AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish and we return now to the NPR Cities Project.
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CORNISH: We've been reporting on the conflicted 21st century relationship between cities and cars. This week, a city that's trying to add more cars of a certain sort. New York City wants to add more of its famous Yellow Taxi Cabs to the streets, special ones that are wheelchair accessible. And the sale of new taxi licenses could raise a billion dollars for the city. But city streets are like an ecosystem - add something and the effects ripple out, shifting traffic patterns for everyone.
Robert Smith, of NPR's Planet Money Team, hits the street to learn how a little change can have a big economic impact.
ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: I'm on streets of midtown Manhattan. And for anyone who wants a taxicab, this is the nightmare scenario. It's raining.
TAYLOR COPELAND YORK: Yeah, it's freezing and I'm drenching wet.
SMITH: And it's the middle of rush hour. You are never going to get a taxi cab.
YORK: Ugh, I've had three say no.
SMITH: What's your name?
YORK: Taylor Copeland York.
SMITH: Well, Taylor, there is an actual plan to put 2,000 more taxi cabs...
YORK: Oh, that'll be nice.
SMITH: ...on the streets of the city.
YORK: I say yes, because I really want a taxi cab right now. And I think it'd be a lot easier if people didn't have to fight over them all the time.
SMITH: That is totally understandable. But I have to tell you that right now, in New York City, there is a debate about whether more taxi cabs will actually make things better in the city. And, you know, a few days ago, I was looking at this situation from a completely different point of view. I was high above the streets of New York.
Well, maybe not that high. It's an office in a skyscraper and it belongs to a sort of traffic guru.
CHARLES KOMANOFF: I'm Charles Komanoff.
SMITH: He's a transportation consultant. He uses computer models to analyze traffic patterns, the same patterns he sees when he rides his bike to work.
KOMANOFF: Everyday for almost 40 years.
SMITH: And the same patterns you can see when we both lean out his window
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SMITH: Komanoff says look down. The number of taxi cabs in New York City is capped at around 13,000. And yet, they dominate the streets.
KOMANOFF: You know, I think a good, you know, 40 percent of the vehicles in motion or trying to be in motion, that we're seeing out the window are Yellow Cabs.
SMITH: Now imagine what happens when they multiply. OK, we don't have to just imagine it. Komanoff turns on his computer and he opens a program filled with rows of number.
KOMANOFF: Welcome to the Balanced Transportation Analyzer.
SMITH: The BTA.
KOMANOFF: Yeah, the BTA.
SMITH: In here is every lane of every road in the heart of Manhattan, you know, the cars, the buses, the trucks. And this computer model tells us something unexpected. More taxis can actually make a city less efficient. Up here in his office, Komanoff starts to click on parts of his model to explain the traffic problem.
And I'm going to head back out into the streets of Manhattan to show you what he's talking about. I'm now walking up to the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel. And you can see the problem with Manhattan right here because everyday 800,000 - 800,000 cars come into Manhattan over just a few bridges and tunnels like this one. And that just means that in the morning and afternoon the traffic is terrible. Here, I'm literally walking faster than this guy is driving - Frank Gingerelli.
FRANK GINGERELLI: It took me one hour from 57th Street to here.
SMITH: But here's the thing that Komanoff says about all those cars. You see, they slow down traffic in the morning and in the evening.
KOMANOFF: But they're not tooling around the heart of midtown. They have a destination to get to. They find a way and a place to park their car and they're done.
SMITH: So with cars we have a lot of cars, but on the streets for a short period of time, relatively.
KOMANOFF: Yes. Yes, exactly.
SMITH: If the city adds 2,000 more taxis, that seems like a drop in the bucket, right? Except for one thing - cabs don't park. Cabs are on the street 24 hours a day.
KOMANOFF: Every additional Yellow Cab is tantamount in its impact on traffic to having 40 additional private cars drive in from the boroughs or the suburbs to the heart of the city.
SMITH: A cab is always taking up vital road space. And this is where Komanoff can really fire up the old computer model and show us what happens when you have more cabs.
KOMANOFF: So, shall we give it a go?
SMITH: Yeah, let's do it.
SMITH: Once he puts in all the numbers - more cabs, where they are driving, their routes, et cetera, he has good news and bad news. The good news first: 2,000 extra cabs will mean that people like Taylor, stuck in rain trying to hail a cab will find that cab one minute faster. You will save 60 seconds waiting on the curb. But there is also the bad news
KOMANOFF: Travel speeds within the Manhattan CBD, the heart of the city, will go down by an average of 12 percent.
SMITH: So there will be more cabs. You can hail a cab easier, you assume. But all the cabs are going to be moving 12 percent slower.
KOMANOFF: And not just the cabs moving 12 percent slower. All the buses, all the trucks and all the private cars.
SMITH: Based on the average cab ride, that minute you saved at the curb will disappear. You'll be sitting in traffic longer. And Komanoff, with his computer program, can put a price tag on that. All that lost time, the deliveries delayed, the work you could be doing at the office, if everyone is moving 12 percent slower it could cost, he calculates, $500 million a year in lost time.
And this is the lesson that moves beyond taxis in New York. Nothing is free when it comes to city traffic. Even the tiniest changes ripple out, you just have to calculate them.
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SMITH: Taxi. Hey, can you take me over to Times Square?
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SMITH: We're going to have to wait and see if Komanoff is right, because the plan to add more licensed taxi cabs in New York City is being challenged in court. But not by people who care about congestion - by the guys who own the taxi cabs who don't want more competition.
My driver here is Usman Sidiqui and he says the calculation is easy.
USMAN SIDIQUI: Add more cabs, more traffic, less money.
SMITH: Which actually sums up the computer predictions rather nicely.
In a taxi cab turning onto 14th Street, I'm Robert Smith for the NPR Cities Project.