Big Apple chokes on ride-hailing apps

New York's streets getting jammed as more people prefer such rides over buses and trains

NEW YORK • When Uber arrived in New York City in 2011, subway ridership was soaring and the medallions required to drive a yellow cab were selling for a sky-high US$1 million (S$1.42 million).

But Uber had an enticing offer: Your ride could appear at the touch of a button.

Six years later, Uber and other ride-hailing apps like Lyft and Via are booming - an army of nearly 50,000 licensed vehicles that ferry hundreds of thousands of people across the city every day.

The apps are rapidly transforming transportation in New York, emerging as an existential threat to the taxi industry and siphoning passengers away from subways and buses, while raising concerns over worsening street congestion. They are also expanding quickly across the country, altering the travel landscape in places with poor public transit.

In New York - Uber's largest US market - yellow cab trips are dropping, while the use of ride-hailing services has skyrocketed to about 16 million passengers in October from about five million in June 2015, according to an independent report. The price of a taxi medallion has plummeted - many drivers have abandoned cabs for ride-hailing services, and taxis sit idle in garages.

Then came the news that subway ridership had dropped for the first time since 2009, even though the city's population and the number of jobs keep increasing.

The price of a carpool ride with the apps can be as low as US$5 - a fee that for many seems worth it when the alternative is spending US$2.75 to use a century-old subway system plagued by delays.

"It's hit a point where people are choosing to travel by ride-hailing because the subways have become intolerable," said Mr Thomas Wright, president of the Regional Plan Association, an urban policy group.

Subways and buses have absorbed much of the city's growth in recent decades as subway ridership has hit levels not seen since the middle of the last century.

But both have become less appealing - buses trapped in traffic, prolonged waits for trains, packed platforms and all-too-frequent mechanical breakdowns.

However, the proliferation of ride-hailing vehicles appears to be contributing to increasingly gridlocked streets. Average travel speeds in the heart of Manhattan dropped to about 13kmh last year, down about 12 per cent from 2010, according to city data.

Subway service must become more competitive because it is unsustainable for the city to grow by adding more vehicles, said Mr Bruce Schaller, a former senior transportation official.

"This is a wake-up call that action is needed now to deal with delays, crowding and a host of problems that people experience every day on the transit system," he said.

A spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the agency that runs the city's subways and buses, said it was working to modernise the system and improve service.

With frustration over street congestion rising, Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised a comprehensive traffic plan in the coming weeks, though he may be reluctant to confront Uber after the uproar he faced in 2015 when he tried to cap its number of vehicles. He ultimately backed down.

Uber, Lyft and Via said there were many reasons for the growing congestion, including construction, truck deliveries and high pedestrian traffic.

The companies said they actually reduced congestion through more efficient use of streets and considered themselves a supplement rather than a substitute for public transportation.

Some transit officials view the apps as an ally in their efforts to persuade urban dwellers to resist car ownership. People who use Uber and Lyft often were more likely to use public transportation, according to a study last year by the American Public Transportation Association.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 10, 2017, with the headline 'Big Apple chokes on ride-hailing apps'. Print Edition | Subscribe