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.