Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/2565 Tue, 20 Aug 2019 03:54:39 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) City Officials Debate What To Do About Taxi Medallion Debt Crisis https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8695-city-officials-debate-what-to-do-about-taxi-medallion-debt-crisis https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8695-city-officials-debate-what-to-do-about-taxi-medallion-debt-crisis taxi medallion drivers rally city hall

Council Members Levine & Rivera & drivers rally at City Hall (photo: Jeff Reed)


City Council Speaker Corey Johnson asked what sounded like a simple question: should the Taxi & Limousine Commission apologize for its role in the taxi medallion debt crisis, in which thousands of taxi owner-drivers have been trapped in predatory loans unchecked by city and state watchdogs?

Jeffrey Roth, nominated by Mayor Bill de Blasio to lead the TLC, failed to give a direct “yes” or “no.” Johnson asked again, to which Roth said, “whether or not the TLC leadership there should apologize, I don’t know.” Visibly frustrated, Johnson moved on to a new question.

The exchange took place at a July 18 hearing to discuss Roth’s nomination for TLC Commissioner – a nomination that has since been temporarily withdrawn in part due to Roth’s performance at the hearing.

Roth’s evasiveness on the apology questions and others, and Johnson’s resulting exasperation highlighted a growing debate over the culpability of city government in facilitating the medallion crisis. As a New York Times two-part investigation published in May revealed, the TLC ignored warning signs of a highly inflated medallion market (the city sells taxi medallions and sets baseline prices for auction) and risky lending practices, leaving many medallion owner stranded in colossal debt when the market collapsed. A wave of suicides among driver-owners, along with the Times' series, has elevated the discussion to emergency status.

But, as policymakers, drivers, and others have been asking, should the city itself be responsible for forgiving the debt? What is the best path for helping driver-owners get out from under their loans?

For the Taxi Workers Alliance, the most prominent organization representing for-hire vehicle drivers, the answer is a resounding yes: New York City government should prepare a bailout. But Mayor de Blasio has repeatedly said a bailout would be both out of the city's purview and too costly to the city's budget. On the other hand, several City Council Members, including Speaker Johnson, have expressed some initial support for the idea of a partial bailout of driver-owners.

Bhairavi Desai, the head of the union since its inception in 1998, has called for a city-run program to determine the current market value of medallions, then buying out and forgiving loans down to that value. At the height of the market in 2014, medallions were going for more than $1 million, compared to a $200,000 price tag a decade earlier.

The TWA has calculated that, based on a current medallion market value of $150,000 and an average owner-driver debt of $600,000, the program would cost between $1.6 and $2.4 billion – an increase from the $1 billion the TWA estimates that the city made from inflated prices at medallion auctions.

City Council Member Mark Levine, who represents Upper Manhattan and has long been one of the TWA’s strongest allies in government, claimed at a July 11 rally outside City Hall that a clear precedent for a city-run bailout exists.

“During the housing mortgage bubble, an entity here called the Center for New York City Neighborhoods did exactly that for New Yorkers with underwater housing mortgages,” he said alongside Desai and dozens of assembled owner-drivers. “The fact is, there is a myriad of precedents for this here in New York City, and it’s simply inexcusable to say this isn’t possible when we have done projects like this in the past.”

Levine is not alone in his support for the TWA’s proposal. Council Member Carlina Rivera of Lower Manhattan appeared at the same rally to call for loan forgiveness; City Comptroller Scott Stringer and Council Member Ritchie Torres, among others, have also expressed some measure of support for city-financed debt relief. Because bailout legislation has yet to be introduced to the City Council, it is difficult to gauge how broad the proposal’s support is.

Desai and the TWA have also called for a cap on medallion mortgage payments at $900 per month (compared to an average of $3,000 a month currently) and the creation of a retirement fund for drivers, among other things. But with chants of “Loan forgiveness now!” and pre-printed signs calling for “Debt Forgiveness NOW!” at the July 11 rally, owner-drivers have made their first priority clear.

On the other hand, de Blasio, as well as officials in the TLC, have expressed skepticism about, even dismissal of such an idea. Their preferred plan of action is for the city to instead pressure the private banking lenders to downsize loans, without the city itself directly buying or bailing out anything.

