The state of New York recently enacted congestion pricing for Manhattan in an effort to reduce the number of vehicles on the city’s streets and provide revenue to support public transportation. However, the government’s initiative is seen as specifically targeting ride-hailing companies, a move that may ultimately backfire.
Fees will hit only taxis and for-hire services such as Uber and Lyft rather than regular motorists. The new surcharges will be included in every ride in for-hire vehicles in Manhattan south of 96th Street. Yellow taxis will pay $2.50, while other for-hire vehicles will be charged $2.75 for rides. Shared rides, including those in UberPool and Via, would see a lower fee at 75 cents.
Congestion fees have a number of both pros and cons, and are controversial for city planners and transportation service providers. They can be effective in the goal of reducing gridlock, but they also raise the cost of travel and limit access.
The lower charges for pooled rides provides incentives for passengers to share vehicles instead of traveling on their own, which has the potential to cut down on a portion of the gridlock.
In New York’s plans, the lower charges for pooled rides provide incentives for passengers to share vehicles instead of traveling on their own, which has the potential to cut down on a portion of the gridlock and reduce fuel demand. As the popularity of ride-sharing grows, urban areas and ride-hailing firms have the opportunity to incentivize pooling passengers, which serves the public interest for numerous reasons.
However, the surcharges enacted by New York impact only a relatively small portion of the borough’s traffic since passenger cars are not included. Governor Andrew Cuomo had proposed a daily fee of $11.52 for passenger cars and $25.43 for trucks to enter a congestion zone south of 60th Street. That plan, while supported by transportation exports and advocates for improving public transit, angered a number of politicians and area residents who opposed congestion prices because of sharply higher costs for motorists and riders in taxis or for-hire vehicles.
Efforts to reduce congestion through charging drivers have been implemented in majors markets around the world, including Singapore, London and Stockholm, where they have been largely popular because of reduced traffic—even if they have received criticism for the higher costs. New York has resisted action. Mayor Bloomberg, in 2008, wanted to enact congestion fees, but the state legislature never took up the issue. Advocates of adding fees to cut down on gridlock believed that stricter measures would have been implemented this time around, given Governor Cuomo’s support, the urgency in dealing with congestion, and the growing need to address problems with the city’s subway system.
“Pricing only for-hire trips would have perverse rebound effects, leading to even more personal car travel in the congested heart of the city.”
The city’s transportation problems are expected to continue to worsen. In 2017, ridership on New York’s subway declined for the second year in a row because of bad service, including frequent disruptions, and riders shifting to ride-hailing apps. Since 2013, the number of for-hire vehicles more than doubled, reaching 103,000, based on numbers from the Taxi and Limousine Commission. Ride-hailing apps such as Uber and Lyft account for 25 percent of VMT in New York’s central business district, and make up even less during rush hour, while yellow cabs’ share of VMT is around 22 percent.
Transportation expert Charles Komanoff argues that New York singling out ride-sharing companies could have unintended consequences. “Pricing only for-hire trips would have perverse rebound effects, leading to even more personal car travel in the congested heart of the city. That’s because drivers who now leave their cars at home will exploit much of the space cleared out due to higher cab and Uber fares.”
The potential of autonomous taxis in New York City
Even though New York City is grappling with its congestion problem now, the problems could ease as transportation technology evolves. New York City is a prime market—with rider trips mostly short and intra-city—where shared, autonomous, and electric vehicles (SAEVs) can succeed in reducing congestion and fuel consumption if the right measures and infrastructure are put in place. A group of researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory analyzed the potential effects of SAEVs on greenhouse gas emissions and fuel consumption. The researchers used taxi-trip data from New York City to predict the battery range and charging infrastructure requirements for SAEVs to serve Manhattan. See here for a video of their simulation of self-driving taxis in New York.
“In New York, we have a situation where car ownership is low and many people take taxis,” researchers Gordon Bauer, Jeff Greenblatt (now with Emerging Futures), and Brian Gerke told The Fuse. “There are a lot of reasons why autonomous and electric taxis should work there. The denser an area is, the more likely it will be successful in incorporating SAEVs.”
Electric cars that are automated would lower the costs by “an order of magnitude” to 29-61 cents per mile compared to today’s yellows taxis.
They found that the use of electric cars that are automated would lower the costs by “an order of magnitude” to 29-61 cents per mile compared to today’s yellows taxis. Using electrification to power the fleet of automated taxis would reduce GHG emissions by 73 percent and energy consumption by 58 percent compared to a fleet using internal combustion engines. “SAEVs hold great promise for improving transportation access in urban centers while drastically reducing transportation-related energy consumption and air pollution,” the authors said.
“In the future, the cost of taking a taxi will plummet,” they told The Fuse. “Even though EVs cost more to buy, the more you use them, the more cost savings you’ll have.”
They emphasized that in order for SAEVs to be successful in New York—or any other city—governments need to put the right policies in place in order to manage congestion and build adequate charging infrastructure. “It’s important that for society to see the huge potential benefits of these services, they need to be available to everyone,” they told The Fuse.