Archive for Taxis

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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Over the past few weeks, New York taxis have dominated the transit headlines. Gov. Andrew Cuomo finally signed the livery cab hail bill, and wheelchair-accessible taxicabs took the spotlight. Despite the high costs of such access, the new plan calls for a steep increase in the number of wheelchair-accessible taxis. Meanwhile, a federal judge decided last week that New York City had to make its taxi fleet more accessible.

For regular subway riders, this news doesn’t seem to carry a big impact. It will be easier to flag down a cab in the outer reaches of New York City that do not enjoy regular yellow cab service, but outside of the money that should come the city’s way, it’s hard to see how these happenings could impact the MTA. They do, however, have the potential to solve a problem by reforming the way Access-A-Ride does business.

According to a report in Crain’s New York, the looming changes to the Taxi & Limousine Commission’s fleet could change Access-a-Ride for the better. Jeremy Smerd has more:

A year ago, the MTA launched a pilot program with the Taxi and Limousine Commission to test the theory that, because 80% of disabled riders do not use wheelchairs, the taxi fleet could handle much of the business now outsourced to private companies at an average cost of $60 per ride.

The program allows 400 riders to use a debit card to pay for taxi service. The passenger pays $2.25—the cost of a one-way subway ride—and the state picks up the rest of the tab. The agency estimates the program will save $34 a trip and, coupled with other changes, $66.2 million next year in paratransit costs. Advocates believe more savings—and better service for riders—would result from expanding the program to the outer boroughs, especially now that as many as 18,000 cars will be allowed to pick up street hails.

Advocates approached the idea of a dedicated debit card to use with livery cars nearly three years ago. They called it the Access-a-Card. But MTA officials balked at the idea because they worried that riders would take advantage of the program and drive-up costs, said Avik Kabessa, a member of the Livery Roundtable who was part of the discussions…The city is putting in place a dispatch system next year that would allow disabled riders to call 311 to get a wheelchair accessible taxi. But it remains unclear whether the Access-a-Ride debit-card pilot program will be expanded.

If the MTA can figure out a way to contain and reduce Access-A-Ride costs, they will gain a tremendous amount of financial flexibility. It often flies below the radar, but the ADA-mandated program costs the authority a few hundred million dollars a year. It’s not a particularly efficient program either with the cost per rider far exceeding that of even the most wasteful bus lines.

As the city gears up to address issues concerning taxi accessibility, TLC officials should work with the MTA to ensure cooperation on cost-reduction measures. The opportunity is there. Now, it’s just up to someone to seize it. Those New Yorkers who rely on the subways would reap the benefits, and those who use Access-A-Ride would find a more flexible and personal system at their disposal.

Categories : Paratransit, Taxis
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The value of a yellow taxi medallion will remain strong even as new livery hails come to market. (Via Bloomberg News)

For millions of New Yorkers, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s taxi bill compromise came as a welcome relief yesterday. For those who do not live in Manhattan south of of 96th St. or in select parts of western Brooklyn and Queens, finding a yellow cab on the streets is akin to winning the New York lottery. Under the new plan, though, access for everyone will be greatly expanded, but those disabled New Yorkers who have few transit options come out ahead.

First, the official details. Per Cuomo’s press release, the governor will approve the bill on Wednesday, and the legislature will approve an amendment next term. It allows for the Taxi and Limousine Commission to issue “up to 18,000″ new medallions of “hail-accessible inter-borough livery licenses.” The city must grant $15,000 per vehicle to retrofit old cars or purchase new handicapped-accessible vehicles. The city can also sell 2000 new medallions, but all of those must go to accessible vehicles.

“By working together and finding common ground, I am pleased that we have been able to reach a deal that will extend taxi and livery service to the outer boroughs and upper Manhattan, while ensuring full access for the disabled,” Governor Cuomo said. “The bill as originally passed failed to address the needs of individuals with disabilities and did not provide any incentive for the livery industry to ensure disabled New Yorkers had full access to the taxicab system.”

Accessibility issues, long assumed to be a front for the powerful medallion and taxi-owner lobby, have indeed been concerns for a while. The current fleet of taxi cabs in New York City are simply not handicapped-accessible, and the TLC’s Taxi of Tomorrow is not either, must to the concern of many. This new bill should address some concerns.