De Blasio, in a June interview on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show, said that he would “absolutely pressure banks and lenders to be fair to these drivers, we’ll do that.” But he rejected the possibility of a city bailout, saying the city “doesn’t directly fund the drivers…There’s some things the City of New York simply has limits on.” He has indicated on multiple occasions that the city simply doesn’t have the billions of dollars that would be needed for a bailout, that it would be too costly of a one-time expense.

Meera Joshi, formerly the commissioner of the TLC, listed in an email to Gotham Gazette several proposals to address the crisis, all of which involve the city leaning on banks to modify loans so that they match drivers’ income. “State and city officials should publicly name those that refuse to work with borrowers,” she suggested, “much like the 100 worst landlords list. Publicity about their inflexibility will go a long way in making a change, and will achieve change quickly.”

Two other possibilities Joshi mentioned involve conditioning medallion ownership on viable financing, thus causing “banks that do not modify loans within a prescribed period [to] lose the medallion as an asset,” and “chang[ing] state tax law to ensure that forgiven loans are not considered taxable income for individuals below a certain income level.”

When asked directly about the possibility of direct loan forgiveness by the city, Joshi stated that she supports “all real assistance, but prioritizes what can realistically happen, affects the largest group, and most of all happens quickly, which is pressuring banks to restructure loans.”

Current Acting TLC Commissioner Bill Heinzen, during a June 24 City Council oversight hearing on the crisis, expanded on this assessment, saying that “the people who have the power and money here are the banks and the credit unions that hold those loans, and they should be the ones who should be forced to write down those loans to something that is human and possible to pay.”

And Roth, responding to pointed questioning from Johnson, said that he thinks “there are measures short of financial bailout...that might be sufficient and not excessive.”

Writing in a City & State op-ed column the day after the July 11 rally, Nicole Gelinas argued that the roughly $2 billion required for a bailout of many owner-drivers would make a significant, arguably unfair dent in the city’s budget. “The city must follow only public need,” she wrote, “not the extraordinary circumstances of one industry.” Others, including Roth, have pointed out that a city-financed bailout might inadvertently reward lenders for their predatory behavior.

While she echoed some of the other ideas that have been offered for alleviating the crisis, another of Gelinas’ proposed fixes involves city- and state-level regulation, without either funding a bailout. “The city,” she wrote, “should make it much clearer whether it is giving up on the medallion system or not, guiding both lenders and borrowers on underlying value, and allowing lenders to keep an interest in the future, possibly higher value of a medallion in exchange for debt relief.”

For their part, the TWA and its Council allies have also called on the city to lean on lenders to forgive debt and ease burdens on owner-drivers. Levine noted that, if the city can successfully push lenders to downsize loans, then the pricetag the city pays for a bailout decreases and becomes more politically feasible.

But some who support a city forgiveness program worry that the focus on outside forces like credit unions makes concrete solutions harder. Council Member Brad Lander, at the June 24 oversight hearing, said he worries “that if we only focus on accountability, we will fail to come up with a real approach to relief...We must find a way to do both.”

A spokesperson for the City Council said in a brief Thursday statement to Gotham Gazette that “Speaker Johnson and the council are committed to helping drivers, and the newly appointed task force is exploring a variety of ways to help including various forms of a bailout.”

Appearing on Thursday evening’s Inside City Hall on NY1, Johnson was asked by host Errol Louis about what he thinks should be done for the medallion owners. “I think the mayor is right in one aspect,” Johnson said after disagreeing with the mayor’s claim that if a cap on new for-hire vehicle licenses had been instituted in 2015 much would have been different, while also reiterating his regret for not supporting the cap back then, “which is $17 billion for a full bailout is not realistic, and it would be inappropriate and disingenuous for me to say that’s what we can do. But there has been a proposal -- Council Members Levin and Levine and Lander have been talking about doing a partial bailout for some of the medallion owners who are under water, maybe at $100,000 or $200,000, to get them out of debt in a way where they’re not as under water. It’s something we need to look at.”

