As the City Council, beholden to the interests of those who own taxi medallions, has delayed action on Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plan to expand taxi service beyond the cozy confines of Manhattan, the mayor has found an ally in Albany. In an attempt to bypass the city’s homerule and with prodding by the mayor, the Assembly and Senate are both considering a bill that would legalize street hails for livery cabs north of 96th St. and outside of Manhattan. With the legislative session set to end this week, action could come quickly.
Both The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times reported on this news late Sunday night, and the full text of the bill under consideration is available here. The move is essentially an end run around the City Council. Andrew Grossman from The Journal has more:
Lawmakers are on the verge of approving sweeping changes to New York’s taxi industry with the aim of improving cab service outside Manhattan. The changes include the creation of 30,000 permits that would allow owners to pick up passengers who hail them on the street everywhere in the city except at the airports and below West 110th Street and East 96th Street in Manhattan. Those permits would sell for $1,500, and the new cabs would likely have meters.
Currently, only yellow cabs with one of the 13,000 medallions—which sell for more than $800,000 on the open market—tacked to their hoods are allowed to pick up passengers who haven’t called ahead. But city data show that yellow taxis rarely stray beyond the airports and Manhattan south of Harlem. Everywhere else, New Yorkers looking to hire a car usually either have to call ahead or flag down a livery cab. The latter practice is illegal but common.
Since January, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been trying to change that by creating a new kind of taxi that could be hailed legally in places where pickups that are currently illegal often happen. Each new plan presented by the city has angered a different part of the taxi industry. A version of the plan similar to the one under consideration in Albany was stopped by the yellow-taxi industry’s allies in the City Council earlier this year. But the bills lawmakers could vote on early this week don’t require council approval because they deem improved taxi service in the outer boroughs a matter of “substantial state concern.”
If Albany acts on this measure, you can bet that lawsuits will follow nearly immediately. The bill itself says that the “substantial state concern” focuses around the “public health, safety and welfare of the residents of the state of New York traveling to, from and within the city of New York.” It claims that “the majority of residents and nonresidents of the city of New York do not currently have access to the necessary amount of legal, licensed taxicabs available for street hails when traveling within the city.” Despite the truth of that statement, relying on that claim for purposes of overriding home rule in regards to a matter entirely within the purview of the City of New York may be a different (legal) matter all together.
Ultimate legal challenges aside, the livery and yellow cab industries are, as The Times notes, springing into action. Yellow cab owners worry about the devaluing of their medallions. “If one livery car has a meter in it and has the right to pick up street hails, every single livery in New York City will look at that as a green light to do what they are doing illegally now, and that’s picking up our fares,” David Pollack said. “This is life and death for the yellow taxi industry.”
But it isn’t. In fact, recent news coverages has more than adequately exposed the contradictions inherent in Pollack’s hyperbole. Yellow taxi drivers often refuse to take folks to non-Manhattan destinations and rarely cruise for hails in those neighborhoods because it’s just not worth it. In fact, some in the taxi industry say outer borough fares are just three percent of their total take. These yellow cab drivers can’t complain about longer trips over bridges and through tunnels while the medallion owners complain about competition. Something has to give. (For more, check out Cap’n Transit’s recent post.)
Meanwhile, the livery owners aren’t too keen on this plan either. Fernando Mateo of the New York State Federation of Taxi Drivers summed it up: “We are in disbelief that this is what we’re winding up with. It’s better that we keep the status quo as it is. Why create change? It’s not right. I don’t understand what the mentality at City Hall really is right now.” The federation seems to be concerned that the cost of the medallion will price some livery drivers out. Those who can afford it will legally be allowed to pick up street hails while others will fall behind.
Ultimately, then, this seems to be an imperfect solution to a problem that no one is willing to tackle properly. Taxis play a vital role in urban life where people can’t afford to and don’t want to rely on personal automobiles for trips that aren’t suitable for buses or subways. People in New York City need taxis to play a role travel, and right now, medallion owners, yellow cab drivers and livery cab companies do not see their interested aligned with each other or with the 7 million of us who live outside of Manhattan or north of 96th St. This plan seems to be a solution, but it likely isn’t the solution.