Archive for Taxis

With just a few weeks to go before the rules implementing the Taxi of Tomorrow were to take effect, one of Mayor Bloomberg’s signature plans may be dead as a New York State judge ruled today that the city does not have the authority to implement such a plan. In siding with the taxi industry over the city in the battle over the Nissan NV200, Judge Shlomo Hagler summed up his view, “Simply stated, the power to contract and compel medallion owners to purchase the Nissan NV200 from Nissan for ten years does not exist in the City Charter.” Rather, Hagler opined, the City Council should set these standards.

Bloomberg, no friend of the taxi industry, had first announced the Taxi of Tomorrow competition as a way to leverage the city’s purchasing power while selecting cars that were safe and spacious. The move has come under fire in recent months though as the Nissan NV200s are not as fuel-efficient as the options available for the current fleet and aren’t handicap-accessible either. His administration will appeal, but it is unclear if our next mayor would continue the site as both Joe Lhota and Bill de Blasio have not embraced the Taxi of Tomorrow.

Meanwhile, as Ted Mann notes in The Journal, this ruling could leave the city liable to Nissan for some costs as well. As Mann writes, “The carmaker’s contract with the TLC would permit it to recoup design and production costs in the event the taxi project is cancelled by the city. Nissan estimated those costs, in a document previously filed with the court, at roughly $50 million, though some familiar with the matter have said the costs could be higher.”

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Fuel efficiency was not a criteria for the Taxi of Tomorrow. (Photo via the Taxi and Limousine Commission)

A long time ago, way back in early 2004, during the spring semester of my junior year of college, I took a class on the politics and economics of the automobile industry. In a way, I credit that class with launching my interest in public transportation as we focused extensively on the many drawbacks of an auto-centric and auto-dependent society. For my final paper, I proposed converting New York City’s taxi fleet to an all-hybrid one.

For much of the latter part of the 2000s, it seemed as though the city had embraced this idea. The Taxi & Limousine Commission had allowed hybrids to be included on the list of eligible taxi cars, and as gas prices have risen, taxi drivers have embraced the high-MPG vehicles. Not as roomy as the old Crown Victorias, these cars are nonetheless far more fuel-efficient, and drivers can take home more money at the end of the day.

Of course, the best laid plans often go astray. After a mid-decade push by the City Council to require hybrid cars, the taxi lobby sued, and on what I thought were shaky grounds, a court determined that only the federal government could impose fuel economy standards. Although the city could regulate its own taxis, the ruling stood, and hybrids become a choice rather than a requirement.

Now, that era, however, is over. When the ugly, boxy and large NV200 becomes the city’s one and only Taxi of Tomorrow, the hybrids will be phased out, replaced instead with a vehicle that gets only around 25 miles to the gallon. The look may be uniform, but the daily costs for drivers and the impact on the city’s environment will be significantly more. How did we go wrong?

In my view, this angle of the story hasn’t been covered enough. A push away from hybrids should garner more attention and outrage, but until earlier this week, the press had largely been silent. Dana Rubinstein, Capital New York’s tireless transportation writer, penned an extensively look at the death of the hybrid taxi. Her piece is well worth the full read, but I’ll excerpt:

Not only has the city’s powerful taxi lobby defeated the mayor’s hybrid-cab plan in federal court, but the city is now taking steps that will actually reduce the number of hybrids on city streets. “We were really hoping New York could be a leader,” said Johanna Dyer, an attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It’s kind of a shame that it seems like we’re falling back a little bit.”

…The idea [for the Taxi of Tomorrow] was this. The city would leverage its market power by offering one manufacturer an exclusive decade-long deal, estimated at $1 billion, to manufacture one tailor-made vehicle for New York. The vehicle would be designed to handle the wear and tear of the city’s pothole-ridden streets and offer both drivers and passengers a more comfortable ride than current cab models do.

The city whittled down the competition to three entries before settling on Nissan’s NV-200. “Fuel efficiency was not used as a specific criterion for evaluation,” noted the mayor’s press release announcing Nissan the winner. (This was the city’s effort to make clear it wasn’t violating federal law, as interpreted by the courts.)…

Green-taxi advocates, noting that a hybrid fleet would have been more fuel efficient than one made up of Taxis of Tomorrow, say that there were steps the city could have taken to incentivize hybrid ownership that would not have violated the law. Roderick Hills, an N.Y.U. Law School professor, thinks the city’s loss in federal court on emissions standards “left the City cowed by the idea of promoting hybrids in their contract with Nissan—much too much so, in my view.”