As I reported earlier on Tuesday, the new livery medallions will be phased in over three years. Apparently, the city is set to sell them for $1500 each while subsequent owners can hawk them at market rates, thus creating an absurd situation where the government is literally giving money away. Meanwhile, the city says it can generate $1 billion revenue from the sales of the livery and yellow cab medallions, and that’s money that is sorely needed in this economy.

For the city, this measure is something of a rebuke as the City Council failed to pass such an expansion of cab service, and the Mayor who has long championed this bill did not fail to notice his victory. “Last January, in my State of the City speech, I announced that our Administration would seek to achieve a goal that had eluded the City for three decades: bringing legal taxi service to the 7 million New Yorkers who live outside Manhattan’s Central Business District,” Michale Bloomberg said. “Today, we have achieved that landmark goal – and it is a huge victory for all New Yorkers who have ever sought to hail a cab outside of Manhattan and in northern Manhattan. The new law and the agreement reached today will also generate a much-needed billion dollars in revenue for the City through the sale of 2,000 new yellow medallions, all of which will be wheelchair accessible. In fact, today’s agreement, by increasing the number of medallions sold by 500, will provide even more revenue for the City than the original bill passed in June.”

Despite the mayor’s pronouncements, by going over the head of the City Council, the mayor sacrificed some elements of New York City homerule. The state now must approve a Disabled Accessibility Plan that will “through the gradual phase-in of accessible vehicles to the fleet.” Without such approval, the state can withhold 1600 new yellow cab medallions — or the equivalent of nearly another $1 billion in city revenue. Meanwhile, current fleet owners, somehow alleging a reduction in the value of their medallions, may try to challenge this new law, but city officials do not expect that challenge to succeed. This new bill is not a government taking, and current yellow cabs don’t serve the areas targeted by this new bill.

So the winners here are the vast majority of New York City residents who live where those yellow cabs will not go. Even as transit service is cut back through reductions in payroll tax revenue, the city’s taxi network is expanding, and that should allow some more New Yorkers to give up their auto-centric lives. After three decades, this new bill legitimizes and expands a practice that has been ongoing, and New York’s transportation policy should be better off for it. It’s now only a matter of time before green, hailable livery cabs start competing with the city’s extensive fleet of yellow cabs for the hearts of New Yorkers.

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After much political wrangling, a move to bypass the City Council and some arm-twisting by the Governor, Andrew Cuomo has signed the bill that will allow livery cabs to accept street hails. Billed as a measure that will improve Outer Borough taxi service, the new plan could help the city realize as much as $1 billion in increased revenue and will improve accessibility options as well.

Details are still emerging from Albany, but right now, we know that what the contours of the final compromise will be. The new bill approves the issuance of 2000 new yellow cab medallions, all of which much be wheelchair-accessible and 18,000 livery street-hail permits. Of those, 3600 will be for wheelchair-accessible vehicles. These street-hail permits will sell initially for $1500 each, and then purchasers can sell them for market value. To improve accessibility — a major sticking point for the Governor — the city will spend $54 million on taxi subsidies and must submit to Albany a long-term plan for accessibility in order to release 1600 of the new 2000 yellow cab medallions.

I’ll have more as this story develops, but it seems that, at the last minute, New Yorkers finally gained something related to transportation from the governor. Over the next three years, as these 18000 medallions are phased in, no longer will residents in cab-starved neighborhoods have to search for street transportation in vain. This measure will change the way we get around.

Categories : Asides, Taxis
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In a week or so, the ambitious plan to improve transportation options for New Yorkers who live north of 96th St. and outside of Manhattan will expire as it awaits Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature. The bill, finally presented the governor earlier this week, has been subjected to a tremendous amount of back-and-forth. Even though it has the support of the state Assembly and Senate, the governor has found ways to criticize it.

As Kathleen Horan summarized for WNYC, the hangup seems to concern accessibility issues. Cuomo claims that stakeholders want more licenses for cabs that are wheelchair-accessible while also noting that no one will buy these expensive vehicles. In reality, the medallion owners are using their lobbying influence to sway the vote.

