Tunnel Vision

What Would Happen if New York Capped Ubers?

New York is proposing a cap on the number of rideshares allowed in its borders, and it could have big implications for the L train shutdown.
Photo by nycshooter via Getty

In early 2019, the L train in New York City will shut down between Manhattan and Brooklyn for 15 months to repair damage caused during Hurricane Sandy. Leading up to the closure, VICE will be providing relevant updates and policy proposals, as well as profiles of community members and businesses along the affected route in a series we're calling Tunnel Vision. Read more about the project here.

There’s a lot of traffic in New York City. Trying to cross the Williamsburg bridge at rush hour almost always means facing gridlock, and when the L train shuts down in 2019 some worry that things could get even worse with more people commuting by car. Ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft are frequently blamed for the city’s traffic problem (we’re currently the third most congested city in the world), and fears that their increased usage during the shutdown will further clog the city’s arteries have been a major source of concern.


It is in that atmosphere that New York, for the second time in three years, is proposing a cap on the number of rideshares allowed in its borders. If passed, it would become the first major city in the country to enact such restrictions on ride-hailing companies. The legislation has launched a fierce debate consisting of rapidly changing elements that could inflict significant impact on what the L train shutdown looks like from the street level.

The series of proposals include a one-year “pause” on issuing for-hire vehicle (FHV) licenses, which would give the city time to study their impact on traffic. Another piece of legislation being weighed would also allow the city to standardize occupancy rates, and set geographic limits on where certain services could operate. The proposals were recently endorsed by City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, and are expected to be voted on this Wednesday.

"This is the plan that we came up with and in my heart I believe it’s the best path forward. Our goal has always been to protect drivers, bring fairness to the industry and reduce congestion,” Johnson has said. “That’s what this proposal does, and it represents the broad outlines of what we think our next steps should be as a city to help the industry."

The effort, which was originally pushed by Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2015, was resurrected largely because of recent data. The number of FHVs in New York is exploding, having doubled in five years to 100,000, most of which are Ubers, Lyfts, or other app-based services. New York is Uber’s largest market in America; last year, its rides surpassed yellow taxi rides, and there are now four Ubers or Lyfts for every cab.


What’s important to keep in mind, however, is user tendencies—particularly the fact that people are opting for private cars far more regularly than they used to. A recent report by former NYC traffic commissioner Bruce Schaller purports that 60 percent of users in major cities would have taken non-vehicular options, if rideshare wasn’t available. "More cars on the road mean more congestion, and that's sort of the problem people see and feel today," Schaller said.

But rideshare advocates and other critics have contended those figures.

Many users, they argue, utilize the “pool” option, consolidating two rides into one—in fact, Uber officials told VICE that more than two-thirds of trips in eastern Brooklyn neighborhoods like Brownsville and East New York, which stand to be most impacted by the shutdown, are with Uber Pool. Rise in rideshares have also been attributed to shitty subway service; declining subway ridership on nights and weekends is likely linked to New Yorkers who would rather take a car than deal with routine delays and closures. The omnipresence of Amazon and app deliveries doesn’t help, either.

“A 12-month pause on new for-hire vehicle licenses will leave New Yorkers stranded while doing nothing to prevent congestion, fix the subways, and help struggling taxi medallion owners,” Uber spokesperson Danielle Filson said in a statement to VICE. “Limiting the number of vehicles on the road will hurt riders outside Manhattan who have come to rely on Uber because their communities have long been ignored by yellow taxis and do not have reliable access to public transit.”


That outer-borough play has become a crucial part of the rideshare companies’ ongoing defense. In a Medium post, Joseph Okpaku, Lyft’s VP of policy, asserts that “78 percent of Lyft trips either start or end outside of Manhattan’s Central Business District, and 64 percent of rides take place during off-peak hours when other options are limited.” In an email, a Lyft spokesperson said the industry’s “churn rate,” or the rate of which drivers leave the service, is 25% each year, signaling that a cap would lead to a decrease in drivers.