There’s a lot more to Rubinstein’s story so do click through. She talks about how Nissan could potentially deliver an electric vehicle for the city and how nearly 50 of the fleet today consists of hybrid vehicles. She focuses on San Francisco’s more successful push to make all taxis hybrid cars and the reticence the city has felt in the face of the federal court ruling.

All in all, I find it disappointing. The Taxi of Tomorrow doesn’t have much tomorrow-ness about it. It’s ugly; it’s big; it’s not fuel efficient. It is almost the taxi of yesterday when lower gas prices led to the proliferation of SUVs. It’s going to take six years for the Nissan vehicle to become the only one on the road. I’ll mourn this missed opportunity in the meantime.

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Along with higher fares, New York City taxis will soon sport new exterior markings as well.

When the Taxi & Limousine Commission approved a cab fare hike in July, the board dropped a start date for the hike in an industry notice that otherwise drew little attention. Despite a dearth of press releases or public awareness campaigns trumpeting the increases, the fare hike can go into effect tonight if cab drivers are prepared for it.

As Matt Flegenheimer explains in The Times, the TLC finally decided to announce publicly that cabs that have been repapered and recalibrated can start charging the higher rates as soon as 12:01 a.m. on Tuesday, September 4. Considering how drivers stand to benefit from the 17 percent hike — the first increase in the fare in years — I’d imagine many cabs will be sporting the proper markings as soon as possible. Flegenheimer has more:

The city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission announced late Monday that operators of yellow taxis would be allowed to put the new fares — which increase rates by about 17 percent — into effect as of 12:01 a.m. on Tuesday, once they have recalibrated their meters and updated external markings.

Operators will not be required to institute the fares until their first scheduled inspections after Sept. 30, meaning that the city’s taxi fleet will most likely include a mixture of old and new rates for the next several weeks.

“We anticipate that many taxicab operators will implement the new fare structure as of Sept. 4, so it is extremely important that taxi riders know and understand it,” David S. Yassky, the chairman of the taxi commission, said in a statement. “The taxi industry appears to be experiencing a smooth transition to the new structure, and we want passengers to experience a smooth transition as well.”

Drivers are thrilled with the increase, and they deserve it. The cost of living has gone up; the cost of gas has gone up; and, as we know, the cost of a subway ride has gone up numerous times. But cabbies haven’t seen their takehome pay go up since 2004. With a slightly lesser increase in rental fees, the drivers themselves stand to benefit.

And what of the riders? The $2.50 pick-up fee will remain the same, but a meter tick will jump from 40 cents to 50. A trip from JFK to Manhattan will cost $52 while the Newark Airport surcharge will rise to $17.50. For the benefit of taxi riders, the credit card surcharge on drivers will shift to a flat fee of $9 from its current five percent levy. The TLC believes this move will lead cabbies to be more accepting of plastic.

For now, though, we may see a few weeks of chaos and irate passengers. While subway hikes come down the pike with fanfare, public hearings and numerous signs in stations, the cab fare hike is arriving literally in the middle of the night. The only sign of the hikes comes on the industry page of the TLC website, and until September 30, it’ll be possible to pay two different fares for the same trip depending upon which cab one hails. Riders not clued into the hikes may not be too thrilled with playing New York City taxi version of Russian Roulette.

No matter how you slice or dice it though, cab fares are going up, and as cabs remain an integral part of the transportation scene in New York City, that’s hardly great news. I’m happy for the drivers who have a rough job and take home little pay, but with a subway fare hike on tap for March, getting around is just getting more expensive.

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A home rule dispute has put the green borough taxi plan in jeopardy.

A few months after issuing a temporary restraining order against the Taxi & Limousine Commission’s street hail proposal, a New York State Judge put a stop to the program entirely on Friday afternoon. Justice Arthur F. Engoron declared the law granting the Mayor the right to award 1800 street hail licenses and 2000 medallions invalid on home rule grounds, and while the monied medallion industry is claiming victory, city officials plan to appeal. For now, though, the ruling puts a serious dent into a plan to improve taxi access outside of Manhattan and the city budget as well.

