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Former City Taxi Commissioner on Regulating the App Companies and Saving the Yellows


Meera Joshi taxis

Meera Joshi, right, at a rally (photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayor's Office)


Meera Joshi’s five-year tenure as the head of the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission coincided with a tumultuous time for the industry she was tasked with overseeing and regulating. Joshi, who left the de Blasio administration in March, joined the What’s The [Data] Point? podcast from Citizens Budget Commission and Gotham Gazette to discuss her tenure, the taxi industry and key steps she spearheaded to regulate it, and what’s next for app-based for-hire vehicle companies like Uber and Lyft.

The introduction and explosion of those ride-hailing apps has shaken the overall for-hire vehicle industry, disrupting the traditional taxi sector in New York City and beyond, and creating new challenges in terms of street congestion, driver working conditions, and more. In two years, the number of for-hire vehicles in New York City grew 59% and they now outnumber yellow and green taxi cabs my many thousands, having surpassed taxis in 2017, according to TLC data. As of last year, there weree 13,587 licensed yellow cabs in the city, along with 3,570 green cabs, and 107,435 app-based for-hire vehicles.

At the same time, the value of taxi cab medallions has depreciated from a peak over $1 million to $175,000, leading to financial hardship and even suicide, and questions about a government bailout.

On the podcast, Joshi discussed the challenges of regulating an emerging business model while also attending to the decline of another, as well as other issues that came up during her tenure as chair and CEO of the Taxi and Limousine Commission, a position she was appointed to in 2014 by Mayor Bill de Blasio. Joshi had served under the pior TLC commissioner and also held positions at the city’s Department of Investigation and with its police oversight body, the Civilian Complaint Review Board.

During Joshi’s five years leading the TLC, the de Blasio administration, at times working with the City Council, sought to be aggressive in response to the industry disruption posed by Uber and Lyft.

Under her and de Blasio’s leadership, the city made a failed attempt to extend some regulations to the for-hire apps in 2015, when the companies were smaller, losing a battle over placing a cap on the number of new cars that could be licensed after a high-profile battle with the companies and their supporters. The Taxi and Limousine Commission did mandate that larger app-baseds companies share trip data with the city, taking a significant step toward understanding how the emerging sector was influencing traffic and travel patterns in the city.

The city wound up getting the cap in 2018, while also creating sweeping new pay protection for for-hire drivers. New York City was the first municipality in the country to take the series of actions, leading to significant changes for both the companies, their traditional taxi competitors, and the city’s transit scene.

“In New York City, we have a good history of data-driven policy,” Joshi said on the podcast. She pointed out that taxi cabs have been tracked in great detail since 2007. The city Department of Transportation uses that information to understand traffic flow and the TLC uses it to make driver protection, licensing, and other regulations. The city’s mandate that app-based taxis share trip data followed this precedent and allows for similar data-driven policy, according to Joshi.

In what would become the final months of her tenure, New York City rolled out several new regulations that have impacted the app companies.

Last year, the City Council, with the blessing of Mayor de Blasio, voted for a one-year cap on new for-hire vehicle licenses, unless for wheelchair accessible cars, and mandated a minimum wage of $17.22 per hour for rideshare drivers. It also empowered the TLC to set minimum pay rates. These actions enabled the TLC to study the impact of ride-hail apps on the city’s congestion, among other dynamics. Uber and Lyft have opposed these legislative and regulatory actions.

The city’s recent actions have come under legal scrutiny since they were announced, but the city has prevailed when legal challenges have been filed and the cases have been closed. “This is an industry that is very litigious,” Joshi admitted.

New state congestion charges for taxis ($2.50) and rideshare vehicles ($2.75) were ruled to be legal by a New York judge in February. This month, another judge upheld the new minimum wage rates against challenges from Lyft and Juno. However, the app companies’ lawsuit against the one-year cap is still ongoing.