Those are just some of the reasons that the cap would be detrimental during the L train shutdown, Okpaku argues. “The effects of a cap — less service, increased wait times, higher fares — would hurt bottom lines in the business corridors of North Brooklyn,” he continues, “and effectively strand commuters in neighborhoods like Brownsville, Canarsie and East New York who seek to move throughout the borough and into Manhattan.” On Thursday, a press conference was held at Williamsburg’s Brooklyn Bowl by local business owners who said the cap would cause an “economic tsunami” to the impacted neighborhoods.

Since the bill was announced, Uber has shifted into all-out war mode. According to Politico, Uber spokesperson Josh Gold confirmed that the company sent out emails to “millions of New Yorkers who use our service” with the subject line, “URGENT: Your ride is at risk.” it has followed suit with the purchase of television spots, and Gold himself duked it out with Speaker Johnson over Twitter. Meanwhile, Lyft made the case that the app works with public transit, not against it: the app now tells users when a nearby subway is quicker than taking its own service.


Along with Lyft, Uber has dispatched a thornier issue for lawmakers to digest: that, contrary to taxis who have historically driven past persons of color, the apps pick up any rider, regardless of their race. “No matter when, no matter where, Uber’s there,” says the narrator of a 30-second ad, which shows African-American and Latino users catching a ride. Civil rights activists, like Reverend Al Sharpton and Hazel N. Dukes, have even lent their support to Uber’s cause. In response, the city quickly announced the creation of an Office of Inclusion within the Taxi and Limousine Commission, which would handle and prosecute service refusal complaints.

It’s a tit for tat that’s not surprising. When City Hall considered the same cap three years ago, the companies pulled out similar tactics—this reporter remembers covering the organized rally at City Hall—which ultimately led to the proposal’s demise. Since then, the state has issued a surcharge on Uber and Lyft rides to raise funds for the fledgling subway system. Rideshare advocates say any boon from the fee, which begins in January, could be hurt by the cap.

But, as The New York Times has noted, 2018 is a much different time than 2015: the public’s anger with congestion has only worsened; a number of scandals has tarnished Uber’s reputation; and a slew of suicides by livery cab drivers who couldn’t eke out a decent living—including one right outside of City Hall in February—has rocked New York.


In an interview with NY1’s Errol Louis, Mayor de Blasio said the Council bill was headed in “the right direction,” and mentioned plummeting wages as a major concern. “It’s unfortunately become a race to the bottom,” he said. “The model employed by companies like Uber and Lyft has been to flood the zone with more and more vehicles, more and more drivers.”

Last Tuesday, Uber, Lyft, and Via offered to create a $100 million fund that would help support yellow taxi medallion owners who are hurting financially, and once again floated support for congestion pricing—which died up in Albany earlier this year. The city reportedly refused the offer for the fund, and has instead proposed a minimum pay rate for drivers, which is included in the larger package. Since then, The New York Times has reported that thousands of drivers themselves—of both FHVs, and taxis—are in widespread support of the legislation.

So, where does that leave us? In recent years, Uber and Lyft have wielded remarkable political power, be it through intense lobbying, or organized outcry. However, city officials seem more keen than ever to push this through—and whether or not that happens could come as soon as next week. But the question at stake here is: what does this all mean for the L train shutdown?

The fate of the rideshare cap aside, the situation does not look good, no matter which way you cut it. As it stands, the Williamsburg Bridge, an overpass most FHVs would need to cross, is gridlocked during morning and evening rush hours—a worrisome sign eight months out from the shutdown’s start. (Hopefully the planned HOV3 lane will help.) And solely based on the speed in which we’re headed, it can be safely assumed that by April, there will be more Ubers, and more people living in North Brooklyn. A lot of it will come down to what some riders choose in the end.

Perhaps a cap would stifle that traffic threat—or, maybe, it’s too late.

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