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 $1 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 are booming, an army of nearly 50,000 licensed vehicles that ferry hundreds of thousands of people across the city every day.
Ride-hailing apps, like Uber and Lyft, 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 United States 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 on ride-hailing apps. 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.
“It’s hit a point where people are choosing to travel by ride-hailing because the subways have become intolerable,” said Thomas K. 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.
Patricia Martinez has switched from the bus to an app called Via. It is more comfortable, she said, and the $5 flat rate in most of Manhattan is not much more than the bus.
“I wouldn’t be able to afford to pay yellow taxis all the time,” said Ms. Martinez, who lives on the Upper East Side. “The price makes a difference, and the cars are very good.”
Lilja Owsley uses Lyft to travel late at night from her job at a wine bar in Chelsea to her home in Bushwick, Brooklyn. “I’d rather just take an Uber or Lyft instead of waiting for the L train for 10 or 15 minutes,” she said.
And while ride-hailing services predominantly serve Manhattan, they are spreading to parts of the city where public transit is limited and taxis are scarce.
Yao Kou, a 27-year-old student, lives on the East Side of Manhattan, but is several blocks from the nearest subway stop, so she takes Uber or Lyft when she is in a rush. “I want to avoid walking a long distance to the subway station,” she said.
But 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 8.1 miles per hour last year, down about 12 percent 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 Bruce Schaller, a former senior transportation official for the city who prepared the report on ride-hailing services.
“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 spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the agency that runs the city’s subways and buses, said it was working to modernize the system and improve service.
With frustration over 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.
The city’s transportation commissioner, Polly Trottenberg, said her agency was working to assess the impact of ride-hailing services.
“There’s no question they have provided a convenient new service and a lot of people are making use of them,” she said. “But I think there’s also no question that if they continue to grow in popularity and add a lot of new car trips to the streets, we have to look at the externalities, which could include congestion, lower air quality, reduced safety or declining transit usage.”
The largest ride-hailing apps in New York — Uber, Lyft and Via — and their supporters said there were many reasons for the growing congestion, including construction, truck deliveries and thick 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.
“Lyft’s goal is to replace private car ownership, not transit, walking or biking,” said Adrian Durbin, a Lyft spokesman.
Still, ride-booking services are succeeding at the expense of others. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has taken a hit to its budget because it receives financing from a 50-cent surcharge on taxi trips. Officials say the shift from taxis to Uber and other apps has cost the authority about $28 million since 2014.
The Citizens Budget Commission, an independent watchdog, has also questioned whether New York can still count on the $1.2 billion in revenue it expects to collect from the future sale of taxi medallions, because their value has sunk.
Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, said ride-hailing apps were able to lure riders with artificially low prices because they were subsidized by an influx of cash by investors. The apps have made it easier for people to travel by the “most inefficient mode of transportation possible,” she said.
Many transportation experts support a plan to reduce congestion by charging drivers to enter the core of Manhattan. Other cities, like London, have put such congestion pricing in place, and former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg pushed unsuccessfully in 2008 for a similar proposal.
Pickups by ride-hailing apps in New York are concentrated in Manhattan below the area around 96th Street — about 56 percent, according to Mr. Schaller’s report. About 22 percent of trips start in the rest of Manhattan and nearby neighborhoods, like Williamsburg in Brooklyn and Long Island City in Queens. Neighborhoods farther from Manhattan account for about 19 percent of trips, and just over 3 percent of pickups are at the city’s two major airports, La Guardia and Kennedy International.
Andrew Salzberg, who oversees transportation policy and research for Uber, said about 33 percent of total Uber pickups started and ended in boroughs outside Manhattan.
Despite their appeal, the apps have faced a wave of criticism, including concerns over wheelchair accessibility and driver pay. Uber has also been rocked by a series of problems in recent weeks, prompting many users to delete its app. The company was accused of trying to profit during airport protests against President Trump’s first immigration order and criticized over sexual harassment claims by a former engineer. And accusations surfaced recently about a tool Uber was said to have used to deceive the authorities in several cities and countries.
Other cities have struggled to regulate the growth of ride-hailing services. Uber left Austin, Tex., last year after losing a ballot measure over regulations, but that was an exception — ride-hailing apps operate in over 300 communities, and some cities are actually partnering with the services. In Summit, N.J., officials began a commuter program offering free or discounted Uber rides to a New Jersey Transit station instead of building more parking.
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 that examined seven cities, including Washington and Boston.
“We’ve seen that it’s been a symbiotic relationship between public transit and these tech-enabled services,” said Darnell Grisby, director of policy for the association.
But in New York, where fewer than half of residents have a car, people have long relied on public transit and yellow cabs, and many are using the apps to replace those transportation modes.
For William Prince, 31, who lives in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, price is all that matters. He uses whichever app is offering the best promotion, especially when the subway is unreliable. The F and G trains have been “kind of a nightmare” recently, he said. “Usually the cost benefit is it’s worth the money to avoid the hassle.”
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