All Hail more Traffic Congestion: NMA E-Newsletter # 484

The math is simple. More cars on the streets equals more traffic congestion.

Ridesharing companies such as Lyft and Uber have tipped that delicate balance between street traffic and transit alternatives.

Many city officials are finally taking notice.

In a recent Boston survey of 944 rideshare users over four weeks in late 2017, nearly six out of 10 respondents said they would have used public transportation, walked, biked or even skipped the trip if the ride-hailing companies with their app-easy services weren’t available.

According to a June 2017 report, San Francisco, the birthplace of Uber, rideshare vehicles of all stripes rack up over half a million miles every day on city streets. Uber and Lyft are regulated at the state level by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), while cities and counties regulate taxi services. This is a problem because San Francisco can do very little with the 5,700 extra vehicles per day on city streets in addition to regular commuter and commercial traffic. Both companies refuse to share usage information with the city, which resulted last summer in the San Francisco city attorney subpoenaing Uber, Lyft and the CPUC for their data.

The Chicago Tribune reported in February that the number of registered rideshare vehicles quadrupled over a three-year period, going from 26,800 in March 2015 to 117,557 last December. Cab Union spokesman David Kreisman said the number of taxis operating in the city is limited to 6,999 to reduce congestion and assure coverage but there are no such limits on ride sharing.

Ron Burke, executive director of the Chicago Active Transportation Alliance said, “Uber and Lyft have not delivered what they said they would—fewer cars, less traffic and more mobility.” He added, “They’re convenient and people like them, but it appears that they’re creating more cars and more traffic in the downtown area if not elsewhere. That’s not a sustainable trajectory.”

The predictable response from cities is to increase the taxing of ridesharing services, making the cost less attractive to passengers.

Late last year, Chicago implemented a 15-cent increase to the already existing 52-cent fee for every rideshare trip. In late March, instead of congestion tolling in Manhattan, the state budget included new rideshare and taxi trip fees, with some of the collected revenue being diverted to help fund the subway system. Cities in Massachusetts, California, Georgia and Washington D.C. have also raised or are thinking about raising rideshare fees to provide financial supplements for transit alternatives. Raising fees though will not really help urban core traffic congestion.

The most disturbing element to this cultural phenomenon is the push by some cities to alleviate core traffic by hitting up motorists for more fees. Seattle may well be the first city to have congestion tolling in the United States, with Mayor Jenny Durkan recently telling reporters that she plans to set up an expensive ring of automatic tolling gantries. (Who wants to bet that congestion or not, the tolling will continue once in place?)

Nevertheless it is hard to ignore the fact that something has to be done to ease traffic congestion in larger metroplexes. Uber reports that in the Seattle area it has 15,000 active drivers with 800,000 active riders. That is just data from one ridesharing company.

The math is simple─more cars on the road leads to traffic tie-ups and longer commute times. Ridesharing services offer a convenience that is quickly being overshadowed by the realities of urban core congestion.

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