The new regulations are having clear effects. In April, Uber and Lyft both stopped accepting new driver applications, perhaps because of the new utilization rate structure and wage minimums, not to mention the vehicle license cap. The utilization rate structure effectively penalizes rideshare companies for having a large number of drivers on the road at the same time who are not moving passengers.

During the interview, Joshi explained that “40% of every hour the app drivers that are on the road don’t have passengers. The driver pay rules try to address that balance in a way that works off of incentives and penalties. You’re going to have to pay more if you can’t keep your drivers busy,” she said. She pointed to the April announcements from Uber and Lyft as being “great news” for existing drivers, because they are the ones most hurt by oversaturation.

Joshi also believes the move was “a good example of where regulation and the market worked together,” where “the regulation is aimed at the problem and the reaction came from the companies.” This was the main goal of the policy, according to Joshi, who said “closing the pool is what we really wanted to get at.”

On May 8, some app-based drivers in New York and other cities across the country went on strike in protest of low wages and low quality of life at work, though some in New York hailed the city’s new laws and said they were striking in solidarity with drivers elsewhere and against the companies more generally. This came just ahead of Uber’s initial public offering (IPO) of stock. The New York Taxi Workers Associations coordinated the strike in New York City.

Despite her criticisms of ridesharing apps, Joshi also recognized the benefits that the industry had for the city. She said that “this is a good service, a popular service filling a void.” According to Joshi, the boroughs outside Manhattan have seen the biggest benefit from the apps and the effect on those areas “was the concern when the cap legislation was passed.”

However, Joshi also said that TLC data has shown “that there is still continuous growth” in mobility in boroughs other than Manhattan through the apps, which she attributes to the “built-in excess in the business model.”

While Joshi oversaw these new regulations and implemented them in the face of opposition from the major companies, she has also been criticized for negative consequences that the growth of these apps, including the falling value of taxi cab medallions and wages for taxi drivers, to the increased stress and suicide rates of drivers.

When asked why she is not in favor of a bailout for taxi medallion owners, Joshi said that “the problem stems from the loan,” pointing out that taxis earn profits when they are on the road and saying that banks were irresponsible in their lending.

“So many of these taxi medallions have outsized loans attached to them because the price was inflated,” comparing the situation to the housing bubble of the late 2000s. She believes that a bailout would primarily benefit the banks who offered loans for taxi drivers to acquire the medallions, saying, “I don’t know if the individual owner is better off, because they still may owe a tremendous amount of money to the banks.”

Joshi believes that banks “are going to have to write [the loans] down anyway” and “resize them for what they’re selling for now, because they have to take the loss and they might as well keep the borrower.”

As Joshi moves on to a position at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Policy as a visiting scholar and a policy advisor at Remix, the debat eover the future of the taxi industry in New York City continues, with some of her moves hailed as major progress to help save the yellow taxis and improve the lives of drivers of those and other for-hire vehicles, while others say the city has not acted quickly or aggressively enough to help taxi medallion owners, for-hire vehicle drivers, and others.

Inarguably, New York City was the first U.S. city to effectively increase regulation of the app-based for-hire vehicle companies, despite significant opposition from the industry.

Additionally, TLC was one of the agencies responsible for implementing Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero street safety program. Fatalities involving TLC vehicles dropped 50% during Joshi’s tenure. Lastly, Joshi has been credited with overseeing an increase in wheelchair-accessible vehicle availability.

[Listen to the full conversation: What's The [Data} Point? with former Taxi Commissioner Meera Joshi]

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by Andrew Millman, Gotham Gazette

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Ben Max contributed to this story.