Horan explains:

Following the summit, Cuomo said “even though government comes with the best of intentions, to redesign a system, there can be unanticipated consequences.” He said one of the main sticking points in the plan to allow livery cars to accept street hails is wheelchair accessibility — and if anyone would purchase accessible permits since the vehicles are more expensive.

“The industry says that nobody is going to buy those permits because it’s not economically feasible. They can’t afford to buy the cars given the revenue. That’s a big hole in the current plan,” Cuomo explained.

He added another key issue to be worked out is how the plan would be enforced. The governor has until next week to veto or sign before the bill before it expires. If he does sign, it’ll likely to be contingent on significant changes to the bill happening through a chapter amendment.

By and large, these are red herrings designed to obscure the fact that medallion owners — and not taxi drivers or residents — are fighting against the bill. They have something to lose while the rest of us have something to gain. The Times urged Cuomo to sign off on the measure yesterday, and I could not agree more.

In other taxi news, check out this great story on what it takes to test drive a taxi. In the heart of Arizona, Nissan engineered have rigged up a course that approximates the bumps, bruises and potholes of New York’s suffering city streets. The Taxi of Tomorrow must be built to withstand the streets of today.

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Just in case robbing the MTA wasn’t enough, Gov. Andrew “I am the government” Cuomo this week essentially torpedoed the city’s plan to expand cab service outside of Manhattan. Despite gaining approval in the State Senate and Assembly, the Mayor Bloomberg-backed plan to allow street hails of livery cabs north of 96th St. and outside of Manhattan has languished on Cuomo’s desk as medallion owners have spuriously claimed the measure would threatened their investments. Claiming that numerous issue are in the way, Cuomo threatened to veto the measure this week.

The backroom details are a bit hazy. The bill is to be presented today to Cuomo for the first time despite a summer approval in Albany, and a compromise plan to sell 2000 medallions that would generate $1 billion for the city has fallent apart. No news outlet, however, has explained the deal fell apart, and sources in Albany have been awfully quiet on the matter. Instead, the original bill be passed to Cuomo for action, and the governor is likely to say no.

If Cuomo does torpedo this effort, Bloomberg said he will try again next year, and supporters are on board with that plan. As Juan Gonzalez of The Daily News wrote this week, Cuomo’s inaction is inexplicable as this is essentially an issue that concerns securing better transportation options for underserved and less wealthy neighborhoods than those that are south of 96th St. in Manhattan. This time, Cuomo will cost the city $1 billion in revenue and more comprehensive cab service.

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Since earlier this summer when the state legislature passed a bill that would expand livery cab service outside of Manhattan, the measure has gone nowhere. Lawmakers have not sent the bill to Gov. Andrew Cuomo for his approval, and the Governor hasn’t done much to move the legislation along. Now, in an attempt to end Albany gridlock, Cuomo is going to host a summit featuring the various stakeholders in this battle with the aim of finding a compromise suitable to everyone.

According to a brief item in The Post, “representatives from the livery-car industry, yellow-cab owners, disability advocates, borough politicians and the Mayor’s Office” will attend the meeting next week, but it’s unclear exactly what sort of compromise will be reached. Taxi medallion owners have pressured state representatives to stall the bill in the hopes of protecting their investments while New Yorkers who reside north of 96th St. or outside of Manhattan see powerful special interests fighting for nothing. Yellow cab drivers don’t cruise these areas and would lose little business from an expansion of the livery cab system.

Convening a meeting is a clear step in the right direction toward a resolution, but I’m wary of one that will feature yellow cab owners and no drivers. These are powerful and rich interests after all. Still, if this meeting moves the bill closer to Cuomo’s desk, the city will be better off for it. Now about that transit lockbox…

Categories : Asides, Taxis
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Whenever I’m driving somewhere and I’m in the car by myself, I like to turn up on the volume on the music I’ve taken with me for the ride. Maybe I’ll sing along; maybe I’ll just enjoy the background music. No matter what, though, it’s a time for me to control the soundtrack to my ride.

