A Small War Over Bike Lanes May Be an Uber and Lyft Conspiracy

A Small War Over Bike Lanes May Be an Uber and Lyft Conspiracy
Photo: Richard Drew, AP

If you live in New York City, you are a pedestrian or you are a driver, and you’re enmeshed in a war over streets that hits everyone’s wallets and time. Now, an extraordinary alliance has emerged: a militant local bike lane group, backed by Uber and Lyft, is battling car owners over hundreds of free parking spots. Some suspect a massive conspiracy by rideshare companies to scoop up the streets for themselves. They may be onto something.

Flyers are up; Nextdoor.com is on fire; a petition now has over 1,000 signatures.

Bear with me for a detour into the parking situation: The turf is a desolate parking lot under the Brooklyn Queens Expressway where a bike lane and walkway will cut out a precious 680 free parking spaces. The city plans to meter the remaining 400 spots at an outrageous $2/hour, enforced for an unusually long stretch of 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Saturday.

As-is, the lot’s more of a conveniently overlooked stretch than a lot; the fumy belt between highway exits is a rare undeveloped patch of pavement with faint paint lines, roadkill Dunkin cups, and smashed tail lights under a thundering structure. As the community board has noted numerous times, it could use some plants.

Photo: Gizmodo Photo: Gizmodo

The lot looks like a dump, in other words, but it’s a precious resource for drivers who interminably circle blocks and plan their days around moving the car during alternate side parking. Residents have to schlep about a mile through transit desert to either train station, which in part has left the surrounding enclave relatively affordable to blue-collar residents like firefighters and artists who need to haul canvas stretchers or instruments. Many can’t work without a vehicle. Others need cars to shuttle elderly family members to and from doctors’ appointments. 

Resident car owners were furious to discover just recently that the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) has been quietly planning the bike lane for the last seven years. Construction started as early as June, without much warning.

Drummer Jon Uman, who needs to transport his drums for work, didn’t notice the situation until a few months ago when trucks started tearing up the pavement and “no standing anytime” signs appeared over a swath of spots. He’s already looking on Zillow and StreetEasy for affordable places with garages, but they’re far from the neighbourhood where he’s lived since 1998. “I’m a native New Yorker,” he told Gizmodo over the phone. “I shouldn’t have to leave my neighbourhood.” One petitioner told Gizmodo that they’d estimated the cost would add up to $4,112 per year if they only used the metered parking.

Here’s where Uber and Lyft come in, and the local skirmish potentially takes a more broadly relevant twist. Meeker Ave Neighbours, the group behind the petition to halt the refurbishment, learned that Transportation Alternatives (TA), the muscular, decades-old bike lane advocacy group behind the plan, accepted a combined $171,338 from Uber and Lyft in 2020, along with donations from Revel, Bird, and Lime.

TA has undeniably facilitated otherwise-unavailable environmentally friendly transport throughout the city. It pushed the city to install the nation’s first protected bike lanes, lower the speed limit, and introduce Vision Zero, a plan to reduce traffic injuries (also a cornerstone of the de Blasio administration’s platform). It’s hard to argue with reducing traffic; the Brooklyn Queens Expressway running over the parking area is a backed-up exhaust vent that’s sickened nearby residents with some of the highest asthma rates in the city. Last year, New York City added the equivalent of 56.5 million tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. We don’t have to reiterate that a case for cars over subways and bikes is a case for the end of life on Earth.

But it’s unclear why TA chooses to side with corporations whose tens of thousands of vehicles congest the streets and spend, on average, a third of their time idling and waiting for rides. It’s not the first transit group to do so; bike activists from national groups, Denver, San Francisco, and the UK have all taken money from rideshare companies. One former TA organiser who took a job at Lyft wrote, in self-defence, that the company “has pledged to support protected bike lanes and pedestrian safety infrastructure even when it does not benefit the bottom-line.”

Nonetheless, it means that two massive corporations are buying up seats at the table which might otherwise belong to the low-income and often black and brown communities who inhale the pollution from the Uber and Lyft-filled highways. Or car-dependent residents in this area, like one who suggested to me that the city could have run a trolley line down the middle of the underpass without removing a spot.

Meeker Ave Neighbours see the metered parking as a tax on locals by greenwashing rideshare companies. (To be clear, that seems like dirty dealing by the Department of Transportation, which sprung the meter plan on the community board at the last minute, and in a community board meeting TA argued that it would cause staff turnover, which only increases car traffic.)

But removing spots dovetails with Uber and Lyft’s MO to commandeer city streets and transport. Lyft scooped up the contract company that operates Citi Bike, New York’s short-term bike rental program, for $343 million and hold a monopoly until 2029. (Lyft also operates bikeshare systems in Chicago, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Portland, Columbus, Denver, and Santa Monica.)

