Do not let Uber’s Commute Card undercut the subway

Uber commuting: It's like the subway, but much slower and less efficient! Via Gilt City.
Uber commuting: It’s like the subway, but much slower and less efficient! Via Gilt City.

I have heard tale of mysterious creatures of New York, the privileged souls who refuse — actually refuse! — to take the subway under any circumstances. I knew of one lady who called a car every morning from her Manhattan apartment and waited for it to take her to the other side of Manhattan. These folks shun the subway, a goddamn miracle of civil engineering that’s basically a warp tunnel installed below ground that can shoot you from one end of the city to another in an hour or two for under three bucks. Instead, they rely on the lowly car, that crass and inefficient means of transport we associate with the suburbs, where people exile themselves on population islands far away from all the stores, food, hair salons and Pokemon they need to survive. Even when driven by a professional, a car is still a car.

This week, Uber, the car service company with the vaguely fascist name, announced a plan to start selling “Commute Cards” that you give you unlimited uberPOOL rides in Manhattan during rush hour. They cost $79, which works out to $2/ride, cheaper than the $2.75 subway fare. This is all part of Uber’s war against any other means of transit, and their effort to get you take a car to work every day instead of a subway, bike, skateboard or anything else. Don’t buy it: The Uber Commute Card is a trick that will only clog our streets, take money away from our much-needed subway system and still make you late for work.

The very simple reason not to rely on Uber for commuting every day is that driving in Manhattan is a horror show on any given day of the week, the streets an eternal latticework of gridlock and frustration. We as a city should be focusing all efforts on having fewer cars on the road, not more.

Buses can barely navigate some roads thanks to the glut of automobiles (far too many of those cars contain a single passenger, a baffling misuse of the precious space of New York City, akin to sectioning off the entire Great Lawn of Central Park for a single child’s birthday party, but that’s another issue). Buses, which are meant to be public transit for the masses, especially people without subway access, are already hampered from doing their jobs by the abundance of cars on the roads. Adding more cars to the road — even if you’re “pooling” it with four other passengers — means you’re dumping another obstacle into the already overstuffed, dangerous Double Dare final round that is New York City streets. You’ll be sitting in the back of your car, tapping out emails to your boss about why you’re late. As the saying goes: You’re not sitting in traffic, you are traffic.

Uber is averaging about 168,000 daily trips in New York City, according to Recode. The subway averaged 5.6 million weekday commuters during 2015. If even a small fraction — 3 percent — of subway riders decide to take Ubers instead, that would double the daily Uber trips per day.

Yes, some of them would share cars, but you can see quickly how the demand for space in the busy driving lanes of Manhattan would quickly outpace supply. And while you’re sitting in your car, listening to your driver and all the cars around you join in a chorus of honks in anger at a pedestrian who is legally crossing a street while the cars are trying to turn, underneath you the subway will be running through a series of specially dedicated tubes, where there is no car traffic, warping commuters to their destination along a whole different plane of existence. We are in an era of the city where Vision Zero is basically a failure, where drivers are actively targeting cyclists for murder. More cars in Manhattan are not the answer.

The subways have their share of delays, service changes and crowds. But the MTA counts on $7 billion in fares as part of its budget. It already blamed ride-hailing services like Uber for a $10 million drop in revenue last year. There are much, much bigger revenue sources the agency must tap if it’s ever going to truly fix its (many, many) problems, but taking more fares and bodies away from the trains will only increase the rate at which the service wilts from lack of attention.

The above is an argument against using the Commute Cards on behalf of your own sanity and common sense. Now you should also remember that Uber, for all its easy interfaces on the app and technological savvy, is still a car company, and cars are still pollution machines, and Uber happens to be a company that runs particularly unethical pollution machines.

The subway system produces .171 pounds of CO2 per passenger mile, less than 1/3 the average of cars nationwide, according to Freakonomics. Compound this with the people who bike, scoot, skateboard or eschew vehicles all together and walk to work, and who live on top of each other in stacked apartment buildings that share heat and energy instead of living in vast deserts of lawns near pavement-filled strip malls, and you start to see why New York is often considered one of the greenest cities in America, maybe even the greenest overall.

