New York v. Uber

Unable to affect and unaffected by the more important dramas involving Greece and Iran, I have thrown myself into the high-volume dispute between Mayor DeBlasio’s team and Uber executives over a proposed city initiative to cap the number of Uber drivers in New York. All it took was signing an online petition emailed to me by Uber. Their thanks was shortly followed by a rebuttal from a Deputy Mayor, which allowed me to air my grievance about the mandated new model of yellow cab (no legroom). Uber’s executive next sent his response to the City letter, which, in turn, allowed me to point out the impolitic nature of his argument: claiming that DeBlasio is beholden to taxi industry contributors may (or may not) be true, but it only makes it harder for him to back down. Then, undoubtedly because Uber shared my name and address, I received a long statement from a City Councilman I’ve never heard of explaining why he will vote against the proposed bill. I felt like I was in the thick of the action, albeit from my distant perch in Santa Barbara. The fact that the Mayor’s office reached an “agreement” with Uber and withdrew its bill owes nothing to my involvement, obviously, but a lot to the immense popularity of the Uber service, which has made living in New York City more enjoyable than any single improvement I can think of, since the Central Park Conservancy took over the park. DeBlasio must have realized that allying himself with the deeply unpopular taxi industry against Uber was a losing position.
The purported excuse for the anti-Uber legislation was a concern for increased traffic congestion in Manhattan. But this concern confuses a symptom of the problem for a cause; and as my(?) Councilman pointed out, City administrators should be addressing the latter. Look at all the new high-rise apartment buildings in Midtown. How many more people will be living on 57th Street alone who will have transportation needs! You’re going to tell them they can’t ride in a for-hire vehicle (FHV) to get to a restaurant or a show or go shopping? That’s going to help the New York economy? – another proffered excuse for DeBlasio’s bill. It’s not like there’s an equally good alternative: yellow cabs can be impossible to flag down on the street; the subways are already overcrowded and only go north-south; and buses are slow, crowded and seldom show up when you need them. In short, if New York is to continue allowing unchecked residential development and wants to make its streets passable, it has to account for the transportation needs of its additional residents. Many cities won’t issue a restaurant license without ensuring adequate parking for potential restaurant customers. The analogy to New York’s situation is imperfect, but the point remains: there are byproducts, side effects, to continued building on a constrained space, like Manhattan Island, and limiting Uber cars is not a solution.
What is an answer? Places like Montecito have curtailed growth by restricting water permits. In many areas, zoning limits size and number of residential units. I can’t imagine that New York will ever limit development – that seems to be where the political power resides – until there is some Hobbesian self-limitation: the city gets so crowded that people don’t enjoy living there. Or as Yogi Berra put it, “The place is so crowded no one goes there anymore.” Improved public transportation is an obvious first step. You can’t build more subway lines – viz., the Second Avenue perpetual construction machine – but with more money more trains could run more frequently, making travel time shorter and the ride more pleasant. There are still places you couldn’t get to easily, for instance Chelsea from the Upper East Side, but better subways would get travelers off the streets. Since my working days in the ‘70s, the introduction of air conditioning has made subway riding much more palatable. When you compare New York’s subways to those in Moscow, London or Paris you can imagine how much room for upgrading there is. As for buses, I’ve read of the recent introduction of express bus lanes with prepaid tickets, which eliminates so much of the loading time when riders have to log in with their MetroCards and reduces wait times at lights, which are engineered to change when a bus approaches. Again, by adding more electric or hybrid buses, the wait time could be cut from ten to five minutes, making bus travel more enticing. As for cars and trucks, I can foresee the elimination of on-street parking on all avenues and many cross-streets. This might require the construction of more garages, but given the density of Manhattan population, how can you justify taking up so much road space for one person’s vehicle?
These are all big issues that will ultimately determine the livability and economic future of New York, and this is what the politicians and urban experts should be addressing now – not putting a cap on Uber.