Welcome to “The Mobile City,” our weekly roundup of newsworthy transportation developments.
Congressional leaders are inching their way towards getting a second COVID stimulus bill passed before Christmas break, and aid for mass transit looks like it will be part of the deal. But any COVID relief will be a mere Band-Aid over a gaping wound. Transit agencies large and small are still preparing for a very bleak future of long-term ridership loss and dramatically lower revenues, and most of them are responding to this prospect with proposals for dramatic service cuts. However, business and rider groups in one of those cities, Boston, are questioning the wisdom of those cuts, pointing out that they will barely make a dent in the budget gap the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) faces. On the revenue side of the equation, politicians in New York and Savannah, Georgia, are considering new revenue-raising strategies to plug the holes as well.
Meanwhile, some unplanned service cuts are already taking effect in several cities. COVID is also the culprit here: while there still have been no reports of COVID outbreaks among transit riders, the drivers haven’t been so lucky. COVID-induced driver shortages have led two cities to impose service cutbacks this past week, and with infection trendlines still rising, it’s likely that more will follow.
Drivers for ride-hailing companies haven’t yet been affected to as great an extent by COVID, or if they have, no one has collected data to show the extent of the problem. What has affected them are the low wages they earn for the time spent driving. While efforts to have ride-hailing drivers reclassified as actual employees continue to falter, a group of ride-hailing drivers in New York have opted instead to take matters into their own hands: They have formed a cooperative, with its own app, that gives drivers a bigger cut of the revenue while saving riders money at the same time.
Boston Advocates Question the Need for Deep Service Cuts While New York and Savannah Tackle the Revenue Side of the Problem
This column has reported previously on the “Doomsday Service Plans” transit agencies large and small are proposing in the face of what look like long-term reductions in ridership and revenue (“The Mobile City,” Nov. 25). Ben Friedman, a spokesperson for the advocacy group TransitCenter, referred to the situation many transit agencies face as “existential peril” in a Dec. 6 New York Times article that described what many urban transit agencies are doing to plug their budget holes.
One of those cities is Boston, where the MBTA seeks to fill a $600 million budget hole for the coming year. One of the ways it plans to fill it is by eliminating all ferry service, canceling a bunch of low-ridership bus routes, ending night and weekend regional rail service, closing some train stations and shortening one of the Green Line branches. StreetsblogMASS reports, however, that local business and advocacy groups are calling the wisdom of these cuts into question. Both the MBTA’s own Advisory Board and the business group A Better City dug into the numbers and point out that the cuts taken together would cut the projected deficit by just $100 million. Administrative cuts account for much more of the proposed savings, they note, and both groups recommend other ways of either saving or finding revenue to make up the $100 million given the impact the service cuts would have on riders.
Meanwhile, elected officials in two other cities have proposed new revenue sources. The New York Daily News reports that a Brooklyn state legislator has dusted off a proposal he made last year to levy a $3 per package fee on packages shipped to residents by e-commerce companies like Amazon. The $3-per-package fee, State Assemblyman Robert Carroll estimates, would produce as much as $1.5 billion per year for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). Carroll’s proposal has won the endorsement of John Samuelsen, head of Transport Workers Union Local 100, which represents about half the MTA’s 73,000 employees.
And in Savannah, Ga., Mass Transit reports that the Savannah Area Chamber of Commerce has decided to push for the passage of two bills Chatham Area Transit (CAT) is supporting in the Georgia legislature. The bigger of the two would allow individual counties to seek voter approval for special-purpose sales taxes specifically for local transit. The second bill applies to Savannah more specifically; it would obtain state funding for beefed-up ferry service along the Savannah River waterfront, connecting both popular tourist attractions and the city’s convention center on Hutchinson Island. The Savannah Chamber says the moves make good business sense: “As Chatham County and coastal Georgia continue to add jobs, public transportation helps more Chatham Country residents reach their places of work, essentially expanding employers’ potential workforce,” said Bill Hubbard, president and CEO of the Savannah Area Chamber. “The Legislature should approve [a sales tax] option where voters could decide, by referendum, to utilize the existing statute [permitting special-purpose sales taxes]. Also, as the Savannah Convention Center and surrounding area on Hutchison Island expands further, the need to move more employees and meeting attendees across the river will require expanding the operations of the ferry system, another valuable component of Chatham Area Transit.”
