Morning Crank: Taxing Uber and Lyft; Stalling Safe Consumption

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Image by PraiseLightMedia via Wikimedia Commons

 When Mayor Jenny Durkan announced in April that her administration would study congestion pricing—a catchall term for strategies that place a price on driving a car into congested parts of the city, such as downtown and South Lake Union, in the hope of achieving some positive goal, such as lower emissions or faster transit service—she said she hoped to implement some kind of pricing scheme by the end of her first term, in 2021. Most people took this to mean that she would introduce a plan for cordon tolling—essentially, drawing an invisible ring around the center city and charging vehicles to enter. Because this strategy would require voter approval, Durkan’s team will need to figure out how to get around the obvious objections—creating a plan that doesn’t disproportionately harm low-income workers who rely on cars, for example, and that makes transit seem like a viable alternative to driving to people who choose to commute by car.

In the meantime, the mayor is considering another option: Charging Uber and Lyft riders a special tax that will increase the cost to use the car-hire platforms by a few bucks a trip—just enough, perhaps, to nudge some commuters onto buses or trains. According to the mayor’s office, half of all Uber and Lyft trips in Seattle include a trip through the center city. In addition, ride-hailing cars often circle around downtown waiting for the signal that someone needs a ride; this contributes to both congestion and pollution, and makes it harder for buses to move quickly through the area. City council member Mike O’Brien, who supports congestion pricing, says, “There seems to be pretty clear evidence that [Uber and Lyft are] causing congestion and that people are converting from transit to a lesser mode, which is riding in these [vehicles].” O’Brien says he has heard reports of companies in South Lake Union giving free Uber and Lyft shared-ride passes to employees, which creates an incentive to use those services instead of less-convenient transit. “There’s an argument, from my perspective at least, that Uber and Lyft are living in an unequitable world to their favor,” O’Brien says.

The Downtown Seattle Association’s annual commute numbers, which do not distinguish between calling an Uber for a ride and carpooling with a group of colleagues, and their annual commute survey does not indicate a major shift from transit to ride-hailing—yet. A University of California-Davis study last year showed that, in general, urban commuters are switching from transit to ride-hailing companies in record numbers. On average, people who live in major American cities use transit 6 percent less after they start using a ride-hailing service, according to the study. Surprisingly, perhaps, ride-hailing service users who also take transit are more likely to own cars, and to own slightly more cars, than people who just commute by transit; and non-transit users who use ride-hailing services are no less likely to own cars than non-transit users who don’t use ride-hailing platforms. According to the study, “The majority of ride-hailing users (91%) have not made any changes with regards to whether or not they own a vehicle.” As for those who have reduced their personal driving, the study concludes, “[They] have substituted those trips with increased ride-hailing use.”

2. Plans to open the nation’s first safe consumption site in Seattle appear to have foundered. According to multiple people familiar with discussions at the city about whether to fund a new safe consumption site, Mayor Jenny Durkan has not committed to fund the project in her upcoming budget proposal.

In 2016, a county task force on heroin and prescription opiate addiction unanimously recommended the creation of at least two safe consumption sites in King County—one in Seattle, the other somewhere else in the county. (Safe consumption sites allow drug users to consume substances by non-injection methods such as inhalation, which is generally safer and allows people who use drugs that are traditionally smoked or snorted to do so under medical supervision). Those plans stalled under political pressure, as city after city (including Auburn, whose mayor Nancy Backus was on the opiate task force) adopted laws preemptively barring safe consumption sites inside their borders. Last year, the Seattle city council appropriated $1.3 million to establish and operate a safe consumption site; in June, however, the council indicated it would opt for a mobile injection-only van, which would likely preclude consumption by means other than injection but would be cheaper and potentially easier than siting a permanent facility. The mayor’s office says the $1.3 million will be in its 2019 budget.

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Running a safe consumption site would require a new financial commitment of about $2 million a year. Durkan has already asked city departments to come up with budget cuts of between 2 and 5 percent in anticipation of a funding shortfall for 2019. In addition, the city budget office and council have to come up with around $10 million a year to pay for programs related to homelessness that Durkan paid for this year with one-time funding. In that climate, it’s hardly surprising that Durkan—who did not make safe consumption or reducing overdoses a campaign issue and has not made the proposal one of her legislative priorities—would be inclined to let it fall through the cracks, at least for now. On August 27, three days before Seattle advocates commemorated International Overdose Awareness Day with balloons and overdose prevention trainings in Westlake Park, deputy US attorney general Rod Rosenstein wrote an op/ed for the New York Times railing against safe injection sites, and specifically calling out Seattle’s plans to build a mobile injection van. “Injection sites destroy the surrounding community, creating “war zone[s]” with “drug-addled, glassy-eyed people strewn about.”

Seventeen years ago, a county task force on heroin and opiate addiction recommended many of the same measures the city and county are discussing today, including overdose response training, greater access to syringes, and other harm reduction methods, including (potentially) safe injection sites and encouraging drug users to use safer consumption methods. The report, and its recommendations, sat on a shelf for 14 years, with predictable consequences. The consequences of ignoring the recommendations of the 2016 task force will be equally predictable.

3.  It’s been  nine months since Scott Kubly, the former director of the Seattle Department of Transportation, resigned and was replaced on an interim basis by his deputy, Geron Sparrman. It’s been more than two weeks since Sparrman left to take a job at HNTB, a consulting firm that had numerous open contracts with the city of Seattle when Sparrman agreed to take the position, and Durkan announced that former Alaskan Way tunnel project director Linea Laird would take over as his replacement, also on an interim basis. And it’s been one week since the city finally posted the SDOT director position on the city’s official job bulletin, along with a brief description of the position and desired qualifications. According to the notice, interested candidates should contact Reffett Associates, an executive search firm with offices in Bellevue, Dallas, and Washington, D.C.

6 thoughts on “Morning Crank: Taxing Uber and Lyft; Stalling Safe Consumption

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  3. It would be interesting to know (and maybe it’s here and I’m just dense) if there was a way to look at the trips taken via Uber/Lyft and map them against known transit routes to determine if this is apples to apples…for instance, are there a lot of car hires to cover trips in transit-poor areas or times of day, or are we talking about a bunch of people who just don’t want to ride a bus but very well could with no material degradation in ride times, etc.

    Living in Ballard, it’s often not even a realistic choice between Uber and a bus…it can often be 30 – 40 minutes longer to take a bus and as long as I can afford an Uber instead, my time is worth it.

    That said, I would love to get rid of my car and go back to how life was in SF, where a bus or train seemed to run down every street every 10 minutes.

    • It’s definitely possible for Uber and Lyft to do that, as they have all the data they collect about customers’ trips and have no restrictions on what they can do with all of that personal location data they collect.

  4. re: larger employers that need commute-trip reduction – Question 4.2 in the linked 2017 report shows SLU is on the higher/15% end of “carpool” commute and on the lower end/28% for transit use. That might support O’Brien’s ideas, or just be how the data came out.

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