New York City’s iconic but imperiled yellow cab industry may be getting help from lawmakers who want to pump the brakes on fast-expanding ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft.
In what would be a first-in-the-nation step if passed, the City Council on Wednesday is set to vote on proposals that would cap new licenses for car service drivers for one year while officials study the massive changes rippling through the taxi industry.
Other proposals would set minimum pay levels for all drivers and minimum fares, which are now regulated for traditional cabs but not their multitudes of new competitors.
The legislation is a reaction to stories of financial hardship told by drivers, who complain that there are so many Uber cars on the road now that it is getting hard for anyone to make a decent living.
“There has to be a pause button that’s going to give people some breathing room,” said Bhairavi Desai, of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance.
City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said lawmakers aren’t against the ride-hailing newcomers. “We think they’ve actually filled a need,” he said. But he said better regulation is needed.
For generations, taxi drivers in New York were protected by rules restricting competition. Around 13,500 yellow cabs had the special licenses, called medallions, needed to pick up passengers on the street. Several thousand more drivers worked for black car companies that dispatched vehicles by phone, mostly in the outer boroughs of Bronx, Queens, Staten Island and Brooklyn, where yellow cabs generally wouldn’t travel.
That system was smashed when the city began allowing passengers to use smartphone apps to hail cars almost anywhere.
The change kicked off a dizzying increase in the number of car service drivers from about 65,000 in 2015 to 100,000 now.
One unforeseen development has been plunging value of the traditional taxi medallions. As recently as four years ago, they were changing hands at prices reaching $1 million. They were considered such a ticket to guaranteed income, banks allowed owners to borrow huge sums against them for home mortgages or school loans.
Now, many of those loans are coming due. Drivers no longer have the income to pay them off. And with medallions now trading at $200,000 or less, owners don’t have the collateral to refinance.
Driver Lal Singh said he owes $312,000 on a medallion he thought would be his ticket to middle class comfort. But he can’t sell at a price high enough to cover his debt. So at age 62, he’s still driving 14-hour shifts, despite having high blood pressure and diabetes, with every penny going to pay off his debt.
“Everybody say, ‘This is my retirement. Some income will come in from the medallion. We will survive,'” he said. “But now we have no hope and I don’t see any place, which direction I should go.”
Six drivers have taken their own lives in the last year, including one who shot himself in his car in front of City Hall after railing against politicians and Uber in a newsletter column.
“I will not be a slave working for chump change,” Douglas Shifter wrote. “I would rather be dead.”
Drivers previously pushed for a cap on new competition in 2015, but were beaten back by ride-hailing companies. The same companies are now pushing back on the new proposals, saying they would prevent them from replacing drivers who quit and lead to reduced service.
“We’re really concerned about the process and the speed with which the council is trying to ram this through,” said Joseph Okpaku, vice president of public policy at Lyft.
Uber spokesman Josh Gold said a cap on new licenses would reverse the progress made extending service to neighborhoods poorly served by traditional taxis.
That argument has gotten support from some civil rights activists like the Rev. Al Sharpton, who have long criticized the yellow cab industry for discrimination and profiling of minorities.
“They’re talking about putting a cap on Uber, do you know how difficult it is for black people to get a yellow cab in New York City?” Sharpton wrote on Twitter.
The level of upheaval in the industry hasn’t been seen on this scale since the first half of the 20th century, when the medallion system was put in place to deal with issues of competition, said Graham Hodges, a professor at Colgate University.
Flaws in that system, like racial profiling and inadequate demand, “made it easy for Uber, Lyft and the others to come in, say, ‘We’re going to provide a much better service,'” he said.
“That doesn’t mean those flaws couldn’t be remedied without destroying the system,” he said.
The debate on car seats for taxis and ride-sharing services
Like many parents in New York, Caroline Hwang doesn’t use a car seat when traveling with her son in a taxi.
“It’s a calculated risk, because you’re not going very fast and the chances of you being in a serious high-speed collision are pretty low,” she said.
Research from Virginia Tech University finds New York is among 35 states where cabs are exempt from laws that require young children to travel in a car seat. Except for Georgia, it’s not clear if ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft are also exempt. In the other 15 states, children must have a car seat in all for-hire vehicles.
“There’s a lot of confusion that parents experience when they want to carry their children using rideshare services. The laws across the nation are inconsistent from state to state,” said Justin Owens with the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.
Owens says in many states that require car seats, it’s not clear if the parent or driver needs to provide them.
“State legislatures really need to work on catching up the laws and regulations.”
In New York City, Uber will have a driver like Rafael Serrano provide a forward-facing car seat for an extra $10. Lyft has a similar program, but also, only in New York City.
“It’s super safe and reliable, so I’d rather have the kids safe than sorry you know,” Serrano said.
Uber and Lyft both tell us that drivers and riders in the rest of the country need to follow all local laws and drivers can turn down riders who do not provide a proper child safety seat.
Voting Today Can Get You A Bunch Of Free Stuff
Today is election day in the US and with comes not only an opportunity to exercise your civic responsibility, right and privilege, but also to get a bunch of free food and services. Although ideally people would vote even if they didn’t get a free side of fries in return, it’s good that people are going to get to the polls somehow.
Uber and Lyft are both offering discounts today, taking their political rivalry to the next level. Uber, you may remember, has been boycotted after showing inadvertent support for Trump.
The company declined to participate in a work stoppage that New York taxi drivers were engaged in to protest Trumps travel ban. Lyft became the service of choice for many people after the #deleteuber movement took hold. Now, both companies are offering deals on rides to the polls.
Uber’s is a discount only for first-time users if they put in a special election day code and Lyft is giving across the board 50% discounts for those going to vote.
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