NEW YORK — The sputtering traffic in Manhattan has long been blamed on cars and delivery trucks pouring onto the streets from the rest of the city and beyond.
Since at least the 1970s, New York City officials have proposed various toll systems to deter drivers from coming over bridges or piling into the busiest neighborhoods.
But today, the traffic landscape in the city has undergone a remarkable shift — the problem is not just the congestion coming in, but the congestion that is already here. An explosion of ride-hailing app services has transformed the way that people get around the city and is choking the streets. Midtown traffic crawls at an average of 4.7 mph from 6.5 mph five years ago.
“You’ll see an entire row of Lyft, Uber and Juno drivers on the streets waiting to pick people up,” said Chanse Gierbolini, 27, a baker in Lower Manhattan. “It seems like everybody’s driving the same black sedan — they’re everywhere.”
About 103,000 for-hire vehicles operate in the city, more than double the roughly 47,000 in 2013, according to the Taxi & Limousine Commission. Of those, 68,000 are affiliated with ride-hailing app companies, including 65,000 with Uber alone though they may also provide rides for others. In contrast, yellow taxis are capped by city law at just under 13,600.
Now a new report finds that ride-hailing cars are often driving on the city’s busiest streets with no passengers — in effect, creating congestion without any benefits. The report by Bruce Schaller, a former city transportation official, found that more than one-third of ride-hailing cars and yellow taxis are empty at any given time during weekdays in Manhattan’s main business district.
The ride-hailing cars average 11 minutes of unoccupied time — compared with eight minutes for yellow taxis — in between dropping off one passenger and picking up another, according to the report.
The ride-hailing services have drawn scrutiny as Gov. Andrew Cuomo formulates a congestion pricing plan that would not only reduce traffic, but also raise money to modernize the city’s subways. A state task force, called Fix NYC, is looking at measures including a new per-ride fee on all for-hire vehicles in Manhattan, which would be paid by passengers, according to those familiar with the discussions. Cuomo is expected to announce a congestion pricing plan, which must be approved by the state Legislature, as soon as January.
“The governor has been clear we need to reduce gridlock, cut emissions and fund mass transit,'’ said Peter Ajemian, a spokesman for Cuomo, “which is why he empaneled Fix NYC to explore all options.”
Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg was the last to try a congestion pricing plan, in 2008. His plan, which would have exacted an $8 fee for entering Midtown and Lower Manhattan, died in the state Assembly.
Across the nation, a handful of cities have imposed per-ride fees. Seattle, which began regulating ride-hailing services in 2014, charges two fees totaling 24-cents per ride to cover the costs of regulating and licensing operators and support wheelchair-accessible cars. Portland, Oregon, began charging passengers a 50-cent per-ride fee in 2016 to pay for safety inspections of cars and other regulatory costs.
In Chicago, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel contends the ride-hailing services have cost his city millions in lost taxes and fees, the city introduced a 20-cents per-ride fee in 2014 and raised that to 50 cents the following year. The fee will rise to 65 cents next year, and then to 70 cents in 2019 — with the additional increases dedicated solely to modernizing the transit system, city officials said.
New York City is considering a new fee on for-hire vehicles at a time when the state-controlled Metropolitan Transportation Authority is in dire need of money to overhaul the city’s decrepit subway system. Advocates say it would be easier to push through the state Legislature than tolls on the East River bridges and already has a precedent: a 50-cent surcharge on cab rides that goes to the transportation authority. The ride-hailing services are not subject to that surcharge, but collect state and local sales tax on each ride.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has criticized Uber’s rapid expansion for exacerbating traffic, but his administration backed down from a proposed cap on Uber cars in 2015. The mayor, who opposes congestion pricing, has announced his own plan to reduce traffic, including banning some truck deliveries and stepping up enforcement of traffic rules.
In the meantime, there is no escape from gridlocked streets. Jennifer Brown, 46, an architect, was recently trapped in a cab on Fifth Avenue near 72nd Street en route to an appointment. After going two blocks in 20 minutes, she finally jumped out to walk to a subway station. “I was late so it was anxiety-inducing,” she said.
Alexis Licairac, 47, a law firm clerk in Lower Manhattan, said it takes him about two hours to get to work by bus from his home in the Bronx. “It’s absolutely horrible,” he said. “When I see how bad the congestion is in the city, I think if there’s a disaster, we’d never get out.”
Sam Schwartz, a former city traffic commissioner who is on the state task force, said that a new ride fee could compel some passengers to seek cheaper alternatives, including subways and buses. He said that growing car congestion has hurt the city economy at all levels, from making it more difficult to get to work to increasing delivery costs for stores and restaurants.
Alix Anfang, an Uber spokeswoman, said simply adding a fee would not address an already unfair fee system in which Uber riders pay more in sales tax than taxi riders pay with the 50-cent MTA fee. The minimum fare for an individual Uber ride in New York City is $8, which amounts to a sales tax of 71 cents. She said the system is especially a burden on riders outside Manhattan, who have fewer subway and bus options.
This week, Uber started a campaign calling for a comprehensive approach to congestion pricing, which could include a per-ride fee in Manhattan among other measures.
“The existing ride-hailing tax unfairly burdens outer borough New Yorkers who pay far more in taxes per trip than Manhattan taxi riders,” Anfang said, “which is why Uber believes a new transit tax system should fully fund mass transit by setting fees based on how crowded the roads are, not the type of vehicle people are traveling in.”
Campbell Matthews, a Lyft spokeswoman, said the company has focused on increasing occupancy in cars on the road and reducing individual car ownership. “We are supportive of holistic efforts to address congestion in New York to ensure that all transit options available to New Yorkers are convenient and affordable,” she said.
Drivers for ride-hailing services and cabs said they would oppose a new ride fee, arguing that they, too, are hurt by congestion and that such a fee would unfairly single them out when there were other causes such as construction, garbage pickups and truck deliveries.
Mohammed Zzaman, who drives for Uber, Lyft and Juno, said he makes fewer pickups and less money during his “hell month” in December, when holiday crowds descend on the city and it takes twice as long to cross Midtown.
George Vountouvas, 60, an Uber driver, said he starts at 4:30 a.m. because “there’s no congestion, no traffic at that time.”
Nino Hervias, a taxi owner and spokesman for the Taxi Medallion Owner Driver Association, said the hefty prices for taxi medallions should already include access to Manhattan streets, though he supported a new fee for ride-hailing cars.
While Uber, Lyft and Via have expanded their services outside Manhattan, Schaller found that for-hire vehicles continued to crowd into Manhattan’s main business district. There were an average of 10,500 yellow cabs and vehicles working for ride-hailing apps from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., or more than double the 5,100 vehicles in 2013.
“It’s very easy to get a ride when you want one, but once you get in the car, you’re stuck in traffic,” he said.
Schaller has called for reducing the unoccupied time for ride-hailing cars and yellow taxis in addition to other efforts to reduce congestion, such as a new ride fee or toll system. He noted that Uber already uses technology at the airports to “rematch” cars dropping off passengers with new pickups to reduce congestion — a practice that could be expanded to city streets.
Many riders said something had to be done about congestion, but were wary of another fee.
“We already pay taxes — what more do they want from us?” said Evelyn Jimenez, 38, a dental assistant who already spends at least $15 a day on Uber.
But Gierbolini, the baker, said that he would be willing to pay a little more since he still depends on the subway to get to work. He spends $25 a week on Lyft, but only when he can be late because of all the congestion.
“There’s almost no reliable way to get anywhere on time other than walking,” he said.