City issues low-impact report on car-hail apps

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A driver displays Lyft and Uber stickers on his front windshield. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)
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Mayor Bill de Blasio no longer thinks Uber is playing a major role in congestion on city streets.

On the Friday before the Martin Luther King holiday weekend, the de Blasio administration released its long-anticipated report on the impact of car-hail apps like Uber on congestion in New York City.

The report found that while car-hail apps are “a contributor to overall congestion,” they “did not drive the recent increase in congestion in the [central business district].”

The report was largely crafted by City Hall in conjunction with outside consultants.

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City Hall was “truly leading this study,” taxi commissioner Meera Joshi said Thursday.

While the study found that “average vehicle speeds have fallen nearly 10% over the last two years,” in Manhattan’s central business district, it said car-hail apps didn't play a role in that.

Rather, the growth in car-hail apps mostly supplanted yellow taxi trips, according to the report.

"I don't know what hours they did this study," said Bhairavi Desai, who runs the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. "Was this not during rush hour or something?"

It could be argued the report’s provenance foretold its outcome.

In July, de Blasio said he would commission a study of congestion in New York City, part of what the administration characterized as a compromise with Uber.

But the preceding events made the compromise hard to interpret as anything other than a mayoral defeat at the hands of a multi-billion-dollar corporation.

A month earlier, de Blasio’s administration had said Uber was likely making city traffic worse and officials wanted to temporarily cap Uber's growth to study its impact on congestion.

Uber responded with ferocity.

Equipped with some of the best hands in New York politics, the company now valued at more than $60 billion spent millions attacking supportive City Council members and targeting de Blasio’s base. In relatively short order, de Blasio backed down.

"Now, anyone who disagrees with the mayor knows they just have to tie an issue to poor and working class black people,” one Democratic councilman who is normally a de Blasio ally told POLITICO New York in July. “If they can make that case and put ads on the air, the mayor will fold like a cheap suit in a matter of hours.”

De Blasio insisted a cap was still on the table — an assertion that prompted skepticism in the taxi industry and drew the ire of City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who had been meeting with stakeholders to reach a compromise.

The report makes several recommendations, only two of which deal with traffic congestion.

In one, the de Blasio administration recommends the city step-up enforcement against acts already considered “violations,” like ” idling, double-parking and ‘blocking the box.’”

In another, the report recommends strengthening “incentives to fill empty seats in vehicles consuming scarce street space in the core and shifting low occupancy vehicles out of the core during times of peak demand.”

The report does not elaborate on what that recommendation might mean.

The other recommendations pertain to issues like wheelchair accessibility and driver licensing.

On those fronts (and a few others), the New York City Council is poised to lend a hand.

A few minutes before de Blasio issued his report, the City Council put out a press release announcing a package of legislation.

There are eight bills, including two that have already been introduced. The remaining legislation is expected to be formally introduced at the Council’s stated meeting next week.

One bill would require the city to create a universal license for all taxi and car-hail drivers to make it easier for them to move between sectors, something the Taxi and Limousine Commission has already created. The bill would also remove a requirement which requires that applicants pass a written English language exam.

De Blasio’s report also notes car-hail apps aren’t subject to as many wheelchair-accessibility requirements as yellow taxis, and as Uber rises, "the percentage of for-hire vehicles that are accessible will drop.”

And so on Friday, City Council committed, vaguely, “to working with stakeholders to develop a comprehensive system that will not only quickly and efficiently connect accessible vehicles and riders, but that will incentivize drivers to offer accessible service.”

James Weisman, who, as president of the United Spinal Assciation is the city's most prominent advocate for the disabled, was not impressed.

"The devil is in the details and there aren't any in what was released today," he said.

Another bill would require the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission to directly administer a health care program and purchase disability insurance coverage for its drivers.

Two bills specifically target the black car industry, in which Uber is now the dominant player.

A proposal by Councilmen Ydanis Rodriguez and Dan Garodnick would require that black car drivers give riders a price estimate on the cost of the trip that cannot increase by more than 20 percent. Councilman Rory Lancman will introduce a bill extending the time a black car is allowed to stay in service.

In a significant win for Uber, the Council did not include a measure that would limit Uber's ability to raise prices in response to spikes in customer demand, a practice Uber calls surge pricing.

Councilman David Greenfield, who sponsored that legislation, said Friday his bill is nevertheless not yet dead.

“I think that the approach is to do things piecemeal, not everything at once,” he said.

There is little question that among certain demographics, car-hails apps like Uber are now preferred to taxis or old-fashioned car services.

In October 2015, yellow taxis averaged 397,000 trips a day, according to the Taxi and Limousine Commission. Uber averaged 141,000 and Lyft averaged 14,000. Some traditional car services, like Carmel or Dial 7, averaged between 2,000 and 5,000 trips a day.

In 2013, there were 47,000 for-hire vehicles in New York. By the end of 2015, there were 74,000.

“It’s ludicrous to think that the new vehicles haven’t added congestion,” Desai said.

David Mack, a spokesman for Lyft, and Matthew Wing, a spokesman for Uber, independently applauded the city’s thoughtfulness.

“We appreciate the thoughtful process Mayor de Blasio and his administration have engaged in over the last several months to improve the commercial car industry," Wing said.

“[W]e applaud the thoughtful approach to making the regulatory process work better for riders and drivers alike," Mack said.