Lots of parts of the city in the outer boroughs rely on cars because there’s no subway; other people have many legitimate reasons for driving a car, even in Manhattan. But we disdain Walmarts and too many chains in New York because they suck the energy out of the city and make us stoop to the level of the “other” places in the country. For the most part, we don’t identify as a car city for the very same reason: we think we’re better than it.

And then, you have Uber, the company, which is becoming notorious for treating its drivers poorly and refusing to let them unionize. It’s far from the only controversy the company has tangled with in recent years, all of which seem to be overlooked because it’s just so easy to press a button on your phone to get a car.

The subway is unreliable, cramped, sometimes gross and often a little slower than you want it to be. As I type this a huge power outage just delayed basically the entire system, so maybe you were forced to go above ground and find alternate means of transport to your job or wherever.

But the subway is also our common ground, our town square, the literal veins and arteries running through the city that keep New York alive. To commute on the subway to work is to share the communal city experience with dozens of other riders packed into the same car, reading different newspapers and books, absorbing a firehose of street style, reading trends and town gossip while sharing the collective burden of just how hot/stinky/packed/delayed the train (your life?) is at that moment. Uber advertised the deal on Gilt, saying: “Because while sweaty, full-body contact with strangers has its place, it’s not on your way to work.” The reek of elitism here is way worse than the sweaty guy in a velour jumpsuit you might share a few minutes with on the train.

To ride in a car is just to be chauffeured around all that, another car in a line of traffic that separates itself from the real city underground and on sidewalks. You might not even know you were in New York if it weren’t for all the traffic.

If you still don’t want to take the subway, you should ride a damn bike to work.

Follow Tim, who misses being the only person who biked into his office: @timdonnelly.


  1. Jon H

    I agree that more public transportation is a good thing for NYC but telling people not to use a service that is out thinking the MBA is not the way to do it. The MBA needs to get its sh1t together. I live in Brooklyn and a 13 mile distance from home to work shouldn’t take over an hour (when everything is running normal) on the subway. I usually take the so called xpress bus or car pool when I can. Uber is filling a “want” that people will use. Having a slow commute coupled with the smells of urine and crowded together with people who are rude and need to shower is not a good way to start the day. If the MBA would stop wasting money on stupid projects like the trade center hub and upgrade the system, maybe people would be happier using the subway. Look at DeBlasio’s tram in Brooklyn. They know very few people will use it and it will create worse traffic due to the loss of car lanes but they are still pushing for it. At least in China they are innovating by coming up with a tram that rides over traffic. Innovation not complaining. It’s like the yellow cabs complaining about Uber, you should have come up with a hailing system before Uber. The subway system was an engineering marvel but the idiots who run it let it decay into a mess.

    • Anybody who tries to do this service will quickly be back on the Subway for much of the time. It is just much faster in many many situations. I wouldn’t discourage people from signing up on the moral grounds of Uber. They should just find out from a direct comparison.
      You do hit on an important point in your piece. The city should really be giving more space to buses and productive vehicles like trucks making deliveries and taking away space from private cars and taxis/ubers. A bus with 50 people on it deserves to go faster than a car with a single person. A truck making thousands of dollars of deliveries to a businesses all day long deserves a parking spot more than a car that is used once a day or less.

      • Andrew

        Actually, I did the uber commute card for the last 4 weeks and I would do it again in a heartbeat.
        Yes, sometimes, it took almost twice as long – 30 mins MTA if everything is working properly…but this is the MTA we are talking about here so good luck…and up to 1 hour with Uber commute.
        But, I didn’t have to deal with being stuck in the subway on the hottest days of the year with hundreds of other people. I had signal on my phone all the way to work. It was largely stress free. (honestly felt like I was on vacation) Oh and it was cheaper than MTA. Win, win, win, win.
        I wish I had done 8 weeks

        Having said that, a fair portion of my drivers complained about uber. Some even invited me to join Juno. Clearly the drivers were not happy and I don’t really blame them.

    • Toddster

      The MTA is not responsible for the World Trade Center Transportation Hub. That is the Port Authority. DeBlasio’s tram would also operate outside the MTA as a city entity. The MTA is a State agency run my Gov. Cuomo who consistently raids the MTA of its state required funding.

      The problem at root is not the MTA but Cuomo’s refusal to properly manage and fund it.

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