National News

If Your Uber Ride Cost an Extra $50, Would You Still Take It?

Posted March 7, 2018 4:28 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — With Uber and Lyft cars taking over Manhattan streets, a state task force has proposed a surcharge of $2 to $5 on rides in for-hire vehicles as part of a broader congestion pricing plan to keep traffic moving and raise money to shore up public transit.

But now a prominent transportation expert, Bruce Schaller, contends that those fees are simply too low to deter most passengers from calling cars, and in any case, would result in only a temporary reduction in congestion before being offset by the rapidly growing ride-hailing services.

In a new report on Wednesday, Schaller calls instead for charging all for-hire vehicles — including yellow taxis and Uber and Lyft cars — $50 per hour to drive in Midtown Manhattan during weekday business hours, and $20 per hour in Lower Manhattan, the Upper West Side and the Upper East Side. Schaller, a former city transportation official, said he based the fees on current parking garage prices in Manhattan.

“It takes high parking fees to really discourage people from driving into Manhattan,” said Schaller, who advised to the state task force. “Uber and Lyft and taxi passengers need the same price signals.”

The hourly fee would be passed along to passengers. By his calculation, the average fare for a ride that begins and ends in Midtown would more than double to $24 from $10. The average fare for rides from Midtown to other Manhattan neighborhoods, or vice versa, would increase to $28 from $14, he said.

It would also apply to vehicles even when they are not carrying passengers to discourage drivers from just circulating around Manhattan streets looking for business. Schaller said those fees would be billed to ride-hailing companies and taxi owners, who could pass that on to passengers through higher fares.

The result would be an immediate reduction in Midtown traffic since for-hire vehicles would make fewer trips, according to Schaller. He estimated that daily trips during the weekday would drop 11 percent to 64,000 from 72,000. He added that the top fee of $50 per hour would be charged in only a tiny fraction of the overall trips.

But Schaller’s hefty fees have been criticized by drivers and passengers who say they are being unfairly targeted, and from transportation experts — including supporters of congestion pricing — who view them as unrealistic and an unhelpful distraction as they lobby for a congestion pricing plan in Albany.

“That’s insane, the prices are crazy,” said John McFadden, 49, a photographer who takes a taxi, Uber or other car service at least once a day around Manhattan. “It’s just going to keep everybody out of Manhattan because they won’t be able to afford it. I can’t afford it."

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said that he supports congestion pricing, but has yet to present a plan. Instead, the state task force that he assembled, Fix NYC, released recommendations in January that included the $2 to $5 per-ride surcharge as well as the creation of a Manhattan congestion zone in which passenger cars could be charged a fee of $11.52 per day.

The task force estimated the per-ride fees alone could generate up to $605 million a year at a time when other states and cities have increasingly imposed similar per-ride fees to generate new revenue.

Schaller said that his hourly fees would raise more, about $670 million. He added that his report was not intended to criticize the Fix NYC plan, but to build upon the work of the task force and help come up with the most effective way to address growing congestion from cars. “I think the city is at a critical decision point,” he said. Jon Orcutt, a spokesman for TransitCenter, a research and policy foundation, said that he supported Schaller’s approach of using an hourly fee rather than a per-ride fee to manage congestion “because I think we’re going to need tough measures to keep the streets moving.” He expressed doubt, though, that a $50 hourly fee would win approval from state officials, given that congestion pricing already faced significant hurdles in New York.

Mitchell L. Moss, a member of the task force and the director of the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University, called a $50 fee “the equivalent of a Donald Trump tariff.” He said that it would have unforeseen side effects such as hurting working-class or middle-class people who rely on taxis or Ubers because they may have no other choice — mothers toting baby strollers, older people too frail or sick to take public transit, and anyone trying to get anywhere in a hurry.

“What he’s charging for one hour in a cab or Uber is going to cost much more than a main course at the Union Square Café, a four-star restaurant,” Moss said. “People who can afford $50 already have a Mercedes and a driver all day.”

Alex Matthiessen, the director of Move NY, a grass-roots campaign leading the push for congestion pricing, said that Schaller’s $20 and $50 fees were not only unlikely to get any political support, but could take the focus away from the Fix NYC proposal, including the $2 to $5 surcharges. “If you’re looking for a way to tackle our transit and traffic crises now, the Fix NYC plan is where to start,” he said.

Supporters of the Fix NYC plan include Uber, which has called for a comprehensive plan to address congestion. When asked about Schaller’s proposal for hourly fees, a spokeswoman for Uber, Alix Anfang, responded that “the per-trip surcharge recommended by Fix NYC could be implemented immediately to begin raising money to fund MTA improvements and change New Yorkers’ behavior.”

A spokesman for the governor, Peter Ajemian, said that while they had not yet read Schaller’s report, “the numbers being discussed are far out of line with Fix NYC, Move New York and other groups that have been studying this issue for years.”