Uber and Lyft have stated that they want to eliminate parking in order to “reclaim public space” and “ease the pain of parking tickets.” Obviously, though they don’t say it, less parking attracts residents without cars — and a heavier reliance on the companies’ services. That reliance looks to worsen in an era of dwindling transit budgets, in a city where the MTA is running a devastating $22 billion deficit, already depressingly mismanaged and mind-bogglingly confusing, and always in the fray of politicians with offices outside city limits.

Spokespeople from both Uber and Lyft told Gizmodo via email that they’d never heard of this particular parking saga — but at a glance, they’re fans of shrinking the lot. A Lyft spokesperson said that, generally, Lyft vigorously supports “creating more space for people, bikes, and transit, especially in areas where the vast majority of residents do not own a car.”

Likewise, an Uber spokesperson told Gizmodo that, “after a brief review it looks like something we would be supportive of.”

Removing 0.0002% of the city’s free public storage of personal property spaces, in an area with a high incidence of traffic safety issues, to create public space for pedestrians and bikes all while improving the safety of roads for New Yorkers is a good idea,” they added.

Uber also admitted that it had partnered with TA to promote congestion pricing, but it was a separate project. Lyft said only that it “partners with and provides small grants to a long list of community organisations around the country on shared priorities like our Resilient Streets initiative.”

When Gizmodo asked TA why they’d partner with rideshare companies, an organiser said: “Anyone who’s working towards less cars in New York City, we’re happy to have them be part of our coalition.” But that reasoning flies in the face of the fact that these companies are jamming the roads.

Uber and Lyft like to argue that they’re reducing pollution by reducing the number of cars on the road, while theoretically expending less fuel than personal cars by “deadheading,” or driving more consistently without the fuel-intensive act of stopping and starting the engine. But a study in Environmental Science & Technology last month found the costs foisted on society by rideshares is steep due to the increase in carbon pollution. The cars simply drive so much more, often passenger-less, that they pump out about 20% more emissions than personal vehicles. An MIT study from earlier this year also found that they lengthened traffic jams by 4.5%.

If Uber and Lyft’s supposed interest in a few hundred spots seems like small potatoes for companies that serve more than a third of people in the U.S., they’ve recently been laser-focused on tiny districts, North Brooklyn included. Their donations helped oust a longtime State Assembly representative last year; his successor, Emily Gallagher, is currently promoting the parking situation as the “Meeker Ave Safety Project,” along with a similar TA proposal to redesign a four-lane avenue, branded “Make McGuinness Safe.”

On a bench alongside the expressway, a Meeker Ave Neighbours organiser — eyes darting across the street — said she’d only discovered the connection because she’d just moved to the neighbourhood specifically because it had space for her car, which she needs to transport her tools to film studios for prop design work. She figured the parking was too good to be true in a city where everything’s “pay to play.”

“I thought, you know what, I bet you they’re going to do what they did at Sunset Park and make it all meters under there,” she said, referring to the scourge of meters that arrived in the industrial waterfront neighbourhood after gentrification. “So I Googled it just for fun. And, of course, they’re passing this thing.” (She refused to share her name because, she said, she’d heard that certain opposition members slashed people’s tires.)

She learned that some TA employees went on to work for Lyft and vice-versa. She pointed to a Markup report on the companies’ other partnerships with trusted social justice organisations that spread their message. Every detail confirmed well-intentioned but (in her view) classist organisers falling for tech companies’ plot at the expense of the working class.

“It’s a privilege not to need a car,” she said. “That means you only go to Manhattan below 60th St.” The New York City subway system is designed to funnel commuters into Manhattan, which creates a massive time suck for many trips within the outer boroughs, where the vast majority of New Yorkers live. She’s been advocating for the Triboro, a proposed 39 km line that could repurpose existing tracks to connect Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx.

Similarly, Stephen Griesgraber told me over coffee that he used to bike over the bridge to work; he only started driving when exorbitant rent hikes forced him to move his guitar string factory a three-legged journey by subway and bus with 20 minutes walking on either side. If driving didn’t cut that time in half, he’d otherwise take the subway or bike, the same way he usually gets around.

“A car-free city is a beautiful idea, but we’re not there yet,” he said. Griesgraber would have been one of the area residents who’d take public transportation if there were more direct lines — maybe a trolley under the highway instead. At the moment, some just can’t; he finds the assumption that his elderly neighbours should ride Citi Bikes a little insulting.

In an email exchange about people who say they need a vehicle for essential tasks, TA senior organiser Juan Restrepo lamented the “car-centric status quo” that’s brought on a climate crisis of apocalyptic proportions. Restrepo added: “Free parking is not a right.“