Uber is recruiting users in its congestion pricing fight

The ride-hailing giant has flip-flopped in its approach to congestion pricing in New York. Now it’s launched a campaign asking riders to oppose the policy.

Yellow cabs and Uber car drive through Times Square.

The campaign shows the company’s apparent about-face when it comes to New York’s plan for congestion pricing.

Photo: Eduardo MunozAlvarez/VIEWpress

A number of New York-area Uber users received a surprising message this week. It wasn’t an offer for free rides; instead, it was an email from the ride-hailing service imploring them to “tell the MTA that their proposed increase in fees and your lack of accessible subways or bus lines leaves you flat out of options for getting where you need to.”

It’s part of a campaign that’s been hitting users’ inboxes and app notifications for the past month and shows the company’s apparent about-face when it comes to New York’s plan for congestion pricing. The policy, which was approved by lawmakers in 2019 but has yet to be ironed out by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, would charge drivers entering much of lower Manhattan during rush hour an extra fee in an attempt to both ease traffic and reduce carbon emissions.

Uber was originally among a coalition of companies and NGOs lobbying New York state lawmakers in support of congestion pricing. Now that the process of ironing out the details is underway, though, the company seems to have changed its tune.

Josh Gold, Uber’s senior director of public policy and communications, told Protocol that the company “strongly [believes] congestion pricing should go forward.” However, it takes issue with the proposed options for structuring the toll, which he said “bizarrely puts an additional burden on riders coming in from [outer boroughs] while giving a cheaper ride to those going from a TriBeCa condo to their Midtown office.”

The MTA is reviewing seven potential scenarios for structuring the congestion pricing scheme. The most onerous one for drivers would charge commuters $23 for a rush hour trip into the heart of Midtown, and $17 for an off-peak-hours trip. The scenario that would cost drivers the least would include a toll of $9 during peak hours and $7 for off-peak hours.

Taxi drivers have also protested congestion pricing, rallying in front of Gov. Kathy Hochul’s office on Aug. 24 for exemptions to the new law. But Uber is alone in using its access to riders, including information about where they live, to marshal them to the company’s cause. The email to riders who live in transit deserts brings users to a form email directed at the MTA.

“It’s critical we improve our public transit system — I understand that better than most - but the largest burden shouldn’t fall on those with the least access,” the email reads. “Please don’t leave me stranded.”

The company has also been targeting riders via messages both in the app and attached to post-ride invoices. Seth Friedman, a Brooklyn resident, told Protocol that he has started noticing messages about congestion pricing even when he wasn’t riding into Manhattan.

Screenshots of messages from UberMessages asking New Yorkers to push back against potentially high tolls as a part of the city's congestion pricing policy have landed in the notifications and invoices of riders like Seth Friedman. These were received between July 29 and Aug. 30.Images: Seth Friedman

Since 2019, New York Uber riders received notes on certain invoices prompting them to “learn more about the government-mandated pricing rules, taxes, and fees that make trips in NYC more expensive,” but without reference to new congestion pricing scenarios.

However, beginning on Aug. 25, that message has evolved to be more explicit, telling users that the congestion pricing policies could result in “tolls as high as $23 per trip during peak hours,” with a link to “say no to new fees” that brings users to a different form email without the transit desert language that will be sent to the MTA. During a ride on Aug. 30, Friedman noticed that the invoice ads had been complemented by a pop-up in Uber’s ride interface as well.

For Friedman, who describes himself as “a strong supporter of congestion pricing,” the ads seem to have backfired.

“It makes me not want to use Uber anymore,” Friedman said. “I think it’s really gross that they’re doing this.”

The MTA’s environmental assessment found that implementing tolls would reduce the number of vehicles entering the central part of Manhattan by 15.4% to 19.9%, and improve air quality as a result. The fees collected would be used in part to improve public transit, further incentivizing New Yorkers to use lower-emissions ways of getting around.

“Anyone who has been in New York City in the past decade knows that for-hire vehicles are a part of the story of congestion in Manhattan’s Central Business District, which has harmful air quality impacts and slows down the economy,” said John McCarthy, chief of external relations for the transit agency.

The public comment period for the program’s environmental assessment, which lays out the potential tolling scenarios, ends on Sept. 9. While the rollout of congestion pricing does not yet have a firm timeline, the tolls could take effect as soon as late 2023.

Update: This story was updated on Sept. 2, 2022 to clarify Uber’s position around the various congestion pricing schemes under review.

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