The decision — a bit of a rambling 34-page opus on the history of taxis in New York — essentially boils the whole thing down to a home rule issue. Taxis are an inherently local concern, and despite the push and pull of the taxi medallion owners, the Mayor cannot bypass the City Council to get what he wants. (Read the subtleties right here.) So while the overwhelmingly vast majority of taxi rides are airport-based or start in Manhattan south of 96th St., the rest of the city is left with illegal street hails and haggling over the price.

Dana Rubinstein has some choice excerpts from the decision:

“If every cross-border transaction or out of town trip to the theater district created a substantial State interest, the borders might as well be abolished, and the State can just run everything. Occasional trips across the periphery of New York City cannot justify the State Legislature in driving a stake through the heart of home rule.”

“The contents of the subject legislation are all New York City ‘stuff,'” Engoron continued. “The new medallioned taxicabs and [borough taxis] would be picking up passengers, and almost always dropping them off, in New York City. The Mayor, the TLC, the City Council, are all components of New York City government. The new medallions and licenses would be auctioned or sold by the City, for the City’s financial benefit. The City is up to the task of regulating its own taxicabs.”

Afterwards, the various stakeholders pushing the law pledged to keep up the fight. “We are deeply disappointed by the Court’s decision, and will be filing an immediate appeal,” Michael Cardozo, a lawyer for the city, said. “We are confident that the appellate court will uphold the state law authorizing two important transportation initiatives: providing safe and reliable hail service by liveries in areas of the City rarely served by yellow taxicabs, and providing 2,000 more wheelchair-accessible yellow taxicabs for disabled passengers. The irrational fear of lost profits by medallion owners and lenders should not be permitted to derail these important programs.”

David Yassky, the Taxi and Limousine Commission, said the city will appeal the decision, but for now, the money from medallion sales and, more importantly, the taxis won’t materialize.

Not everyone though was upset with the ruling. The Greater New York Taxi Association, an industry group of very wealthy and powerful medallion owners, hilarious called the ruling “a win for democracy, due process of law and the right of New Yorkers to decide how their own city works.” It’s a win for an organization that has successfully used its influence in City Hall to stymie any effort to cut into their government-granted monopoly. Whether it is otherwise a win for proponents remains to be seen.

So negotiations will continue, and this effort may stretch beyond the Bloomberg mayoralty. Scott Stringer has voiced his support for the project, and other 2013 candidates may yet chime in. Hopefully, an agreement can be reached because this is one transportation initiative that should see the light of day.

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Come September, New Yorkers will be paying more for their cab rides, and the bulk of that increase will go toward taxi drivers. The Taxi & Limousine Commission voted to approve a fare hike today. With six in favor, two against and one abstaining, the commission members authorized what will amount to an average hike of 17 percent. Meter ticks will cost 50 cents, and the flat fare from JFK to Manhattan will climb to $52.

After the hikes, David Yassky, head of the T&LC, called the vote a victory for cabbies. “Taxi drivers have been working hard for six years with no raise,” he said. “There comes a time you need to make sure people can earn a decent living.”

Meanwhile, as I explored on Tuesday, medallion owners were not happy. “What happened today was not a package,” Michael Woloz, spokesman for the Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade, said. “It was a lopsided giveback to the drivers.” The Board, whose members will not enjoy a similar bump in the least rate paid by cab drivers, may look to sue the city, but I expect that to be a useless exercise in litigation.

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The most recent increase to the city’s taxi fare structure arrived in 2009 in the form of a 50-cent MTA surcharge, but New York City taxi fares haven’t been restructured since 2004. Cab drivers, who are fighting higher gas prices and a dollar that doesn’t go as far, have been agitating for an increase, and Taxi and Limousine Commission is poised to oblige. In a vote on Thursday, the TLC is expected to authorize a hike that will raise fares by an average of 17 percent per ride.

The details are fairly simple: The $2.50 pick-up fee will remain the same, but a meter tick will jump from 40 cents to 50. A trip from JFK to Manhattan will cost $52 while the Newark Airport surcharge will rise to $17.50. For the benefit of taxi riders, the credit card surcharge on drivers will shift to a flat fee of $9 from its current five percent levy. The TLC believes this move will lead cabbies to be more accepting of plastic.

Although the fare structure is straightforward, the back-and-forth over the proposed hike highlights the battles that impact that taxi industry. The Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade, which represents medallion owners, slammed the proposal as retaliation for their lawsuit against the Outer Borough medallion program while the New York Taxi Workers Alliance criticized the modest increase in lease fees the new fare structure will bring.