Underlying the debate over debt forgiveness is a deeper question over who, exactly, bears the blame for the crisis to begin with. Mayor de Blasio has called the crisis a “private market reality,” and the TLC released an investigation it conducted laying the responsibility on lenders and the National Credit Union Association while insisting that “TLC and the City have no regulatory oversight or control over lending practices.”

Additionally, Roth, Heinzen, and Joshi – the prospective, current, and former TLC commissioners, respectively – all pointed to the specific ways in which the TLC worked to mitigate the crisis, including loosening restrictions and reducing taxes on drivers. The cap on vehicle hailing apps such as Uber and Lyft has also been highlighted as a measure that the city took to help owner-drivers (de Blasio has repeatedly said he wishes the City Council had gone along with his 2015 push for a FHV cap, rather than stalling for several more years until its passage in 2018). 

For many, however, these measures were too little and too late. Though the city was not directly responsible for reckless lending practices that may have helped thrust owner-drivers into severe debt, Levine and others claim it still has a “moral debt” to pay for its lack of oversight. Levine charged that “the city itself was asleep as thousands of drivers entered into a world of financial hell.” 

Council Member Torres, who co-chaired the oversight hearing with Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, said that the TLC “is inclined to scapegoat everyone except itself.”

The TLC, as many debt-relief proponents have pointed out, was not just a regulator asleep at the wheel. Faced with a $3.8 billion budget deficit early in his administration, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his TLC commissioner, Matthew Daus, advertised the medallion market as a stable, “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity in order to increase city revenue. In 2011, Andrew Murstein, the former president of a prominent medallion lender, called the city his “partner,” because “they want to see prices go as high as possible.”

Debt relief, either from the city or from lenders, is not the only measure being discussed to address the medallion crisis. At the June 24 oversight hearing, four bills were proposed that would increase accountability at the TLC, with the goal of preventing future crises.

Additionally, Council Member Rodriguez, who chairs the Transportation Committee, has proposed a bill that would exempt taxi drivers from congestion pricing. The TWA held a rally on July 18 demanding that the cap on for-hire vehicles be extended, which would continue to restrain competition to the taxi industry. And, as Roth mentioned in the July 18 committee hearing, the TLC plans to set up a driver assistance unit to provide drivers with financial and mental health services.

But, as these legislative proposals’ backers have attested to, such fixes are not enough to help those already in massive debt. Regardless of who bears the blame for the crisis and who needs to pay for it, thousands of drivers remain in dire straits. “This may have taken years in the making; it cannot take years more in the fixing,” said Desai at the July 11 rally.

“Otherwise," she said, "thousands of families are going to simply break.”

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by Joey Fox, Gotham Gazette

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City Officials Debate What To Do About Taxi Medallion Debt Crisis Thu, 25 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Former City Taxi Commissioner on Regulating the App Companies and Saving the Yellows https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8521-former-city-taxi-commissioner-on-regulating-the-app-companies-and-saving-the-yellows https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8521-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.

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Former City Taxi Commissioner on Regulating the App Companies and Saving the Yellows Sun, 12 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
What's the [Data] Point? 125,323, with Former Taxi Commissioner Meera Joshi https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8507-what-s-the-data-point-125-323-with-former-taxi-commissioner-meera-joshi https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8507-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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What's the [Data] Point? 125,323, with Former Taxi Commissioner Meera Joshi Thu, 09 May 2019 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Strips Diaz Sr. of Committee After Latest Homophobic Remarks https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8283-city-council-strips-diaz-sr-of-committee-after-latest-homophobic-remarks https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8283-city-council-strips-diaz-sr-of-committee-after-latest-homophobic-remarks ruben diaz sr comm vehicles

(Photo: John McCarten/NYC Council)


In a rare move on Wednesday, the New York City Council voted to dissolve a standing committee after its chair, Council Member Ruben Diaz Sr., made homophobic remarks in a recent radio interview and repeatedly refused to apologize for them in the days after.

Diaz Sr., a Pentecostal minister with a long history of anti-LGBT positions and actions, said last week in the radio interview that the City Council is “controlled by the homosexual community," as reported by NY1. The comment drew a swift backlash from dozens of elected officials, including several openly gay members of the Council, and others demanding that he apologize. But Diaz Sr. doubled down, leading many Democrats, including City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, to call for his resignation.

