For-Hire Drivers—and Their Riders—Brace For New Fees in Midtown

The state has approved a surcharge to reduce Midtown congestion and bolster the MTA. New Yorkers seem resigned to it

Weekdays rides with taxis and for-hire vehicles increased 24% between 2013 and 2017 (Daniel Kölblinger)

Every single ride in a taxi, Uber, or Lyft that crosses into Manhattan below 96th street will cost at least $2.50 more. The measure was approved on March 31 by the New York State Assembly and will start next January.

Several drivers and customers, speaking to NYCityLens, said they are reluctant but resigned to the measure. “We can do nothing,” says taxi driver Mohammad Mustafa, 48. The surcharge was included in the latest New York State budget.

As a result, every taxi ride that goes through what has been branded as the Central Business District will be more expensive. Customers using for-hire vehicles app such as Uber or Lyft will be paying $2.75. The measure, pushed by Governor Andrew Cuomo, is a first step toward reduce traffic in the most crowded areas of Manhattan, and toward funding mass transit.

The surcharge comes after Cuomo’s fuller idea for Congestion Pricing—which would have charged a fee on every single car, not just for-hire vehicles, going through central Manhattan—felt through, even though the governor said last August that the “time has come” for Congestion Pricing.

“It will be bad for customers because they are the ones paying,” says Mustafa, a taxi driver for 17 years. “And I don’t think it will ease congestion.”

Some customers agreed. “What a horror,” a surprised Jenny Ramos said in Spanish when she heard about the new fee. “but I will still take the taxi because I need to.” At 75, this resident of the Upper West Side suffers from arthritis, and a couple of doctors she visits monthly are in the East Side. “I can’t take the subway because of the stairs,” she says as she approached her home, at 94th and Broadway.”

But Ramos admitted that something must be done with the congestion. “If I go during the morning, before 10 a.m., traffic is fluid,” said Ramos. “In the afternoon, it’s terrible.”

At a gas station on 96th and Riverside Drive, Gunduz Suleymani stopped his grey Toyota to quickly fill his tank, as a pouring rain had increased the workload for for-hire drivers.

“If I don’t pay anything, it is fine,” says Suleymani, who is 25 and from Azerbaidjan. He’s been picking up customers from Uber, Lyft, and Juno for six months now. He believes customers will pay the nearly three dollars extra. “I don’t think it will affect us,” he said. “If someone needs to pick a cab, they will.”

In what’s been a conflict replicated in nearly every single big city around the world, taxi drivers like Mustafa put the blame for congestion in Midtown on Uber drivers and other similar services. “There are unlimited licenses for them,” he says, referring to the fact that the number of taxis on the streets is limited, whereas Uber and lift can deploy as many cars as they are able on New York City’s streets. “They park in double row as much as they want.”

More rides per day

The proposal for the new fee came after the government appointed a panel to fix the NYC transportation crisis. The report, published in January, advocated for a three-phased plan, including the surcharge on for-hire cars. It pointed out that New York ranks as the second worst city in the United States for traffic congestion. Taxis and for-hire vehicle rides increased by 24% between 2013—before the introduction of for-hire vehicles—and 2017. Those rides “have become a very large part of overall traffic,” according to the panel. The average taxi speed in the areas designated for the fee decreased from 9.4 mph in 2010 to 6.8 six years later.

The New York Taxi Workers Alliance has criticized the surcharge measure because it affects taxi drivers, already hit hard by Uber and Lyft competition. “This surcharge will create a deeper poverty among drivers, who are facing the harshest economic conditions we have ever seen,” said the organization in a statement.

Gov. Cuomo argues that the new fee represents “phase one of the congestion pricing plan.

“That generates $415 million,” he said on Saturday. “That would go to fund the MTA.”

The Taxi Alliance responded that “yellow and green taxis have been paying their fair share to the MTA for years.” In 2009, a 50-cent surcharge in cab fares went into effect as governmental funding decreased.

Farez Khan, a former Uber and Yellow taxi driver who now works at the gas station on 96th, points out at the irony. “People don’t take the train because it doesn’t work well, and now they will have to pay for not taking the train.”

“I’m happy to a certain degree if it helps to fund the subway,” says Jamie, 52, a therapist who bikes to his work on the Upper West Side, “but I wish they did it for every personal car. Taxis are still a public transport.

“Every car takes too much space and carries only one or two persons,” he says. “It doesn’t make sense from an urban perspective.”