As Michael Powell eloquently wrote in today’s Times, these are the battles that shape the taxi industry. Wealthy, centralized medallion owners control the purse strings and our local politicians while drivers who make less today than they did a few years ago garner little respect from anyone. Soon, we’ll all be paying more for cabs, and no one, it seems, will be too happy.

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The green borough taxis are currently held up in litigation as the City Council and Mayor Bloomberg square off over homerule.

If we assume that increasing personal mobility without needing a car as well as the lessening of congestion should be a goal of urban policy, then taxicabs are an important part of a transit network. For those rides when buses and subways just won’t cut it, when someone has a too much stuff to tote on the train or finds themselves off the bus network, a taxi can help bridge that gap.

Lately, much to the chagrin of wealthy yellow cab medallion owners, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been trying to expand the taxi network. The yellow cab industry recognizes that 97 percent of trips originate at the city’s airports or in Manhattan south of 96th St., but the majority of New Yorkers leave beyond those boundaries. They too need the ability to hail cars on the corner instead of calling ahead and hoping for a free car. By authorizing street hails from livery cabs outside of Manhattan, Bloomberg had hoped to extend the reach of taxis.

The medallion industry though has fought back. These are folks who pay top dollar for their cabs and have seen their investments grow by leaps and bounds. Taxi drivers have little to fear from the livery cab industry, but the medallion owners — a politically powerful group with deep pockets — believe a new class of cabs would threaten their money. What, they say, will keep these new apple green cabs from picking up passengers where they shouldn’t?

With the City Council in their pocket, the medallion owners were able to stymie the mayor, but he went above their heads. A few months ago, Albany approved the street hail plan, but after the medallion owners that filed the lawsuit — one joined shockingly by Public Advocate Bill de Blasio — a judge blocked the plan late last week. Ted Mann reported on the temporary restraining order:

Supreme Court Justice Arthur Engoron sided with yellow-taxi industry groups that argued the city and the state Legislature violated the so-called home rule provision of the state constitution. That clause says the state may pass a law directly affecting the affairs of a single municipality only if that city’s legislative body has voted to allow it. After Mr. Bloomberg failed to convince the City Council to back a plan to let livery cabs accept street hails in northern Manhattan and the other boroughs—and to issue 2,000 new medallions for the existing yellow-taxi fleet—the mayor turned to the Legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to pass the bill.

The restraining order brings a sudden halt to the roll-out of new “borough taxis.” The Taxi and Limousine Commission had initially planned to begin accepting applications for the new licenses as soon as Monday, one reason for the haste of the judge’s order. The ruling also halts the planned auction of the 2,000 new yellow-taxi medallions, since the legislative deal required that they couldn’t be sold until the new borough taxis were in operation.

The judge didn’t rule on a preliminary injunction sought by the taxi plan’s opponents, saying he would rule on the substance of that motion “with all deliberate speed.” Michael Cardozo, the city’s corporation counsel, said the city would explore an appeal of the decision, and noted that the city budget depends on $1 billion in anticipated revenue from the sale of new medallions.

Justice Engoron was not too kind to the city. “This court has trouble seeing how the provision of taxi service in New York City is a matter that can be wrenched from the hands of city government, where it has resided for some 75 years, and handed over to the state,” he wrote. “Both governments are democracies, but only one is solely answerable on election day to the constituents of the five boroughs, those directly affected by the taxi service at issue here.”

What has happened here is likely a legal right. I believe Engoron has properly interpreted New York’s home rule requirements. Bloomberg’s leap over the city always seemed more than a little suspect, and Engoron believes precedence supports him. On the other hand, though, the policy is wrong. The City Council is in the pocket of the medallion owners, and New Yorkers need this street hail plan. It would change the way we get around the city.

So now, with a restraining order in place, we wait for Engoron to rule on the temporary injunction. The city cannot realize this $1 billion revenue potential quite yet, and those of us who live in areas without an ample supply of yellow cabs must make do with a wink and a nod. We need the green apple street hail cabs, but no one in the city government will rise to the occasion.

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New Yorkers could be in for a fare hike of another kind later this summer as the Taxi & Limousine Commission is gearing up to boost cab fares by around 20 percent, according to reports. The price jump would be the taxi industry’s first since 2006, and the Commission is considering the hike at the request of workers who are feeling the pinch of ever-rising gas prices and other associated costs. “The fare hasn’t changed since 2006, so it is reasonable for taxi drivers and fleet owners to put this on the table,” David Yassky, T&LC chairman, said. “We will consider their petitions over the next couple of months.”