What's the [Data] Point? 125,323, with Former Taxi Commissioner Meera Joshi


whats the data point


What's The [Data] Point? Episode 73 -- 125,323, Meera Joshi, former chair of the city's Taxi & Limousine Commission [You can download What's The [Data] Point? wherever you get your podcasts, including on iTunes]

wtdp meera joshiMeera Joshi was appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2014 to chair the city's Taxi & Limousine Commission, which sets rules for and has oversight over the city's taxi industry, including yellow and green cabs, app-based for-hire vehicles like Uber and Lyft, and more. Joshi left city government in March and joined the podcast to reflect on her tenure at TLC, including the major challenges of dealing with declining yellow and green cab sectors and booming for-hire vehicle sector.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think: Ben Max of GG (@TweetBenMax), Maria Doulis of CBC (@MariaDoulis). Listen below or download wherever you get your podcasts!

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Council Hearing Highlights Big Gaps in City Planning Processes


hearing city hall cm rafael salamanca jr

Council Member Salamanca, center (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


A Tuesday City Council hearing about how city planning is done revealed major flaws in the process and showed significant divides between the mayoral administration and the Council over a set of bills aimed at changing relevant processes. Specifically, the legislation addresses how the outcomes of neighborhood rezonings -- where land use rules are adjusted in certain geographic areas to meet new development goals -- are projected and evaluated.

The hearing, which included racial overtones, was centered on oversight of the “City Environmental Quality Review,” known by its initials, CEQR, the city’s pre-rezoning assessment of the potential impact discretionary changes may have on the area and its residents.

Questions from members of the Council’s land use committee to representatives from the de Blasio administration brought into focus what planning and evaluation tools the city does and does not use when it pursues a major neighborhood overhaul or plans key infrastructure developments, and in measuring what impact these developments have on the communities.

A key concern expressed at the hearing was whether the Department of City Planning and the City Planning Commission are appropriately and accurately evaluating the local impact of zoning changes to inform future studies and planning. Several of the Council members present sponsor bills intended to improve the way the city evaluates the potential impact of rezonings on local transportation, schools, and residential displacement, changes that often fall along racial and economic lines.

With real estate always at a premium in New York City, the restrictions the city places on how land can be used in the five boroughs has incredibly broad effects on the character and utility of neighborhoods. Anything from the number of apartments available (and the number of affordable ones), what commerce and industry operates, the density of sidewalks and public transportation, and what city services will be accessible, can all be dramatically affected by zoning decisions.

The shifting needs of neighborhoods and the interplay of local economies throughout the metropolitan area makes development -- and, consequently, land use rule changes -- a necessary reality in New York City. But as has been the case in other periods of its history, with drastic recent changes over the last two decades, the city has had to grapple with how to grow responsibly.

City government has a lengthy process for considering and making changes to zoning restrictions, which requires that a lead city agency be designated to conduct a review of the “potential adverse environmental effects” of a rezoning proposal. Except for certain actions deemed by the lead agency to be too minor to warrant review, the study must result in an Environmental Impact Statement with proposals for mitigation strategies to avoid unfavorable outcomes.

The rezoning of Downtown Brooklyn in 2004 and of parts of Greenpoint and Williamsburg in 2006 both required Environmental Impact Statements, and were the subject of scrutiny at Tuesday’s oversight hearing.

While representatives of the Department of City Planning and the Mayor’s Office of Environmental Coordination (MOEC) spoke to the process of conducting and assessing environmental impact studies, they could not speak to the outcomes of these rezonings and whether the environmental reviews have been able to accurately predict the reality that followed.

What became painfully evident during the hearing was the fact that there is no procedure, or even an intention, to assess the accuracy of environmental impact predictions integral to the city’s consequential decisions to change the way land may be used.

The reality in those two cases is far different from what was predicted by the environmental impact statements, both Council members and administration representatives agreed. Downtown Brooklyn was rezoned largely to create opportunities for commercial development, while allowing some residential expansion; the result 15 years later is a vastly different neighborhood dominated by residential development, and a new economic landscape that has pushed out most of the community there before the rezoning, according to several of the Council members present.

