Congestion Pricing? Don’t Ask Your Driver

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s plan to reduce congestion in Midtown Manhattan rests in part on charging the city’s for-hire drivers, taxicabs, and ride services like Uber, an extra $2 to $5 per ride. Perhaps naturally, purveyors of those services seem to dislike the idea.

“Wow,” said Arcadio Suriel Hernandez, 64, an Uber driver for the past two years. “That’s not right. We’re paying enough now.”

“That definitely will create an incentive to not ride with us,” said Patrick Lyons, 50, a yellow cabbie. “Especially if people have to pay more.”

The plan was developed over the summer by the Cuomo Administration and has so far received only tepid support from Mayor Bill de Blasio. It has its roots in a congestion plan first framed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2008. Bloomberg suggested an $8 fee for any cars entering Midtown or lower Manhattan. Now, under a whole new technological landscape brought on by the advent of ride-sharing phone applications, the Cuomo administration’s transportation task force suggests charging cars a flat $11.52 fee just to drive through Midtown; trucks would pay $25.34; and taxis and for-hire vehicles could see a $2 to $5 surcharge per ride. Residents living within the congestion district would not be exempt either.

Evening traffic in Midtown Manhattan (Brian Pascus/NYCityLens)

The rationale for the plan comes from a confluences of factors. First, the city’s subway system is in dire condition, with delays reaching record numbers this summer and the funding required for desperately needed repairs reaching into the hundreds of millions. Second, congestion in Midtown has become a problem unto itself, as some of New York’s busiest streets have become impossible to drive though during most times of the day. Third, congestion pricing itself is not a novel concept, as cities like London and Stockholm have already implemented their own pricing systems that have reduced traffic.

The task force estimates that $1.5 billion in revenue would be raised under the proposal, money which Cuomo claims will be transferred to projects to improve the aging MTA subway system. Newly developed technology will identify and charge vehicles based on when they enter specified zones in Manhattan. Mayor de Blasio generally supports this idea but is also continuing to push for higher taxes on the city’s wealthiest citizens to supplement subway funding.

But a number of stakeholders are not buying it, especially the taxi and car service business.

“It will increase the cost of doing business but now the cost will be passed onto consumers,” said Steven Shanker, an attorney who represents the NYC Livery Roundtable, a committee of car services providers. “Transportation is already expensive enough, so having the public pay more when public entities can’t deal with their own budgeting issues is a hard pill to swallow.”

“Once we start passing on those fees to the customers, they will stop using us,” said Michael Ramirez, manager of Delancey Car Service. “We can’t afford that. The industry will be destroyed even more.”

“My first reaction is they are not solving any problems,” said Yoel Sharabi, a manager at Dial 7 Car and Limousine. “They are just making everyone else pay for a problem that won’t be solved.”

On the other hand, many in the city argue something has to be done. Subway delays are at an all-time high, and a transportation crisis has gradually unfolded with car congestion in New York City reaching new highs. According to Cuomo’s Fix NY Panel Report, which included the recommendations of former Governor David Paterson, the average speed when traveling through Midtown was barely 4.7 miles-per-hour in 2017. The report also contemplates the idea of first charging taxis and for-hire vehicles like Uber prior to assessing taxes on the general driving population.

Alan J. Fromberg, Deputy Commissioner for Public Affairs for the NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission, was more circumspect. He wrote in an email that, “The truth is, we’re at the very beginning of a complex process, and the report frankly doesn’t contain nearly enough information to answer all the questions that have arisen.”

Some longtime drivers of taxis and car-services believe that there are better solutions for reducing the amount of cars.

“The congestion problem came from companies, not only Uber,” said a 20-year cab driver who wished to remain anonymous. “The city created this. If you get rid of all the licenses you get rid of the congestion.”

By licenses, the driver was referring to the explosion of approved ride-hail cars, which have jumped from 47,000 in 2013 to 103,000 today. These operating licenses were approved by the NYC Council Transportation Committee, while yellow taxis have been capped at 13,000 due to city law.

“That’s the part that bothers me the most,” said Shanker by phone. “The entire industry with the exception of Uber had petitioned the city council and Transportation Committee to put a freeze on licenses of for-hire vehicles. De Blasio didn’t want to put a cap on the number of licenses because he’d taken a fair amount of money from the for-hire vehicle industry and didn’t want to seem like he was helping them by putting a freeze on it.”

Other industry veterans find solutions in simple rule changes.

“They could have regulations with the times drivers can enter the city,” said Ramirez. For example, he said, “Drivers who are driving private vehicles cannot enter in rush-hour, 2 pm-to-6 pm or 8 am-to-11 am. If you limit the drivers to get to the city at those times, that’s going to alleviate congestion.”

Still, some citizens, who don’t have any ties to the transportation industry, support the basic goals and structure of the congestion plan proposal.

“It creates some incentive to create improvements in public transportation,” said Abou Traore, 25, a Manhattan resident. “If the funds are used to improve public transportation than I am for it.”

“The focus on the subway system is a good start,” said Brandt Johnson, 51. “Improvements of infrastructure would make the experience of riding the subway much better.”

Others are more skeptical. “The reason people take taxis and Ubers is because the subway is that bad,” said Sara Oppenheim, 19. “Fix the subway first. It’s gross, it’s slow, there are delays. I’ve been to London, Paris, Israel. It’s not like that there.”