The taxi rate increases, likely to hit this summer, a few months ahead of the next MTA fare hike, would boost the average ride from $11.82 to just over $14, and the rate to Manhattan from JFK could climb above $50. Drivers and owners, though, are at odds over one aspect of the hike. Car owners have asked for a similar 20 percent jump in the lease cap for taxis, but the drivers do not support such a hike as it would negate any increase in their take-home pay.

As an infrequent taxi rider, I’m not in love with the idea of paying more for these rides, but at the same time, cab drivers need to earn their living as well. The Taxi and Limousine Commission will host a hearing on the rate hike at the end of the month before moving forward, and it’s unclear what impact this will have on the Outer Borough street hail plan.

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While Gov. Cuomo took his sweet time signing the bill authorizing street hails of livery cabs, the Mayor’s pet project is set to go into effect now that the Taxi & Limousine Commission has approved the details. By a 7-2 vote, the commission OK’d the controversial plan even as current medallion owners raised a big stink about it. (Check out Kathleen Horan’s Twitter feed for some great comments. The WNYC reporter was all over this story.)

Even though finding a yellow cab outside of Manhattan or even north of 96th St. can be a challenge, medallion owners viewed these limited-range options as a threat to their core business model. The plan will introduce 18000 new medallions over the next few years and will generate some much-needed cash for the city as well as improving transportation options. The first 6000 will, says Transportation Nation, go on sale in June as long as a lawsuit filed by current cabbies does not succeed in putting a temporary stop to this plan.

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New York City Taxi Activity from Juan Francisco Saldarriaga on Vimeo.

Advocates for better transit in New York City focus most of their attention on issues facing buses and subways and rightly so. After all, over 7 million people per day use the buses and subways. But in terms of increased mobility and flexibility, taxis play an important but understated role in the city’s transportation network. Still, they are cars and bring with them the ups and downs of cars. How do we reconcile the two?

A few recent pieces have put the spotlight on taxis, and they each highlight how these vehicles are both integral to a successful city and could also be a problematic part of an auto-centric attitude. Eric Jaffe at The Atlantic Cities’ blog focused on the complementary nature of taxis. He highlighted recent research by Columbia professor David King who studied taxi ride frequencies. King has found asymmetrical taxi throughout the day, and Jaffe explains:

King sees an important pattern for the data points: the origins and destinations have a geographical asymmetry that suggests people are only using cabs for one leg of their daily round trip. If this were a video of people driving their own car to and from work, the morning and evening rush would be a perfect mirror. It stands to reason, then, that the other leg of the trip is taken by public transportation; after all, it’s unlikely that many people park their car somewhere then take a cab home.

In other words, writes King, New York City taxi cabs appear to work within the existing transit network, not against it:

This matters because it means that individual’s travel journeys are multi-modal. If we want to have transit oriented cities we have to plan for high quality, door-to-door services that allow spontaneous one-way travel. Yet for all of the billions of dollars we have spent of fixed-route transit and the built environment we haven’t spent any time thinking about how taxis (and related services) can help us reach our goals.
King, for one, has spent a lot of time thinking about this subject. He and colleagues Jonathan Peters and Matthew Daus of CUNY recently presented a paper on the complementary transit nature of taxi cabs at a meeting of the Transportation Research Board. In it, they argue that “taxi service is a critical aspect of a transit system.”

…There’s a good bit of common sense. Taxis enable car-less travelers to switch modes in the middle of a journey. A New Yorker can take the subway to work, walk to a bar, then cab it home, and many do just that every day. This “asymmetrical mode share,” as King and company call it, is a hallmark of transit-oriented cities — granting easy, flexible travel to no-car residents.

Jaffe wonders “why many urban transport experts ignore the idea of using cabs to expand a transit network.” The answer, I believe, can be found in a recent piece by Charles Komanoff. Using his congestion pricing model, Komanoff has determined that adding an additional 2000 yellow cab medallions could increase Manhattan traffic by a considerable amount. In fact, based on the amount of time taxis spend in Manhattan, that increase projects to an around 10 percent of current traffic levels.

Therein lies the rub. We need taxis to offer the flexibility for those who do not want to drive or cannot afford a car, but taxis also contribute to congestion which has a strong negative impact on pedestrian life, the city’s productivity and its environment. In other words, taxis — can’t live with them, can’t live without them. It’s an irreconcilable conundrum.

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