At all other times, though, we don’t want to hear any extraneous sounds during our commutes. For example, few things annoy commuters more than tinny music trickling through leaky headphones, and subway riders have had a very strident reaction toward the MTA’s ongoing attempts to bring cell service to its underground stations. In fact, in a recent poll, the Straphangers Campaign found that over 43 percent of respondents thought that allowing cell reception under was a bad idea. Elsewhere, we grow weary of the pre-recorded announcements that provide a noisy intrusion into a commute we want to be our own.

Driving these sympathies are feelings of self. We ride the subway with everyone else, but we want our commutes to be our own. We want to set the pace, the space, the time, the sounds, and this onslaught of other voices — from MTA warnings to cell conversations to music — grows annoying. Just as bad as the subways are taxis. Once upon a time, a variety of public figures from Elmo to Joe Torre told us to buckle our seat belts, and today, interactive TVs complete with ads and talking heads bombard us with sounds.

This weekend, when I got into a cab to head from the subway to Chelsea Piers amidst a strange bout of winter weather in late October, the TV started playing, and it would not stop. Five ads rolled before Brian Williams started yammering about NBC News. With the cabbie’s radio on, albeit at a respectful volume, the TV was just too much, and we scrambled to press the mute button. Now, though, we will soon gain a respite from the taxi noises.

As Christine Haughney reports in The Times today, quieter TVs are coming to a taxi near you. She reports:

The two major software providers of Taxi TV technology, Creative Mobile Technologies and VeriFone Media, have taken several steps designed for a quieter ride. In some taxis, the default volume has been lowered, and the volume button has been relocated; passengers will also get a quick tutorial on how to lower the volume or mute it altogether. And now, for the first time, passengers can even silence the introduction video that plays before the regular Taxi TV programming begins.

For many passengers, the changes are long overdue: in a recent survey of 22,000 riders, 31 percent said the televisions were the worst element of the ride. Cabbies also welcomed the changes, even if they cannot hit the mute button themselves.

“All day we hear it, same thing all day,” said Ghayyur Abbas, 34, a taxi driver who on a recent night blared Rihanna at an even higher volume to block out jokes that the comedian Jimmy Kimmel was making on Taxi TV. Mr. Abbas said he dreaded the coming weeks, when Taxi TV would start running a chorus of holiday-themed jingles: “Halloween is coming. Then it’s going to start. Then Christmas.”

So far, says Haughney, approximately half of the city’s taxis are now quieter with more changes on the horizon. “We’ve had to balance the interests of the advertisers and the passengers and the drivers,” Jesse Davis, head of a company that has outfit 6600 taxis, said. “The advertiser or content provider wants the sound as loud as possible. The drivers, for the most part, would rather not hear it.”

One of Davis’ co-workers from Creative Mobile Technologies noted that fewer customers were muting the quieter TVs, but drivers still find the volume intrusively, repetitive and annoying. So do I, and the mute button is the first thing I find after telling the driver where I’m going.

New York is known for its noise. Horns blare; trains rumble by. We want quiet as we ride. We want to control the volume. We want to pick the music. Maybe one day, we will, but for now, a quieter taxi ride is a step in the right direction. If only we could do away with those TVs for good though.

Categories : Taxis
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Taxi medallions — a better investment than gold or a house over the past 30 years — reached a new milestone this week. As Michael Grynbaum reported yesterday, two medallions sold for $1 million. With so few medallion-owners willing to sell, corporate buyers jump at the chance to get their hands on this precious commodity. “It’s a lot of money, and it is an investment that someone would not make without being confident in the industry and the future of the city,” David S. Yassky, head of the Taxi and Limousine Commission, said.

While the $1 million mark provides a nice round number and a bit of news for the transit media, the sale underscores the absurdity of the taxi industry. By artificially limiting the number of medallions available, the City of New York has ensured that only potential buyers with deep pockets can buy medallions, and the city has ensured that cabs will operate in profitable areas without providing comprehensive service. No wonder the rich medallion owners have mobilized to beat back the taxi reform bill currently awaiting Gov. Cuomo’s signature.

Even if and when Albany hammers out a compromise on the plan to allow livery street hails outside of Manhattan’s Central Business District, with proper enforcement the medallion owners will not see their investments decline. Yellow cabs — the only cars permitted to pick up street hails in the lucrative areas — will continue to dominate the business while the rest of us who need taxis but can’t find them will have more options available for travel. Albany is beholden to the $1 million medallion owners when it’s the riders whose needs should come first.

