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Is it possible that New York isn’t really as great as it thinks it is?
A new study conducted jointly by two progressive groups found that New York City — our New York City, the city with the highest percentage of residents who don’t own a car — is falling behind on “car-free tech.”
In a report titled “The Innovative Transportation Index: The Cities Where New Technologies and Tools Can Reduce Your Need to Own a Car,” the Frontier Group, a think tank, and consumer advocates at the U.S Public Interest Research Group list eleven types of new transportation technologies that are making it easier for people to live without cars: things like cab-hailing apps, online bus schedules, and bike-sharing stations. The groups then rate which cities have the most of those technologies available.
Austin, Texas, is number one on the list, with all nineteen of the technologies available in the city. New York, Boston, and Los Angeles are tied for number four.
Come on. New York must be an easier place to live without a car than Austin, right? And worse, New Yorkers know that few things are more insulting than being considered equally innovative as…Boston and L.A.
“It certainly isn’t the case that this is ranking how easy it is to get around without a car — if it was, Austin would be nowhere near New York City,” says U.S. PIRG’s transportation director, Phineas Baxandall. “It’s about the importance of these tools in making it easier for people to not own a car.”
Among the tools Austin has that we don’t? An easy taxi-hailing app and online ticketing options that let passengers pay for public transit with their smartphones.
“In Austin, these tools are needed,” says Baxandall, “because [public transit] systems are woefully insufficient.”
But while Baxandall cops to Austin’s imperfections, the study also falls into a common trap in tech-land: equating what’s new with what’s good.
One of the technologies listed is “ridesourcing” apps like Uber and Lyft (both of which call New York City home).
Austin also saw Uber and Lyft move in despite being deemed illegal by the city. Meanwhile, the number two city, San Francisco, made headlines when Uber commissioned an array of boat drivers to act as floating scabs in 2013 when the city’s Bay Area Rapid Transit workers planned a strike for better working conditions.
That strike was called off at the last minute, but the reaction to the threat made a case for better public transportation services, rather than better apps.
“A proliferation of private services means fewer customers using public ones — and, in turn, less public investment in those systems,” Oakland journalist Susie Cagle wrote, weeks before the potential strike, about the ridesharing and private shuttles that dominate the region’s landscape. “Tech begets more tech. Uber, Lyft, Sidecar, and other transportation disruptors would not have gotten a foothold here were it not for a pervasive private car culture and limited rail and bus systems.”
In other words, would cities fighting to go car-free be better served by improving their public transit, rather than undercutting it with private options and shiny new apps?
Baxandall doesn’t see it that way. “These things are complements for each other,” he says.
And while New York’s transit system is excellent, he says, it’s would not be immune to the benefits of a tech boost, either. “New York is obviously special, but it still has its own versions of what transit people call the ‘last mile problem.’ [Transit] can get you to one place, but there’s still another half-mile walk. Having something else that can get you that portion…extends the reach of transit.”
While skeptics may give the study some side-eye, it does admit New York’s innate superiority about at least one thing: We’re unparalleled in America for our walkability and good public transit. New York’s “Transit” and “Walk” scores were the highest on the study, at 81 and 88 out of 100, respectively.
So does the greatest city in the world really have to fear falling behind Austin, Texas? Pfft. Fat chance.