Council Discusses Impact of Ride-Share Companies

The Boston City Council held a hearing on Nov. 19 regarding the discussion of of transportation network companies (TNC), such as Uber and Lyft, that operate in Boston.

“We’re all aware that TNCs such as Uber and Lyft have now become a part of the overall transportation network,” said City Councilor Ed Flynn at the start of the hearing. “They provide convenience to many boston residents and visitors. At the same time, I think we need to have a discussion about the impact they have on traffic and congestion, public safety, Vision Zero, the environment, sustainability, consumer protection, and how we can better leverage TNC to improve our transportation infrastructure.”

Flynn, who is a major proponent of public safety, said that many of his constituents have brought to his attention concerns surrounding TNCs speeding through neighborhoods, as well as a lack of pickup/dropoff areas in the city. There was a pilot pickup/dropoff area in the Fenway, which taught the city a lot about what these designated areas can do to help.

Another concern of Flynn’s and many other city councilors is the effect these vehicles have on sustainability.

“TNC rides in Massachusetts have increased 25 percent from 2017 to 2018,” according to City Councilor Matt O’Malley. He also cited a study that was jointly funded by Uber and Lyft that said that about 8 percent of all Boston traffic was coming from a ride share, that he said that the number is probably closer to 10 or 12 percent. “That’s a real impact,” he said.

Patricia Bellfield, a Boston resident who said she owned a TNC company for about five years but was recently dissolved due to not being able to afford the filing fees, said that the council should take a look at other companies like UberEats, Instacart, and DoorDash, as they are also a large portion of the traffic on city streets.

“I also do DoorDash part of the time,” she said, adding that in the central part of the city, people who live in high rises want drivers to come all the way up to their apartment with their food, so that presents challenges when trying to find a place to park briefly when making the delivery.

She suggested to the council that they might want to consider allowing city delivery spaces to be used for dropoff/pickup areas, as she said “those don’t seem to be used as much.”

Additionally, she was concerned with the potential cap that would be placed on TNC drivers, as she said that when she re-starts her ride share company, she fears a monopoly from Uber and Lyft and would have to compete with them.

Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George asked if the city has been able to capture or increase fees from the food delivery services, but she was told that they fit the definition of a delivery service vehicle and therefore do not fall under the same regulations as a TNC.

Several City Councilors also had questions around how TNC’s affect the Disability community. Elizabeth Dean-Clower, Vice Chair of the Boston disability Commission Advisory Board, said that “These TNCs serve an important need for the disability community in a number of levels, both having the same level of access other people have to an on-demand, same-day service.” Though she was not speaking in an official capacity, she said that there are definitely things that come up on a short notice, such as a shopping trip or a last minute doctor’s appointment, that cannot be scheduled by 5 p.m. the night before, as the MBTA’s The Ride service requires.

She also spoke of the importance of a pooled drop off and pickup location, but stressed that they need to be accessible for all members of the disability community.

Chief of Streets Chris Osgood provided some statistics on ride share services both in the City of Boston and throughout the Commonwealth. He said that there were 81 million ride share trips across the state in 2018, and 42.2 million of those trips originated in Boston. That boils down to 115,000 trips per day.

“Without question, TNCs are a huge way in which people within the city, within this region, within the commonwealth are moving and that is…a number which is growing,” Osgood said.

According to a report from the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC), TNCs add about 291 million vehicle miles traveled to roads across Massachusetts, Osgood said, about 15 percent of which are happening during rush hour. Additionally, TNCs have also contributed about half a percent to the state’s total carbon emissions.

“Right now, TNCs are managed through the Department of Public Utilities at the state level,” Osgood said. He said that for every trip, a 20 cent assessment is currently charged; 10 cents goes to the municipality where the trip began, five cents goes to a commonwealth transportation fund, and the remaining 5 cents goes into a taxi and livery assistance and support fund. “MAPC identified that for every trip that is happening by TNCs, the MBTA is posting 35 cents in revenue,” Osgood added.

Osgood said that many have called for an update to the way TNCs are managed and assessed in the state, including to encourage more shared trips that would have a higher charge for a solo trip and a lower cost for a shared trip, and “a shift from a flat fee to a percentage of the overall fare.” The current proposal is to have a three percent charge for a shared trip and a 6.25 percent charge for a solo trip, he said.

Additionally, in the legislative proposal is a rush hour assessment in which TNC companies would be charged 20 cents for every vehicle mile traveled during rush hour when there are no customers in the car. It also encourages more TNCs to switch to zero emission vehicles, and these vehicles would be exempt from the 20 cent charge as an incentive to switch.

Osgood also talked about what has been done with the revenue that was collected last year from the existing assessment, which garnered around $3.5 million. He said that $1 million was invested into sidewalks to improve accessibility, over $1 million unto roadway safety, including $500,000 for the repainting of crosswalks, $500,000 for crosswalks along the Southwest Corridor and the redesign of the Massachusetts Avenue/Melnea Cass Boulevard intersection, and $100,000 each for improving signage across the city and improving signal timings.

Another $500,000 was used for a BlueBikes expansion to reach areas of the city that had not previously been reachable, and about $250,000 was invested in the public realm.

Fenway Pilot Program

Osgood also spoke about the pilot program created by the Boston Transportation Department and the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics for a pickup/dropoff area on Boylston St. in the Fenway.

“We ran that pilot for three for four months,” Osgood said. He said they learned that creating such a zone can lead to “a huge increase in curb productivity. We saw a 350 percent increase in the utilization of that curb.”

Osgood also said they saw an 8 percent reduction in the overall parking citations issued and illegal parking in the area, “in part, we believe, because we had a better option for some of the people who may have been violating in the past.” They also saw a 38 percent reduction in pickup and drop-offs in the travel lane. “This is incredibly important from a safety perspective,” Osgood said. “It’s also important from a congestion perspective.”

City Councilor Josh Zakim said that the Fenway pilot “has been welcome by both visitors and residents.” He also said that “from a congestion standpoint, I think it’s great that these companies are working to make this feasible. We need to have a thoughtful process.”

Osgood said there were lessons learned about ways in which the city “needs to sign and manage those spots,” and they are expanding the pilot to other locations in the city.

“We think that through this work on managing the curb and the broader advocacy at the state level around improving the way in which we as a Commonwealth oversee TNCs, we’re going to make some good progress on all the issues…” Osgood said. 

Councilor Flynn said that it’s important to interact with Uber and Lyft, and “they need to be at the table” so the council can gather more information from them.

The TNC companies were invited to the hearing, but “they chose not to come for various reasons,” according to Flynn. “So I’m not happy with them and I’d like us to have a better dialogue and discussion with TNC and getting the data that we need so our residents can be as safe as possible,” he said.

Councilor Michelle Wu ended the hearing by saying that the conversation’s focus was on traffic impact and accessibility, as well as the impact of the economics that Uber and Lyft have.”We’ll wait to hear the progress on the legislation at the state level,” she said, “as well as further reports and follow-up from you all.”

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