Officials bristle at new report’s claims of ‘transit deserts’ in upstate N.Y.

Officials bristle at new report’s claims of ‘transit deserts’ in upstate N.Y.

Stephen T. Watson
Publication Year: 2017

Re-post from The Buffalo News


Large numbers of people live in “transit deserts” in Buffalo and other upstate cities, where ride-hailing services could fill gaps in the public-transit network because carless residents must walk too far or wait too long for a bus, according to a report that Uber and the state conference of the NAACP plan to unveil Monday.

They are releasing the report as ride-hailing services – more commonly known as ride-sharing services – wage a multimillion-dollar lobbying campaign to operate in upstate New York. Uber and the NAACP argue that the ban on ride-hailing holds back the economic redevelopment taking place in the downtowns of Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Albany, where businesses and residents are relocating.

But local public transit officials dispute many of the report’s claims, and cab companies point out that they serve the areas in question.

“We really vehemently deny their assertions,” said C. Douglas Hartmayer, spokesman for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority.


The document contends that census data shows tens of thousands of people across the four regions don’t have cars, and it focuses on sections of each city where it says residents must walk too far or wait too long for a bus to take them where they want to go. In Buffalo, Uber and the NAACP flag one South Buffalo neighborhood and one Broadway-Fillmore neighborhood.

“This report confirms the sad truth that inadequate public transportation options have created a barrier preventing low-income communities from enjoying the benefits of a growing economy in upstate New York,” said Hazel Dukes, president of the state conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, in a prepared statement.


But Uber drivers would not be willing to to travel to the “transit deserts” highlighted in the report, said Henry Louis Taylor, Jr.,  director of the University at Buffalo’s Center for Urban Studies.

“The whole world of Uber is really designed for the millennial class. It’s not designed for poor people,” said Taylor, whose son drives for Uber in Chicago.

And John Tomassi, president of the Upstate Transportation Association, the lobbying arm for the taxi industry, dismissed the idea of unserved “transit deserts.”

“The taxis do cover the area now,” Tomassi said. He also said Uber drivers are unlikely to drive into the communities identified in the report, whereas taxi drivers are required to pick up fares wherever they call from.

The NFTA said no transit system is set up to provide door-to-door service. Officials, though, concede buses don’t run as often to the farthest-flung suburban communities or deep into the night. But the agency defended service levels in Buffalo and challenged the report’s motivations.

“I think they’re trying to put pressure on the politicians to vote ride-sharing to the sections of our state that don’t presently have it and are trying to make the case, in our opinion unfairly, using public transportation as a wedge,” said Hartmayer, the NFTA spokesman. “And, again, I think it’s misguided and self-serving.”

The joint Uber-NAACP report is part of an aggressive campaign waged by Uber and Lfyt, its main competitor, to open the rest of the state outside New York City to ride-hailing.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has come out in favor of expanding ride-hailing into upstate and Long Island, as have the Senate and the Assembly, but all have backed slightly different approaches. It’s not clear whether the parties will reach a compromise as part of this month’s budget negotiations, or before the end of the legislative session this summer.


If Uber gained the NAACP as an ally, the company said it did not buy the support of the civil-rights organization. The association did not receive a contribution or donation in return for participating in the report, said Alix Anfang, an Uber spokeswoman.

The report cites several reasons why Buffalo needs “innovative transit alternatives,” such as ride-hailing.

First, its downtown is thriving, with more people working there, particularly on the burgeoning Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, and living there. The NFTA offers limited, infrequent service at night, the report contends.

Next, Buffalo and its suburbs cover 52 square miles, according to the report, and census data from 2014 shows 14 percent of workers didn’t have a vehicle to transport them to their jobs.

The report drills down to a house located at 83 Hilton St., near Buffalo’s Central Terminal, that it says is located at least an 8-minute walk from the closest bus stop, on Broadway.

The NFTA, however, says bus service in that area is “robust” and that a bus regularly travels on Fillmore Avenue.

In South Buffalo, Uber and the NAACP lament that buses along the No. 16 route on South Park Avenue and the No. 14 that serves Abbott Road – “Abbot” in the report – are spaced an hour apart weekday evenings and as much as 90 minutes apart on weekends.

Further, Uber and the NAACP say, ride-hailing would help cut down on drunk-driving fatalities. Asked to back up the claim, Anfang shared a study by researchers at Temple University that found a 3.6 percent to 5.6 percent decline in drunk-driving deaths after UberX, the service’s low-cost option, was introduced in California between 2009 and 2014.

Gary Bennett, senior transportation planner for Metro bus and rail for the NFTA, said the agency views ride-hailing as a complement to public transit.

Bennett said there are suburban and rural sections of the system where demand doesn’t merit the same number of bus stops, or the frequency of buses, as there are in Buffalo. But he said the report is wrong to flag Hilton Street, for example, as a “transit desert.”

“The service in that area is quite robust,” Bennett said, pointing to the No. 23 bus that serves Fillmore Avenue, though the report only looked at bus lines heading to and from downtown.

Would Uber drivers even serve the neighborhoods featured in the report?

Asked for data on where Uber calls come from, Anfang said 40 percent of calls in New York City originate from one of the four outer boroughs, and 60 percent start in Manhattan. In comparison, she said, 92 percent of taxi trips in New York City are in Manhattan.

However, Uber drivers only work at ideal times and in ideal neighborhoods, said Taylor, director of UB’s Center for Urban Studies.

He said he has a better-than-average insight into how Uber works because his son, Chad, works as a driver in Chicago to make money while he launches his hip-hop group.

“You’ve got to learn where the hotspots are, because they’re going to go only to the hotspots. And you have to learn where not to go because you don’t make much money,” Taylor said.