COVID-Induced Driver Shortages Cause Service Cuts in Three Cities
As of now, there are still no reports of COVID-19 spreader events occurring among bus and train riders on American transit systems.
Transit vehicle drivers haven’t been so fortunate, however. Drivers have been among the transit employees hardest hit by COVID-19, thanks to their increased exposure to riders who may be infectious, and possible transmission at layover and storage facilities. Because of this, two U.S.transit systems announced this week that they would be cutting back service because of driver shortages caused by the outbreaks.
The bigger of the two is Kansas City, Mo., where the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority (KCATA) announced that it would suspend service on four RideKC bus routes effective Dec. 14. These changes come on top of service reductions that had been implemented on Nov. 23. Since Nov. 18, city officials have restricted use of city transit service to essential trips only. KCATA President and CEO Robbie Makinen told Mass Transit, “RideKC will continue to provide essential service to riders at zero fare. If customers must make essential trips, they can have confidence that RideKC is continuing all of the safety protocols that have been in place consistently throughout the pandemic, such as a mask requirement, rear door boarding and limiting the number of seats available.”
The other city is Pueblo, Colo., where The Pueblo Chieftain reported Dec. 8 that Pueblo Transit will switch all service to a Saturday schedule through Nov. 14 after two drivers and a customer service representative may have been exposed to COVID-19 by a driver who returned to work while awaiting test results. That driver was informed Dec. 7 that they had tested positive, and the other exposed employees were sent home to quarantine for 14 days. Pueblo Transit says that riders face little risk of contagion because of safety measures the agency has put in place.
New York Ride-Hail Driver Co-Op Promises Lower Fares for Riders, Better Earnings for Drivers
Low wages and lack of benefits have undergirded moves by at least two state legislatures to reclassify ride-hailing drivers as employees rather than independent contractors. The ride-hailing giant Lyft poured a good chunk of change into the successful effort to overturn the California law that did this, and the company is now doing the same thing in Illinois (“The Mobile City,” Nov. 18).
Now comes news from NPR about a group of ride-hailing drivers in New York City who are taking their wages into their own hands. “Weekend Edition Saturday” host Scott Simon spoke on Dec. 5 with Ken Lewis, one of the drivers who organized The Drivers Cooperative, a driver-owned organIzation that has developed its own ride-hailing app that competes directly with Uber and Lyft.
Lewis actually agrees with Lyft and Uber that there are benefits that accompany drivers’ status as independent contractors. But, he says, the scales need to be recalibrated so that drivers get a better deal. “I think that rideshare has been a very positive model for transportation,” he told Simon. “But I think there is also that part where it has been very predatory and extractive on our community. And so we hope that we can solve that problem while keeping the benefits of rideshare.”
The way the co-op plans to do this is by offering riders who use the Co-op app lower fares than Lyft or Uber while letting drivers keep more of the revenue. Where the investor-owned ride-hailing companies keep 25 to 30 percent of the total fare for each trip, the Co-op will take only 15 percent off the top. But it gets even better, Lewis says: “While [Uber and] Lyft make their money for Wall Street investors and Silicon Valley investors, we will be a co-operative. So any profits will go back to the drivers.”
Lewis also said that the co-op will provide better service to Black and brown communities that get underserved by the investor-owned companies, and that drivers will undergo the extra certification the ride-hailing companies perform beyond what the New York Taxi & Limousine Commission already requires. The difference is that once they pass that screening, drivers become part owners of the cooperative and get to vote for its governing board.
“Our pitch to customers will principally be to support drivers who have had a really hard time,” Lewis continued. “But you get the same drivers with the same cars and with a price point that’s a bit lower. We also have started some negotiations to help drivers to buy electric cars, which will help the environment and the community also.”
Does Lewis believe this model could spread to other cities? “Well, at the moment we are focusing on New York City,” he told Simon. “But there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come. And this is it, you know?”
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Next City contributor Sandy Smith is the home and real estate editor at Philadelphia magazine. Over the years, his work has appeared in Hidden City Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Inquirer and other local and regional publications. His interest in cities stretches back to his youth in Kansas City, and his career in journalism and media relations extends back that far as well.