Categories : Asides, Taxis
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An NYC taxi medallion has been a better investment than gold or a house since 1980. (Via Bloomberg News)

Getting stuck in Albany is no one’s idea of a good time. It’s even worse when the thing stuck is not a person but rather a bill designed to improve transportation options in New York City, but that’s exactly what’s happened with the Mayor’s plan to expand livery cab access outside of the core area of Manhattan.

The plan, as we know it, is not without controversy. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has made it a goal to improve taxi access for everyone who wants to travel from one point outside of Manhattan to, well, everywhere. With 97 percent of yellow cab rides originated within Manhattan south of 96th St. or at an airport, millions of New Yorkers are left searching for cabs in vain. In April, Bloomberg proposed a plan to legitimize street hails for livery cabs. By granting 30,000 limited medallions to livery cabs, Bloomberg’s plan would allow these cabbies to pick up passengers anywhere in the city but in Manhattan south of 96th Street. It would raise $1 billion for the city — a key point — and provide increased transportation access.

But the best laid plans often run into politicians beholden to powerful lobbyist groups, and the City Council, under the influence of medallion owners, was destined not to pass the bill. Bloomberg went to Albany, and while the Assembly and Senate approved the bill, they have reportedly yet to present it to Gov. Andrew Cuomo for his signatured. Residents want to see the changes, but fleet owners have been looking to kill the bill since mid-July. After all, if a taxi medallion is a better long-term investment than gold, why would these medallion owners — who generally are not the drivers — want to risk competition even if the 30,000 new medallions would go to drivers who wouldn’t compete with the yellow cabs?

The bill’s opponents have mounted some rather convoluted offenses as well. Take, for instance, this letter from Public Advocate Bill De Blasio. As Public Advocate, De Blasio is supposed to advocate for the people of New York City, but it appears as though he’s trying to shore up support from powerful and wealthy medallion owners as he eyes as the 2013 mayor race. He says:

This plan likewise threatens the livelihood of livery cab base owners and drivers. For decades, livery cab companies have offered reliable and legitimate pre-arranged cab service throughout the five boroughs of New York City. However, the current taxi plan will place substantial barriers in front of those providing legal, prearranged car services. If the Mayor’s plan becomes law, the existence of newly-permitted livery cabs capable of picking up street fares will no doubt significantly decrease the demand for prearranged car service. This plan will also likely increase the incentive for non-permitted livery drivers to pick up street hails illegally.

Apparently, De Blasio seems convinced that limo companies that guarantee pick-up service will find their customers waiting endlessly as drivers get needlessly distracted by street hails instead. I’m not entirely positive how one draws that conclusion from a plan that would allow street hails; it seems anathema to the workings of the car service market which relies upon good service and good word-of-mouth to gain popularity. But De Blasio’s words suggest exactly who is opposing the taxi measure.

As recently as ten days ago, it appeared as though the bill would die a death at the hands of powerful interest groups who have been lobbying Albany for months. Yet, the allure of the dollar is a strong one indeed, and Gov. Cuomo is pushing Bloomberg and the bill’s opponents toward a compromise. If the city could indeed realize $1 billion from the sale of new medallions, it is better to find a solution to the impasse than forego easy money in tight times. “When you can find revenue without raising taxes, grab it,” Cuomo said last week.

For now, we can glimpse the basic contours of a potential resolution. Facing criticism by U.S. Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who has championed the rights of the disabled, the old bill will give way to one with more protections for riders and yellow cabs. One Assembly representative — Micah Kellner — wants to sell 1500 new yellow medallions for handicapped accessible cabs in addition to 6000 new “outer borough” medallions. Of those, 1200 would have to be handicapped accessible. State Senator Martin Golden wants to cut the number of new medallions down from 30,000 to just 10,000 to placate the yellow cab industry.

And that’s where things are now. Powerful interests are fighting against a plan that would help millions of New Yorkers who would benefit from increased access to street hails. The resolution will drag on through the fall, but I’m optimistic that something positive will emerge. The bill and the debate, both nearly dead ten days ago, live on.

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