City Rideshare Drivers Worry Over Electric-Vehicle Mandate

Mayor Eric Adams’ plan to fully convert New York City’s rideshare fleet to electric or wheelchair-accessible vehicles by 2030 has Uber and Lyft drivers concerned about the impact on their wallets and the lack of charging infrastructure in the city.

The “Green Rides Initiative” will mandate that Uber and Lyft progressively give priority to electric vehicles when dispatching rides. By 2030, these companies will have to dispatch 100 percent of their rides to EVs. The plan was unanimously approved by the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) on Oct. 18.

Supporters of the initiative say it will push the city toward its ambitious climate goals — which include an 85 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 — and help facilitate a broader EV conversion.

Cost Concerns

City officials have made repeated assurances that the Green Rides Initiative will come with no “new costs” for rideshare drivers. However, many drivers are skeptical that the city will deliver on the promise.

Bronx-based driver Herbert Harris, 54, said the transition “can’t be done without impacting drivers financially” and noted that the project will affect “thousands and thousands of drivers, myself among them. [We] are very, very worried.”

The primary challenge will be the up-front cost of buying a new electric vehicle, Harris said, noting that they are still more expensive than gas-powered vehicles. He does not think he will be able to save up the necessary funds before the first benchmark kicks in next year. In September, the average price of a new electric vehicle in the United States was $50,683, compared with $47,899 for all vehicles, according to Kelley Blue Book, though the price disparity is wider for some of the most-commonly driven vehicles for rideshare work, like the Toyota Camry and the Tesla Model 3.

“I believe in saving the environment and everything, so I’m okay with [the initiative], but I think the plan might be a little bit forced,” he said. “They are going to start taking rides from us about six months after they announced it.”

Saif Aizah, a rideshare driver, voiced similar concerns at a public hearing on Sept. 20, saying he still has $30,000 to pay off on his current vehicle.

“By the time I finish paying it, I gotta worry about buying a new electrical vehicle, which is another loan added to all the expenses and the struggle we have to go through just to make ends meet,” he said.

City officials argue that there are many options to defray the costs, including savings on gas and maintenance accrued over the lifetime of the vehicle. TLC spokesperson James Parziale also pointed out that there are state and federal incentives available to drivers who purchase electric vehicles and that they’re expected to reach price parity with gas-powered vehicles “in the coming years.” In a worst-case scenario, he said, the city could change its benchmarks for the program.

Another way to soften the financial blow for drivers would be to adjust the city’s minimum pay standard for rideshare drivers, said James Parrott, director of Economic and Fiscal Policies at the Center for New York Affairs at The New School. The standard, enacted by the City Council in 2018, is a formula that establishes a baseline rate that Uber and Lyft must pay drivers for each ride to ensure that they do not have to shoulder vehicle maintenance costs, and other expenses, by themselves.

Because it was designed with gas-powered vehicles in mind, the standard may need to be adjusted to account for the expenses associated with an electric vehicle, said Parrott, who helped design the standard in 2018.

“Electric vehicles are still more costly than vehicles with internal combustion engines or hybrids,” he said. “The expense factor [of the standard] needs to figure out how to accommodate that.”

Several council members have sponsored a resolution calling on the state to enact a surcharge on passengers to help pay for the conversion to electric and wheelchair-accessible vehicles.

“I am concerned that the mayor is pushing a rule through without proactively setting up infrastructure and incentives that support our workers,” said Council Member Amanda Farias, one of the sponsors. “As much as we want and need to use electric vehicles, we have to make sure drivers have chargers and the financial incentives they need to use them successfully.”

Charging Challenges

The Green Rides Initiative will also have to overcome a shortage of charging infrastructure in the city. Fully charging an electric vehicle’s battery can take anywhere from around 30 minutes to many hours. There are only 200 fast-charging stations in the city, primarily in Manhattan, with more than 80,000 rideshare drivers active each month. Because drivers primarily live in the outer boroughs, they frequently lack access to nearby charging stations.

Brooklyn-based driver Aleksandra Tkach said the scarcity of chargers makes it very difficult to use her electric vehicle for rideshares. Tkach is a single mother and typically free to work when her child is in school. To access a fast charger, she heads from Coney Island in Brooklyn to John F. Kennedy Airport in Queens. “I am basically not able to work [due to] all the time I am charging,” she said at the TLC hearing in September.

Upgrading the city’s charging infrastructure will require major commitments from the public and private sectors, the TLC said in a 2022 report. The TLC and the Department of Transportation are working to add curbside charging facilities around the city. Brooklyn-based ridesharing service Revel hopes to open an additional 300 publicly available charging stations by the end of next year. It will not be enough.

“We’re going to need thousands of fast chargers,” said Revel spokesperson Robert Familiar. “Ride-share drivers more than almost any other group specifically need fast charging. They can’t interrupt earning fares to charge for four to eight hours. [But] fast charging is just incredibly sparse in New York.”

Some believe that addressing the shortage will require Uber and Lyft to get involved in the charging game.

“Both companies have publicly said that they want their entire fleets to be electric by 2030,” said Patrick McClellan, the policy director for the New York League of Conservation Voters. “It’s not going to happen if they’re not helping their drivers get there, and the charging infrastructure is part of that equation.”

2030 Target: Is It Realistic?

Although electric vehicles currently represent just 3 percent of the New York City rideshare fleet, drivers and experts are cautiously optimistic that the city can achieve its goal of a 100 percent electric or wheelchair accessible rideshare fleet in seven years.

“It’s definitely aggressive, but it is doable,” McClellan said. “The challenges are addressing people’s concerns about range and reliability and being able to find a charger.”

Familiar agreed that the 2030 goal is potentially achievable.

“If all the right things happen that should happen, it can get done,” he said, adding that success will depend on “buy-in from others in this industry to see New York as the important market that it is.”

Even Harris, despite his reservations, agreed that the 2030 target is reachable. “I think they can do it. I plan to be among the people who comply,” Harris said.

About the author(s)

Peter Saalfield is a journalist and fellow at the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University.