Atlantic Cities

The Politics of New York's Stalled Taxi Plan

The Politics of New York's Stalled Taxi Plan
Reuters

The yellow cab may be the transportation icon of New York City, but in truth its ubiquity is limited to the middle and lower parts of Manhattan. They rarely venture to the upper regions of the island — places like Harlem and Inwood, for instance — to say nothing of the outer four boroughs. A recent survey of pickup locations [PDF], conducted during a Tuesday evening rush hour this summer, found 92 percent of yellow cabs concentrated below 110th Street in Manhattan, which is the northern boundary of Central Park. Another 4 percent were found at the city's two major airports. That left just 4 percent of the entire fleet to service the rest of the city:

The underserved regions do have an option (besides, of course, public transit): the livery cab, which typically take the form of unmarked black sedans. Livery cabs come with a number of drawbacks. They only take cash. Their fares are negotiated rather than regulated. They cruise the streets honking incessantly at anyone on the sidewalk who looks even remotely interested traveling by some means other than on foot. And, strictly speaking, livery cabs are not even allowed to pick up passengers on the sidewalk. Legally, their rides must be arranged beforehand. This law isn't closely enforced, but because the cars aren't insured for street hails, any damages that result from an accident could be the passenger's own responsibility.

Earlier this year Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a sweeping reform of the livery cab industry. The city would issue some 30,000 permits that allow livery cabs to pick up street passengers in northern Manhattan and the outer boroughs, at a cost of around $1,500 apiece. These cars would be outfit with meters, standard rates, roof lights to indicate availability, and credit card machines. They would even get a new coat of paint — not yellow, of course — to distinguish them from other cars.

The plan seemed like a winner on all sides. City residents outside central Manhattan would now have a safe, legitimate taxi option. To offset the impact on the yellow cab industry, the city would make roughly 1,500 new medallions available, which generate upwards of $1 billion in municipal revenue. Even transit riders could applaud the plan: all street hails picked up by the new liveries would carry a 50-cent surcharge that would go toward financing public transportation. In late June both houses of the state legislature approved the plan, which needs only the governor's approval to go into effect in January.

Well summer's long gone now, and the first snows have arrived, and approval on the livery plan has yet to come. So what's the holdup? Well, take your pick. Yellow cab drivers are furious about the encroachment on their (theoretical) territory. Fleet owners are upset at a potential devaluation of their medallions, which now demand prices around $1 million. The city council is ticked that Bloomberg went over its head directly to state legislators. Even some livery cab leaders worry that the new system would hurt their industry, with drivers abandoning prearranged pickups when a street hail appears. Then there's Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has several political reasons to be silent on the plan, according to a report by New York Times in July:

Mr. Cuomo’s father, the former governor Mario M. Cuomo, serves on the board of Medallion Financial, which has a major stake in many of the city’s taxis and has opposed the bill. Medallion also has been a generous donor to Andrew Cuomo’s campaigns. Josh Vlasto, a spokesman for the governor, said previously that these relationships had “no bearing on the governor’s decision.”

Since the passage of the plan the powerful yellow cab lobby has been working overtime. According the New York Post, the taxi industry has commissioned studies concluding that medallion owners could lose 25 percent of their income, and drivers 8 percent, if the livery plan is adopted. The lobby successfully targeted one state senator who initially supported the plan but now wants to limit its impact by cutting the proposed number of livery permits from 30,000 to 10,000.

The plan is not quite dead yet. The governor has until the end of the year to approve it, and many believe a few logistical tweaks will do the trick. But time is running out, and strong opposition remains. In late September the governor was quoted as saying support for the plan was "dissipating." Last week top aides took part in a closed-door meeting dubbed the "taxi summit." It left some leaders encouraged, but produced no immediate resolution.

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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