Home Taxis Action on livery cab hails could come from Albany

Action on livery cab hails could come from Albany

by Benjamin Kabak

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.

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SpendmoreWastemore June 20, 2011 - 12:55 pm

This is some ugly politics tangling with a basic need. Leave the system as is, or officially allow radio cars to take street hails above 96th.

With disabilities, I find livery cab service service to be a lifesaver. Uptown, the drivers know the roads farr better and the Townies are kept cleaner than yellow cabs. Crucial for me is that the typical town car moves without the clanking, jostling and noise of a yellow cab (esp hybrids). I have to get horizontal every so often and it’s possible to lie down in a TC; that doesn’t work in an Escape etc. With a neureroimmune condition recovering from trips takes a few hours, a few days or if the timing is bad many weeks. I’ve had better luck w radio cars (town cars, not the ex-police cruisers) vs anything else in terms of recovery time after a trip.

Bolwerk June 20, 2011 - 2:01 pm

Quite plainly the concerns of the taxi industry, yellow or livery, should take a back seat to the needs of the city. Of course, people don’t elect Council members. The real estate, taxi, etc. industries select them for us, so this is what we’re stuck with.

But frankly, I don’t think the state should “save” us. Our City Council is plainly stupid, but Albany needs to stop deciding what’s best for us. They might be right this time, but usually they’re wrong and we suffer for it (congestion pricing? bridge tolls? MTA financing?). Bloomberg himself has seen his often thoughtful agenda set back by Albany more than once.

Eric F. June 20, 2011 - 2:22 pm

Can’t Bloomberg just order his cops and the TLC to not enforce the law in the relevant areas? Would probably have the same effect. Not that I’ve ever seen this law enforced anywhere anyway.

Bolwerk June 20, 2011 - 2:39 pm

Seems, from a practical standpoint, they don’t enforce it anyway. That might just be a side effect of their general lack of enforcement against traffic violations that don’t involve a bicycle.

If they do enforce it, they probably only enforce it in places where there are lots of yellow cabs and cops. There is little point in enforcing it in Maspeth or Bay Ridge, whether it’s illegal or not.

Alon Levy June 21, 2011 - 12:29 am

Hmmm… it could work. Hasn’t it been city government policy since Giuliani to not enforce federal immigration laws?

Bolwerk June 21, 2011 - 1:26 pm

In practice, there are too many laws on the books to enforce them all, so executive branches and police agencies always have to make some things a priority over others. That’s why NYPD is being so disingenuous about pot arrests and bike ticketing – we all know they can easily focus their attention elsewhere.

It’s certainly not the NYPD’s job to enforce federal immigration laws, and to do so is only counterproductive. Even Arizona is learning that the hard way now.

larry June 21, 2011 - 8:08 am

NYC Mayor Bloomberg is pushing this poorly thought-out plan without having had a task force in place first rather than after the fact, the cart before the horse. Also, the environmental impact of thirty thousand more taxi cabs will cause negative environmental problems like the asthma rates to increase, even if all the cabs are electric powered. The increase in traffic for non-electric vehicles will insure that. Finally, although enforcement of illegal street and airport hails has improved in the last few weeks in advance of this proposal, over the last 30 years the lack of enforcement is more indicative of the norm, and I fear will revert back once this bill is passed. This bill needs to be more thought out, and not rushed through at midnight on the final legislative session.

Bolwerk June 21, 2011 - 1:40 pm

Blech. The way to think it out is to try it on a trial basis and see how it goes. If it sucks, reverse it. A myopic task force of people who aren’t even transportation planning amateurs will just lead to the wrong decision and waste money.

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