The Surge Storm


New York City’s overdue traffic study — the one which Mayor Bill De Blasio cited as a reason to potentially cap the number of Uber vehicles on the road for one year, leading to his thorough humiliation by Uber’s political machinery — will apparently arrive any day now. The city won’t provide any hints about the results of the study, but that isn’t stopping some council members from already working on new legislation to govern “for-hire” vehicles, the New York Times reports:

While the mayor’s office continues to work on its study, some City Council members have been drafting legislation on regulations for the for-hire industry, although they have not yet reached a final decision on the bills, City Council officials said. A cap on Uber vehicles is no longer part of the discussions, the officials said, but the Council is still considering whether to address surge pricing, a feature in the Uber app that charges higher fares during busy periods.

How many times does it need to be said that crippling surge pricing would be so breathtakingly short-sighted as to be wholly pointless on every conceivable level?

Everything that Uber is working on right now as it moves toward becoming something that might be more accurately described as privatized mass transit will effectively eliminate surge pricing anyway as the company is better able to meet demand without pushing it down or increasing the supply of drivers. (Think about it this way: Uber neither wants to turn riders away nor pay more drivers more money; it wants the maximum number of passengers carried by the minimum number of drivers for the lowest possible price. Uber hates surge pricing almost as much as you do.) UberPool and its more recent, bus-like spinoff, UberHOP, recently announced in Seattle, allow one driver to ferry multiple passengers simultaneously (up to five in UberHOP) with minimal time gaps between each ride. How innovative! How efficient! How cheap.

The components of the Uber apparatus that need thoughtful regulation — let’s leave aside labor here!!!! — are exactly the ones that are most complex and defy easy rule-making. Like, in the interest of reducing the number of cars on the road, maybe there should be a set number of Uber-affiliated vehicles (in which case, surge pricing would be extremely necessary to ensure that the service continues to function!). Or maybe there shouldn’t be a cap at all, or not in certain areas anyway, because some subway lines are already at or very near capacity. Maybe the city could study it.

Regardless, if the city were to be seduced into the idea that surge pricing is an issue to latch onto because the people who complain about it tend to be vocal and tech-savvy and relatively well-off — like the people who banded together to scuttle the city’s previous attempt to come down on Uber — it should recognize that the ones who protest the loudest are the people who use Uber the most. And who could be a worse judge of externalities? They already have their transit solution.

Can’t wait to see what the city will do about Uber if it goes through with shutting down the L train for a year or more!!!!!

Update: The Wall Street Journal reports what the congestion study is expected to show:

It is expected to highlight that Uber’s growth has led to rapid change in the taxi and for-hire-vehicle industries, but that Uber hasn’t so far exacerbated congestion in the city, the person said.

The San Francisco company’s growth in New York City has been offset by declines in trips by yellow taxis, but this person said that Uber’s contribution to traffic congestion could increase if the service continues on the same trajectory.

Which makes regulating surge pricing seem like the city just wants to show that it’s doing… something? What a great reason to pass regulations!

Giph by Screenshot Daily