What Makes a City Street Smart?
Cities aren’t born smart. They become smart by understanding what is happening on their streets. Measurement is key to management, and amid the incomparable expansion of for-hire transportation service in New York City, measuring street activity is more important than ever. Between 2015 (when app companies first began reporting data) and June 2018, trips by app services increased more than 300%, now totaling over 20 million trips each month. That’s more cars, more drivers, and more mobility.
We know the true scope of this transformation today only because of the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission’s (TLC) pioneering regulatory actions. Unlike most cities in the country, app services cannot operate in NYC unless they give the City detailed information about every trip. This is mandated by TLC rules and is not contingent on companies voluntarily “sharing” only a self-selected portion of the large amount of data they collect. Major trends in the taxi and for-hire vehicle industry are highlighted in TLC’s 2018 Factbook.
What Transportation Data Does TLC Collect?
Notably, Uber, Lyft, and their competitors today must give the TLC granular data about each and every trip and request for service. TLC does not receive passenger information; we require only the data necessary to understand traffic patterns, working conditions, vehicle efficiency, service availability, and other important information.
One of the most important aspects of the data TLC collects is that they are stripped of identifying information and made available to the public. Through the City’s Open Data portal, TLC’s trip data help businesses distinguish new business opportunities from saturated markets, encourage competition, and help investors follow trends in both new app transportation and the traditional car service and hail taxi markets. As app companies contemplate going public, their investors have surely already bookmarked TLC’s Open Data site.
Using Data to Improve Mobility
With this information NYC now knows people are getting around the boroughs using app services and shared rides with greater frequency. These are the same NYC neighborhoods that traditionally were not served by yellow cabs and often have less robust public transportation options. We also know these services provide an increasing number of trips in congested areas like Manhattan and the inner rings of Brooklyn and Queens, where public transportation options are relatively plentiful.
One of NYC’s greatest economic challenges is the tremendous cost of congestion, especially in Midtown Manhattan. The documented increase of empty FHVs in this zone plays a significant role. In 2018, informed by detailed industry data, City Council passed legislation to pause the growth in for-hire service while the City developed a long-term policy for managing congestion from for-hire vehicles. There are a number of flexible ways of achieving this, such as charging for time spent in a congested zone. Analysis using detailed company data required by TLC will enable the City to evaluate the effects of various approaches on passengers, drivers and other stakeholders and to identify an effective and flexible policy that improves mobility for all.
Using Data to Ensure Transportation Access for Passengers Who Use Wheelchairs
A smart phone and a credit card — is that all you need to get a ride? Until last year, this wasn’t enough for NYC’s 90,000 wheelchair users. The tremendous growth in NYC’s for-hire service was only made possible through a significant increase in the number of licensed for-hire vehicles: every month until July 2018 at least 2,200 additional for-hire vehicles were joining the fleet. Yet, by mid-2018 fewer than 200 of the more than 100,000 for-hire vehicles were wheelchair accessible.
People who use wheelchairs deserve access to this new service, but this was one market opportunity the app companies had not met. TLC regulations bridged the gap. All for-hire services in NYC must now provide wheelchair accessible service through one of two options, both of which TLC can easily monitor through data.
One option is to have a significant share of for-hire vehicle trips done in accessible vehicles, regardless of the passenger’s mobility level. This ensures that accessible vehicles are in constant circulation and available when a passenger who uses a wheelchair needs one.
The other option does not specify how many trips must be done in accessible vehicles, but it holds companies to strict wait time limits for passengers who request rides in wheelchair accessible vehicles. The data allow us to create and monitor flexible regulation so companies can adopt different business solutions and the City ensures the public gets this important mobility option, regardless of physical ability level. See the TLC’s website for more on FHV Accessibility.
Using Data to Keep Unsafe Drivers off the Road
Driving drowsy is as dangerous as driving drunk. Following an early 2016 fare cut by Uber and Lyft, which many drivers reported decreased their pay, stories of drivers transporting passengers for 16 or more hours a day became common in the press, at protests, and at TLC’s public hearings. TLC trip data analysis of driver working hours substantiated these statements. TLC passed regulations limiting drivers’ working hours and reviews troves of trip records to identify and penalize those drivers who continue to spend more time on the road than is safe for them or their passengers. More powerful, though, is that TLC penalizes companies that continue to send trips to their drivers past the point of fatigue. Following only a few weeks of imposing these penalties, the app companies changed their algorithms to limit each driver’s hours and dramatically reduced fatigued driving in New York City.
TLC data analysis to support street safety long predates the driver fatigue regulation. Each day, the agency is notified of dangerous traffic violations committed by TLC-licensed drivers, which is used to identify those drivers who do not drive safely enough to transport the riding public. Drivers with excessive violations receive penalties including license suspension and revocation. TLC analyzed the DMV records of the drivers we license relative to crash data and confirmed the effectiveness of this driver monitoring program. In 2018, fatalities involving NYC TLC drivers decreased by 50 percent.
Using Data for Driver Pay Protection
Although autonomous vehicles are much discussed in media and academic circles, the reality today is that in NYC over 80,000 people drive for app companies. Each month through August 2018 we licensed at least 2,500 more. These drivers and their families matter. The vast majority bought a car just to get into the business of driving with Uber or Lyft, and in the last few years it has become clear that for many this investment is not paying off. Analyzing data we require from the companies revealed an overwhelmingly underpaid workforce, with 96% of drivers making less than the New York State minimum wage. Beyond individual hardship, this also represents a poor deal for the rest of the city. Large app companies are thriving and profiting in NYC while many of their large, primarily full-time and underpaid workforce must meet basic financial needs by relying on City and other government and community resources.
To achieve greater balance, TLC passed a new pay standard that lifts the earnings of app drivers in NYC. Rather than creating a minimum hourly wage, which is not a great match for an industry in which drivers are simultaneously working for multiple companies, it establishes a pay floor for each trip. This floor is based on a ride’s duration and distance and accounts for downtime waiting for trips. It incentivizes companies to keep drivers busy rather than idle. If companies cannot keep their drivers busy, then they must pay them more for each trip. The pay standard is also great for NYC’s local economy. A significant share of the more than $600 million in additional earnings by drivers each year will be spent at NYC businesses where drivers eat, shop, and purchase other essential services like childcare or medical care from their fellow New Yorkers.
The NYC TLC has not shied away from addressing the challenges that popular services like Uber and Lyft bring to cities. We recognize their value and institute smart, flexible regulation focused on the core principles of safety, consumer protection, fairness to drivers, and access for all. This allows services to grow and flourish, but not at the expense of the city in which they operate. The process starts with becoming educated through data. State and local governments must empower their regulatory agencies to require companies to provide the data they need to make informed policy and monitor its impacts. They must also ensure regulatory agencies are given the resources — particularly skilled analytical and IT staff — necessary to securely collect and analyze these big datasets. Cities aren’t born smart, but NYC is a clear example of how they can get that way.