Politics & Policy

Uber under Fire

Taxis in Times Square (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
New York’s politicians favor the taxi cartel. Guess why.

New York Democrats’ assault on Uber is many things: rent-seeking and special-interest servicing, for one; political extortion, for another; an attempted distraction from the city’s crumbling mass-transit system for one more. It is being advanced by the least competent man in American public life, New York governor Andrew Cuomo, and the second-least competent, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio.

The proposal, which the city council passed last night, will freeze the number of drivers Uber is allowed to contract. New York is the first city in in the country to limit ride-sharing services in this way. It’s allegedly being done in the name of easing traffic congestion in New York. Allegedly.

New York has traffic congestion for many reasons. One of the big ones is its collapsing mass-transit system, which makes taking a car instead of the subway or a bus more attractive and fuels demand for services such as Uber, which now carry more New Yorkers than the taxi fleet does.

There are relatively straightforward and evenhanded ways to target congestion: The powers that be in New York could raise bridge-and-tunnel tolls (four of the five boroughs of New York City are on islands), vehicle taxes, and parking taxes until the relevant politicians are satisfied with the traffic situation in the city. The Cross Bronx Expressway is the most congested road in the country. It wouldn’t be with a $20 toll. New York could, as has been proposed, implement London-style congestion pricing, currently about $15 a day Monday–Friday during business hours in the British capital. It could limit the number of cars that can drive on its streets at any given hour and auction off the permits.

But this isn’t about targeting congestion: It’s about targeting Uber, something New York’s political class has been doing since ride-sharing services deflated the taxi cartel and deprived New York’s politicians of a source of money and power. The war on Uber is pure self-service.

New York City was — and remains — one of the great urban comeback stories. Mired in crime, garbage, grotesque financial mismanagement, and general blight outside of a few elite corridors in Manhattan and Brooklyn, New York City today . . . has considerably less crime. Its financial mismanagement has improved from grotesque to the merely ordinary (its general-obligation bonds are rated AA by Standard & Poor’s), the garbage is collected a little more reliably, and the zones of prosperity have grown enormously. Familiar troubles such as street-level prostitution have all but disappeared from Manhattan, and from much of the rest of the city as well. New York is arguably the most successful big city in the country.

The Sandinista administration of Bill de Blasio may enthuse a few left-wing ideologues and the Occupy set, but the Daniel Ortega of Park Slope cannot make the trains run on time.

Republicans like to take credit for that, and they deserve some, too. The story of the decline in crime in New York is complicated inasmuch as there were similar if not quite so dramatic improvements in many other cities that did not implement policies similar to those famously pursued by Rudolph Giuliani’s administration. Economic and demographic factors probably played at least as large a role as public policy, but the Giuliani administration to its credit remained focused on the city’s biggest problems, which it addressed aggressively. (Too aggressively, some critics say.) Michael Bloomberg — Republicans are not entirely sure they want to claim him, nor he them — could be a maddening fussbudget, but his pragmatism and his administrative acumen already are being missed, and will be missed more intensely in the future.

The Sandinista administration of Bill de Blasio, on the other hand, may enthuse a few left-wing ideologues and the Occupy set, but the Daniel Ortega of Park Slope cannot make the trains run on time.

And that is a problem.

The main responsibility for the New York subways, bear in mind, doesn’t rest with the city government. The organizational structure of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is designed for political ends, not operational ones, and one of those political ends is: avoiding blame. The governor of New York nominates four members to its board, the chairman, and the CEO. The bosses of Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester counties each nominate a member, each with a vote. Duchess, Orange, Rockland, and Putnam counties get a member each, but those members only get one collective vote. Six additional seats are split between the unions and an “advisory committee” purporting to represent customers. The state senate has authority of the confirmation of these nominees. New York is a city with many colorful local expressions, but the aptest description of this arrangement comes from Texas: goat rodeo.

It takes real leadership to get much of anything done in New York, which is why a former New York mayor might make a credible presidential candidate in a way that a former mayor of Dallas or Philadelphia would not. (Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles, might make a similar case for himself if he should get into the Democratic race in 2020.) Getting things done in New York is something to boast about: Before being elected president, Donald Trump’s main contribution to public affairs had been rehabilitating an ice-skating rink in the city. Scoff if you like — people remembered that, and not without some reason.

Governors of New York such as Franklin D. Roosevelt are potentially impressive figures, too. But not Governor Cuomo. Andrew Cuomo’s most significant contribution to American public life thus far has been his involvement in his father’s campaign against Ed Koch, which was conducted in part under the slogan: “Vote for Cuomo, not the homo.” (Koch was sometimes rumored to be gay, one of the things that go along with being a witty man in public life.) Andrew Cuomo has long denied any involvement in emblazoning that ugly message on posters, but Cynthia Nixon, the actress challenging him for the Democratic nomination, has turned the slogan around: “Vote for the homo, not for the Cuomo.” (Nixon, once married to a man, today is married to a woman and has described herself as bisexual; Bill de Blasio’s wife of many years was a lesbian feminist militant in the 1970s. The sexual history of New York’s current ruling clique is more complicated than Fleetwood Mac’s.) No, Andrew Cuomo is a familiar kind of New Yorker: the son of a famous and successful man who went into the family business, where he became the definition of mediocrity. He’s the Sean Lennon of New York politics.

Bill de Blasio’s great boast is that while he may be made of the wrong stuff, his stuff is slightly less wrong than Andrew Cuomo’s, the halfwit who is king in the land of quarterwits. Hooray.

You can tell that Uber and Lyft work in New York because, given a choice, New Yorkers turn to such services in very large numbers.

Uber does not detract from the quality of life in New York City. It contributes to it. And when it comes to getting from A to B, New Yorkers can use all the help they can get. I decided it was time to go when my short commute (from city hall to Grand Central and back) grew five times as long over the course of a few months. When things are working in New York, there’s no place quite like it. When things aren’t working, there are a lot of places like it, and you don’t want to be in any of them.

You can tell that Uber and Lyft work in New York because, given a choice, New Yorkers turn to such services in very large numbers. But there’s something that isn’t working in New York, the Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Worthless of American politics. Last night’s city-council vote is the latest proof. New Yorkers can do better, and have.

And therein lies a lesson, and a sobering example, for the rest of this increasingly urban country.

 

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