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Navigating in Xi'an, China. Photo: Feature China/Barcroft/Getty Images

In the 1930s, New York building commissioner Robert Moses built one highway and bridge after another, with the aim of relieving congestion in America's biggest city. But each time, the result was the same: worse traffic.

What's going on: Eight decades later, transportation experts are observing a similar phenomenon with the world's newest urban innovation: ride-hailing services. According to a major new study, Uber, Lyft and their smaller rivals are clogging major U.S. cities — not relieving congestion — and even more traffic may be on the way when self-driving cars are commonplace.

  • On Thursday, the New York City Council began considering bills aimed at capping ride-sharing services. A vote may come as early as August 8, and any cap would be a first for a U.S. city.

Why it matters: A major promise of the self-driving, ride-hailing future has been cleaner, more walkable, and people-friendly cities, with much more efficient, individual transportation. But if the study — like others before it — is accurate, we are instead heading toward a bigger problem.

Bruce Schaller, a former New York deputy commissioner of transportation and author of the report, tells Axios that when people use a ride-hailing company, they are opting to do so rather than take public transportation, walk or bike. They generally are not choosing between hailing and driving themselves.

  • U.S. ridership is surging, he said — up 37% last year, to 2.6 billion passengers, from 2016.
  • And hailing added 5.7 billion miles of driving a year to the nine cities in the study compared with six years ago — Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington.
  • Uber and other ride-hailing services may not have exacerbated traffic initially. "But now they are clearly a source of congestion, and to deal with congestion you have to deal with them," he said.

Schaller's report aligns with an October study released by UC Davis. It found that, in U.S. cities, 49% to 61% of ride-hailing trips would have not been made at all — or by walking, biking, or public transit.

  • Regina Clewlow, a transportation research scientist and an author of the UC Davis study, told Axios that no one expected such consumer demand for the rides.
  • "Cities were blindsided by the dramatic growth of ride-sharing companies," she said.
  • Clewlow urged continued investment in public transportation. "There’s no way that ride hailing could move people around as efficiently as mass transit."

This outcome also repeats history. In his classic biography of Moses, The Power Broker, Robert Caro described the phenomenon as "traffic generation."

"The more highways were built to alleviate congestion, the more automobiles would pour onto them and congest them and thus force the building of more highways — which would generate more traffic and become congested in their turn in an inexorably widening spiral that contained the most awesome implications for the future of New York and of all urban areas."
— Robert Caro

Schaller disputed a broad consensus among mobility experts that autonomous cars will relieve urban congestion. He said that, instead, self-driving vehicles will create the same dynamic as seen today with ride-hailing. And to the degree the cities become more congested, people will increasingly avoid them, he said.

  • "It will be a disaster for cities and a disaster for these companies," he said.

Go deeper

2 hours ago - Health

CDC panel endorses Pfizer vaccine for 12- to 15-year-olds

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

An advisory panel for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday endorsed the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine for 12-to 15-year-olds, following the FDA's emergency use authorization.

Why it matters: Approval from the CDC panel was the final step needed before inoculations could be offered at any vaccination site for this age group.

  • Pfizer has said its vaccine is 100% effective at protecting against COVID-19 in a trial of more than 2,200 children between the ages of 12 and 15.

GOP lawmakers downplay Capitol riot at House hearing

Photo: Jon Cherry via Getty Images

Republican members of Congress sought to minimize the Capitol insurrection at a House hearing on Wednesday, with statements calling pro-Trump rioters "patriots" and other lawmakers falsely denying demonstrators were supporters of the former president at all.

Driving the news: The hearing comes shortly after House Republicans voted to oust Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) from leadership over her criticism of former President Trump's actions leading up to and on Jan. 6.

McConnell, McCarthy say 2017 tax law is "red line" in infrastructure talks

The top Republicans in the House and Senate told reporters after meeting with President Biden at the White House that "there is a bipartisan desire to get an outcome" on an infrastructure package, but stressed that revisiting the 2017 tax cuts is a "red line."

Why it matters: Wednesday marked the first time that Biden has hosted Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) at the White House.