July 28, 2015

Uber and Contested Public Space

From the Washington Post: 

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What happens when New York City streets become too crowded even for New Yorkers

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If you look at a typical street — say, 20 years ago — you had cars and you had an occasional truck,” says David King, an assistant professor of urban planning at Columbia University. “And that was it.”

The cars and trucks are still there. But now there are tour buses bringing tourists who wouldn’t have come to New York 20 years ago. There are food trucks, and cab stands, and bikeshare stations. There’s Uber, and commuter buses and bike lanes. …

Every square foot of the public way in New York City, especially Manhattan, is reaching the limit of its carrying capacity. If the city wanted to cram more in — mobile health clinics? more fire trucks? another round of pedestrian plazas? — it would need to open some new spatial dimension.

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NewYorker

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This is the backdrop against which Uber, an app service that now has nearly 26,000 drivers and 19,000 cars in New York City, became embroiled with City Hall this month in an existential fight over its contributions to “congestion.” …

The conflict, though — and it’s not resolved yet — isn’t just about technological disruption, or entrenched taxi interests. It’s about space — some of the most valuable space in the country’s largest city. Its public streets. …

That’s because there’s so much more competition now for a finite asset that can’t be expanded, and because absolutely everyone interacts with that problem. …

Echoes of this same escalating conflict, though perhaps not as acute, appear in Washington, where drivers begrudge the road space cyclists now want to claim. It’s in San Francisco, where private charter buses ferrying tech workers to Silicon Valley have clogged the streets public buses drive. It’s in Chicago, where residents have sued to block the arrival of bikeshare stations. It exists anywhere anyone is sincerely railing about a “war on cars.”

Amid all this competition, it’s entirely reasonable for any city to try to regulate clashing claims to public streets.

“The idea that any private company — it doesn’t matter if it’s a taxi company or yoga studio – should be able to operate their business on a public asset without any oversight, without any obligation to the city, is absurd,” King says. “We certainly wouldn’t let a private concert operator start throwing concerts in Central Park every week. But essentially, that’s what we’re letting happen on our streets.”

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From Streetsblog:

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Uber’s Own Numbers Show It’s Making Traffic Worse

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So how do 1,904 for-hire cars circulating the congested Manhattan core actually affect traffic? To answer the question, Streetsblog turned to transportation analyst Charles Komanoff, whose “Balanced Transportation Analyzer” [XLS] models the impact of toll proposals and other changes to city traffic. Uber’s data release provides more detailed information than what was previously available to the public. …

Komanoff estimates that having 1,900 Ubers in the city’s core between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. reduces average travel speeds by 7.7 percent. Without the favorable assumptions, that number jumps to 12 percent.

“Uber is entering a system of vehicles — cars, trucks, cabs, buses — which had settled into a more or less stable level of congestion. The Uber vehicles perturb that system,” Komanoff wrote.

Uber “isn’t totally wrong” to claim that it is not responsible for Manhattan congestion, Komanoff noted. “But that’s the wrong question,” he wrote. “The question before the City Council is: Is Uber the source (or a leading source) of the increase in Manhattan congestion? The answer is assuredly: Yes.”

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From the New York Times technology reporters Farhad Manjoo and Mike Isaac:
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Can Cities Beat Uber?

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Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York, had been pushing to impose a cap on the number of for-hire vehicles in the city, like those operated by Uber.  … Uber’s political maneuvering proved so effective that the mayor suddenly dropped his plan.

Up until the moment the news broke, everyone I spoke to had expected de Blasio to back the cap, come what may. Those who keep a close eye on the transportation industry ended up being pretty shocked. …

So here’s the thing: Uber has been engaging in battles like these all over the world, city by city, ever since they got off the ground. They have a similar strike plan: Guerrilla tactics, grass-roots organizing, and email campaigns that rally their supporters to hassle legislators. …   I saw all sort of people on Twitter crying out “who will regulate Uber if not New York City?”  …

By marshaling a constituency of drivers who see Uber as an important source of income, loyal riders who are frustrated by transportation and see Uber as a convenient alternative, and the larger public who finds the taxi industry to be generally unworthy of support, Uber has built lasting political clout that it can bank on to fight the most heavy-handed efforts at regulation. …

I don’t think the win in New York means that cities have to give up in the face of Uber. The growth of ride-sharing companies bring up lots of important questions about labor, equality, accessibility, traffic management, urban planning and on and on. Rather than try to fight companies like Uber, perhaps cities will need to find a way to work with these companies — accept them, legalize them, and then help manage the problems they raise.

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