The horses and the race fans return to Saratoga Race Course on Friday. For the first time, drivers with the ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft will be there, too.
Ride-sharing services have been legal in upstate New York for only 21 days, which police and merchants in Saratoga Springs say hasn’t been long enough to judge whether there’s been a positive impact on traffic congestion or reduction in driving while intoxicated or an improvement in availability of parking.
But the New York Racing Association is expecting good things, especially on big racing days, when tens of thousands of fans crowd the historic track and drivers hailed with smartphone apps transport them safely to and from the grounds.
“This is something that we look forward to and are certain that our fans will appreciate,” said Pat McKenna, NYRA director of communications. “Anything that could reduce congestion leaving the track is something that we would support.”
NYRA has encouraged downstate racing fans to use the Long Island Rail Road instead of their cars to get to Belmont Park on big race days such as the Belmont Stakes to increase safety and reduce congestion. The goal is the same in Saratoga, and Uber and Lyft will help accomplish it, McKenna said.
“This is something that we look forward to and are certain that our fans will appreciate,” he said.
NYRA is in the final stages of negotiating arrangements for ride-sharing pickup and dropoff and expects to announce details before opening day, McKenna added. Whatever deal is announced will preserve access for other forms of transit, including taxis, he said.
Sgt. Andrew Prestigiacomo, longtime head of traffic safety for the Saratoga Springs Police Department, said a number of details are already finalized, and an emergency order was signed by the public safety commissioner to put them into force.
There will be a pickup and dropoff zone on Frank Sullivan Place, with designated waiting zones for various types of transport, he said: 205 feet for taxis and ride shares, 128 feet for limousines, 80 feet for hotel shuttles.
“I think I’ve given everybody ample distance,” Prestigiacomo said.
No loitering will be allowed beyond these spaces by ride-share drivers hoping to be close to potential revenue — especially during critical periods such as the last race of the day, when thousands of people are leaving the track, potentially triggering lucrative surge pricing — higher costs for passengers, higher fees for drivers.
“We can’t have congestion in the area,” he said.
Parking can be hard to find near the track area during racing season, so ride-share drivers will have to keep moving while waiting for fares, he said — even sitting in an idling car in front of a fire hydrant is grounds for a ticket, though most officers would let an offender go with a warning, once.
Prestigiacomo said the biggest and most effective improvement to traffic flow near the track is one instituted last year: Making Lincoln Avenue, Nelson Avenue and Frank Sullivan Place one-way streets.
“I had been lobbying for that for eight years,” he said. “It worked flawlessly with no incidents, no crashes.”
That and other changes, such as waist-high portable fences to funnel pedestrians, are part of a larger effort to reduce congestion that predates the arrival of Lyft and Uber.
Another longstanding practice — homeowners renting out their lawns as parking spaces — will continue unabated in the Uber/Lyft era, he predicted.
Elsewhere in the city, the arrival of ride sharing is a positive and welcome development, said Tonya Pellegrini, director of promotion and marketing for the Saratoga Springs Downtown Business Association.
“People are using Uber and Lyft, which is fantastic, especially for nightlife,” she said.
Pellegrini has her own event-planning business and also acts in that role for the DBA. As such, “I’ve definitely seen people using it quite a bit,” she said.
She has not, however, seen an improvement in parking space availability due to people leaving their cars at home, nor an increase in congestion due to ride-share drivers idling while waiting for fares.
“I haven’t really noticed any change yet,” Pellegrini said. “We're just congested this time of the year anyway.”
Prestigiacomo said another potential benefit of ride sharing — reduced instances of driving while intoxicated by people who suddenly have another option to get home after drinking — hasn’t materialized yet, possibly because the option has existed for such a short time.
“Overall in the city, no, I don’t see a significant improvement yet,” he said. “I think it’s too new — our DWI arrests are very steady.”
Saratoga Springs will be a good testing ground for the theory that ride sharing reduces drunken driving. It has a lot of places that serve alcohol in a fairly compact area, and it has a very active nightlife. And its police mount a very aggressive DWI patrol.
“We’re on target for 400 [DWI] arrests this year,” Prestigiacomo said.