While the Greenpoint-Williamsburg rezoning was intended for residential development to accommodate what was a growing need in 2006, an “explosion” of land speculation, land use variances, and illegal conversions in the years since have also displaced a large portion of residents, according to Council Member Antonio Reynoso, whose district includes parts of the neighborhood. The Environmental Impact Statement for that rezoning predicted a number of adverse impacts, including the indirect displacement of approximately 2,510 residents, and suggested mitigation strategies including the preservation and creation of additional affordable housing in the neighborhood.

The Department of City Planning has never revisited these figures or strategies. (Nevertheless, it considers Downtown Brooklyn to be a “very successful rezoning,” according to Susan Amron, general counsel at DCP, who testified on Tuesday.)

Amron told Council members at the oversight hearing that such a post-rezoning review does not fall under the agency’s purview.

“It is important to remember that environmental review is a disclosure process that applies only to discretionary decision-making, and not to the as-of-right developments that constitute nearly 80% of projects in the City,” she said. “Environmental review is also not a tool that looks backward to identify causes of current conditions...Again, it is a disclosure tool prepared at a specific moment in time, intended to aid decision-makers.”

But Council members present at the hearing could not understand why such a process wouldn’t include a retrospective assessment of whether the methodologies employed are sound and instructive, at times expressing shock and frustration.

“That answer doesn’t sit right with me,” Salamanca said. “How can the City of New York put a report out, submit it to the City Council, and then not go back and double-check to see how accurate that report was?”

Two of the bills being discussed would require city agencies to produce a comparative report on the projected and actual effects of a rezoning on transportation and school overcrowding, sponsored by Council Members Mark Gjonaj and Francisco Moya, respectively. They would further require the Department of City planning or the lead agency to make recommendations on how to amend the CEQR Technical Manual, which provides technical guidance on environmental impact studies, to “more accurately forecast such impacts in future land use actions.”

Another bill, sponsored by Moya, on the table Tuesday would require the city’s housing agency to produce a similar comparative report on residential displacement, and a fourth bill, sponsored by Reynoso, would require the city to track mitigation commitments.

At the hearing, Hilary Semel, director and general counsel of MOEC, the agency responsible for producing the CEQR Technical Manual, said that the office will soon launch an update to the manual, but has not yet determined its scope or the timeline of its release. City agencies “with expert jurisdiction over certain technical areas led the updating to those methodologies” in the past, Semel told the committee. But the manual has only been updated four times since it was first published in 1993, the most recent update in 2014, largely to accommodate changes to local, state, and federal law and policy.

In terms of tracking mitigation strategies, Semel said, OEC “is currently actively working on initiatives that will incorporate aspects of mitigation tracking. OEC will be able to apply its unique CEQR expertise, the developmental process, and the development of a public mitigation tracker.”

These initiatives, while still in the early stages of development, missed the crux of the matter for a number of the Council members present, many of whom are black and Latino and represent districts in which communities of color have been displaced or are under extreme economic pressure. Under Mayor de Blasio, a series of lower-income communities of color -- including East New York, East Harlem, Inwood, and others -- have been home to rezonings targeted at increasing housing density while providing broader public benefits. Several other proposed rezonings, in a more diverse mix of neighborhoods, are at various points in the lengthy process.

“The fact that you believe CEQR requires some changes because...everything can be improved and not speak to the gross miscalculations made by whatever formula exists in the CEQR manual, that you would come in here and say the Downtown Brooklyn rezoning was a success and that it’s something you’re proud of, is beyond me,” said an emphatic Antonio Reynoso, Council member from Williamsburg, Bushwick, and other areas who sponsors the bill to track mitigation strategies.

“You are part of the reason why 30,000 Latinos were displaced in ten years,” he continued. “You did that intentionally if you don’t think you have a problem with your manual. The manual needs to be modified so it can speak to real world problems.”

Council Member I. Daneek Miller of Queens wondered aloud about the racial make-up of the Department of City Planning. Only 28% of the department is black or Latino, according to the Department of Citywide Administrative Services, as of the 2017 fiscal year. For the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, an agency involved in mitigating displacement through affordable housing, that metric is a much higher 61%.

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by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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