can make a decent wage would be less likely to quit. Turnover is a serious problem for Uber, Lyft and other companies.

The city also ought to consider changes that would help yellow cabdrivers earn a living wage, too. The taxi commission, for example, can increase metered fares, which it last raised in 2012.

By many measures — population growth, jobs, tourism, property values — New York is booming. Yet, it lacks an efficient and fair transportation system. City and state officials have for too long neglected that failure and blamed each other for not doing enough. They need to work together to set things right.

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