Advocates for better transit in New York City focus most of their attention on issues facing buses and subways and rightly so. After all, over 7 million people per day use the buses and subways. But in terms of increased mobility and flexibility, taxis play an important but understated role in the city’s transportation network. Still, they are cars and bring with them the ups and downs of cars. How do we reconcile the two?
A few recent pieces have put the spotlight on taxis, and they each highlight how these vehicles are both integral to a successful city and could also be a problematic part of an auto-centric attitude. Eric Jaffe at The Atlantic Cities’ blog focused on the complementary nature of taxis. He highlighted recent research by Columbia professor David King who studied taxi ride frequencies. King has found asymmetrical taxi throughout the day, and Jaffe explains:
King sees an important pattern for the data points: the origins and destinations have a geographical asymmetry that suggests people are only using cabs for one leg of their daily round trip. If this were a video of people driving their own car to and from work, the morning and evening rush would be a perfect mirror. It stands to reason, then, that the other leg of the trip is taken by public transportation; after all, it’s unlikely that many people park their car somewhere then take a cab home.
In other words, writes King, New York City taxi cabs appear to work within the existing transit network, not against it:
This matters because it means that individual’s travel journeys are multi-modal. If we want to have transit oriented cities we have to plan for high quality, door-to-door services that allow spontaneous one-way travel. Yet for all of the billions of dollars we have spent of fixed-route transit and the built environment we haven’t spent any time thinking about how taxis (and related services) can help us reach our goals.
King, for one, has spent a lot of time thinking about this subject. He and colleagues Jonathan Peters and Matthew Daus of CUNY recently presented a paper on the complementary transit nature of taxi cabs at a meeting of the Transportation Research Board. In it, they argue that “taxi service is a critical aspect of a transit system.”
…There’s a good bit of common sense. Taxis enable car-less travelers to switch modes in the middle of a journey. A New Yorker can take the subway to work, walk to a bar, then cab it home, and many do just that every day. This “asymmetrical mode share,” as King and company call it, is a hallmark of transit-oriented cities — granting easy, flexible travel to no-car residents.
Jaffe wonders “why many urban transport experts ignore the idea of using cabs to expand a transit network.” The answer, I believe, can be found in a recent piece by Charles Komanoff. Using his congestion pricing model, Komanoff has determined that adding an additional 2000 yellow cab medallions could increase Manhattan traffic by a considerable amount. In fact, based on the amount of time taxis spend in Manhattan, that increase projects to an around 10 percent of current traffic levels.
Therein lies the rub. We need taxis to offer the flexibility for those who do not want to drive or cannot afford a car, but taxis also contribute to congestion which has a strong negative impact on pedestrian life, the city’s productivity and its environment. In other words, taxis — can’t live with them, can’t live without them. It’s an irreconcilable conundrum.