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Uber’s Passenger Info Linked to Improving Transportation Equity

(AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)

Amid Uber’s more memorable clashes with municipal government is the summer battle with NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio over the Mayor’s move to slow the boom of such ride-service companies. While the de Blasio administration cited traffic congestion as a main motivation, Uber quickly countered with the idea that capping its growth in the city would be a jobs killer. Further, Uber argued, the stifling would negatively impact communities of color and low-income New Yorkers in the outer boroughs where, it said, clients who are underserved by other transportation modes benefit from UberX, the company’s lower-cost option.

De Blasio’s cap idea fizzled, but the city is still going ahead with a traffic congestion study. And though many decried Uber’s race play, the company ended up turning over a trove of passenger information to the conservative Manhattan Institute so that the policy organization could, in its words, analyze “other important questions related to Uber’s ability to expand transportation options in NYC.” (On the other end of transparency, Uber was recently fined in California for failing to turn over data.)

Looking only at UberX, with personal passenger info masked, the Institute notes that it didn’t receive any compensation from Uber to do the study.

The resulting report, released today, concluded that on-demand ride services like Uber “increasingly provide New Yorkers in lower-income and minority neighborhoods beyond core Manhattan with a service that complements city-authorized taxis.”

The dearth of yellow taxis outside the Manhattan core has long been noted as an issue, and efforts have been made to expand service to Brooklyn, Queens and beyond.

In an opinion piece for the New York Daily News today, the study’s author, Jared Meyer, writes:

Over the course of 2014, the historically low-income neighborhoods of Jackson Heights, Astoria, Harlem and Washington Heights all saw increases in UberX trips of over 1,200% — that’s more than 12 fold.

This growth should be encouraged, not capped, as the existing taxi system, even with the creation of the borough taxi program, has consistently failed to meet the needs of many New Yorkers.

Equitable transportation access in U.S. cities is a good thing, for certain. Lack of mobility disproportionately impacts the poor, impedes job opportunities, and increases the cost of regular life stuff, like grocery shopping. Yet while Uber has widely promoted itself as an “alternative transportation,” achieving equitable access on the backs of private companies must also be weighed against public transportation investment and how much America wants to rely on the private sector for what have long been public services. And could such an increasing reliance lead to the downfall of those services altogether as we know them now?

Just last week, as Next City contributor Marielle Mondon reported, fiscal-focused nonprofit Citizens Budget Corporation issued a call for a New York policy change regarding ride-hailing companies that’s directly related to transit access: “Uber is currently excluded from a mandatory 50-cent Metropolitan Transportation Authority tax included in New York taxi fares, and because of that the city is missing out on a major source of funding for public transportation development and upkeep — which it sorely needs.”