The Supreme Court of New York recently ruled in favour of ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft by saying that the city’s rule on cruising caps – enforced in August 2019 intending to reduce traffic congestion in Manhattan during peak traffic hour – is “arbitrary and capricious.”

What is Cruising?

It refers to the act of drivers of commercial “For-Hire Vehicles (FHVs)” driving or waiting around on the roads in their vehicles without passengers in them. The NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission, instituted a set of rules last year with the approval of the Mayor’s office.

Under these rules, the FHVs are required to limit their cruising time (driving or waiting without a passenger) in certain parts of the district to within 31% of their total ride-time.

The intent was to free up spaces in the downtown area, affect a decline in traffic during rush hours, enable faster mobility for public transport, etc. However, the judgement categorised the time spent moving around in a vehicle to pick up passengers as part of their essential operating time that cannot be done away with.

 

Impact on Traffic Congestion

The keenness of the authorities intending to uphold the law is reflected in their reported intention to move for an appeal of the judgment. An over-saturation of city space and paralysis of road traffic in major metropolitan areas has been a cause for concern in most countries for a long time. The idea of easing commute for inhabitants is a major challenge as well as a fiscal objective in many overcrowded cities around the world.

Nevertheless, rules like cruising caps account for easing measures at the cost of jeopardizing the business interests of cab-drivers. Disabling them from freely moving around to service their customers is a compromise on their essential right to livelihood. Therefore, the question arises – how does one reconcile the mobility interests of the city’s workforce with the destabilised incomes of a section of the same workforce?

The easiest answer to that question would be to say that the needs of many outweigh the needs of a few. However, I wish the solution was as simple as offering up the drivers as sacrificial fodder because the issue is increasingly complex.

Why the Judgement on Cruising Caps Makes Sense?

First, the causes leading to traffic congestion of roads are many. Lack of proper parking spaces, lane closures due to utility work, pedestrian intervention, etc are the most common causes of road congestion. Although urban planning in developed but populous cities like New York and Tokyo has made it possible to manage traffic by constructing bypasses, providing feeder travel mechanisms and regulating traffic on a meticulous real-time basis, sometimes, over-development in these areas renders the already overcrowded mass transit systems useless. Not to forget, the meteoric increase in private vehicles over the last century, owing to increased spending capacity. Therefore, holding FHVs solely accountable for congestion is superfluous. 

Second, FHVs are the predominant medium of conveyance in large cities,especially in the ones where public transport infrastructures haven’t mushroomed commensurately with the rapid pace of construction and settlement. Manhattan is one of the busiest commercial centres in the world with a daytime commuting population approximating 1.61 million in number. The total number of ride-sharing drivers is however just 80,000. One could argue that if you crunch those numbers on a cumulative index of road density and drivers per square kilometre, they still outnumber the adequate threshold. One fails to notice, however, as to how curtailing cruising time could put a lid on those numbers.

The third glaring discrepancy in the existing cruising law is the visible oversight bordering on favouritism that is accorded upon all other classes of commercial vehicles other than FHVs. Uber and Lyft, were reported to have locked out their drivers from the apps on a routine basis to try and enforce the anti-cruising policy when it initially went into effect. This clearly suggests that the enforcement standards were only applicable as long as a driver was affiliated to one of the ride-hailing companies, consequently raising issues related to discrimination and antitrust.

 

Suggested Protocols

If the goal is to ensure rapid mobility on busy streets, then the policies formulated to that effect should be well-rounded and holistic. They must consider all viable measures to reduce the problem of congestion such as implementing accelerated road widening programmes, building vertical parking avenues, introduce dedicated bicycle lanes, etc. In addition, considering the vehicular pollution perspective, measures like implementing cleaner fuel strategies and imposing traffic penalties for unnecessary ignition at signals and other spaces could contribute qualitatively to the results.

It is also noteworthy to mention here that if implementing cruising caps has proved to yield desirable results, it should be implemented comprehensively across-the-board for all classes of vehicles. There are major regulations to such effect in a great number of American cities like Knoxville, Sacramento, Seattle, Tampa, Shreveport and many others including Washington D.C. Dedicated traffic cells and anti-cruising task forces have been created to deal with the problem of congestion.

Indian Scenario

In India, we have to deal with a whole other paradigm while looking at the problem of traffic congestion. Our issues stem from narrow roads, frequent construction undertakings, accidents, careless pedestrian behaviour, encroachment on roads by street vendors, inadequate freight lines, etc. Four of our major cities (Bangalore, Mumbai, Pune and New Delhi) figure in the ‘top ten most congested cities in the world’ list. Delhi is the only Indian city to have more than 10% of city area under roads (18%), as compared to New York (24.1%), London (14.9%) and Tokyo (16.6%).

Therefore, our focus must be on building better road and public transport infrastructure across the country which can accommodate the growing vehicular traffic as a basic prerogative. Rule 21(20) of the Central Motor Vehicles Rules, 1989makes ‘loitering or unduly delaying any journey’ an offence punishable with the disqualification of one’s driver’s license. However, the laws to mitigate traffic congestion are still rudimentary thereby calling for immediate attention in the interest of accommodating an ambitious millennial urbanization agenda that we have embarked upon as a developing country.