On Wednesday, the Council voted 45-1 to dissolve the For-Hire Vehicles committee chaired by Diaz Sr. The committee was created at Diaz Sr.’s request last year to oversee the burgeoning ride-hailing service industry and has passed 16 bills in that time, including measures to increase wages paid to for-hire vehicle drivers. It’s jurisdiction will be transferred to the transportation committee under Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez.

At Wednesday’s vote, Council Member Chaim Deutsch, who also holds anti-LGBT views, was the sole dissenting voice, saying the Council should educate Diaz Sr. and “bring him closer than further and let him know that words are very strong.” Council Members Rodriguez, Andy King, and Fernando Cabrera (also a conservative member from the Bronx) abstained from the vote. Diaz Sr. himself was not present in the chamber.

For Johnson, who is openly gay and openly HIV positive, the vote was an emotional moment as he grappled with his own personal experiences and the hurt he said Diaz Sr.’s comments had caused to Council members and staff. Johnson has spent days apologizing for having given Diaz Sr. the benefit of the doubt and elevating him to committee chair, considering the reverend’s long history of anti-LGBT positions and actions. “I will apologize again, deeply, for making a mistake and having a blind spot to begin with in trying to give everyone a fresh start...I made a mistake. I'm sorry. I'm sorry to all the people who came before me and allowed me to be here today, and I'm sorry to gay and lesbian New Yorkers who deserve so much better,” he said.

Johnson’s comments do not necessarily tell the whole story, though, given that his ascent to the speakership included support from the Bronx Democratic Party, where Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., the Council member's son, is especially powerful, and after he had courted Diaz Sr.’s backing.

The resolution to dissolve Diaz Sr.’s committee moved swiftly through the Council. The Committee on Rules, Elections and Privileges met on Wednesday morning at a hastily convened hearing and unanimously approved the measure before it was voted on by the full Council. Separately, the Committee on Standards and Ethics is also probing Diaz Sr.’s remarks and could recommend disciplinary action ranging from censure to removal from office.

Council Members Ritchie Torres, Daniel Dromm, Carlos Menchaca, and Jimmy Van Bramer, all of whom are openly gay, took turns critiquing Diaz Sr. and commending Johnson for taking the necessary steps to hold him to account.

“This behavior is not new,” said Dromm, speaking just after Council Member Deutsch. Dromm cited his own decades-long opposition to Diaz Sr.’s homophobia and said, “I don’t think any amount of education at this point is really going to help him.”

Torres, with tears in his eyes, emphasized that Diaz Sr.’s comments were not reflective of the politics of the Bronx, which he also represents, and he said he was “naive to expect redemption” from Diaz Sr. based on his record. “Imagine if someone said the Council was controlled by a black cabal or a Jewish cabal. The Council would take action,” he added.

Diaz Sr. has announced that he is holding a rally with supporters on Thursday in the Bronx. The Council member is eligible to run for another term in the Council in 2021. One of his 2017 Democratic primary opponents, Amanda Farias, has already announced her intention to run for the seat.

Van Bramer, who spoke about struggling with suicidal thoughts as a young gay man, condemned Diaz Sr.’s “hate speech.” “Demonizing people causes real and permanent pain,” he said. “When elected officials speak with such hate, young people internalize that hate. That in and of itself is a form of violence.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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City Council Strips Diaz Sr. of Committee After Latest Homophobic Remarks Wed, 13 Feb 2019 05:00:00 +0000
New York City Shouldn’t Regulate Ride-Hailing Apps - It Should Compete With Them https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8080-new-york-city-shouldn-t-regulate-ride-hailing-apps-it-should-compete-with-them https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/8080-new-york-city-shouldn-t-regulate-ride-hailing-apps-it-should-compete-with-them mayorsoffice balkin

(photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


Smartphones are transforming transit in cities all over the world, and city governments are struggling to figure out how to best manage the change. If the world was looking to New York City’s recently enacted legislation affecting for-hire vehicle companies, then there will be disappointment given that, once again, the city’s political establishment decided to impose an outdated regulatory regime on innovative firms, making life harder for thousands of new taxi drivers while raising the price of rides for millions of New Yorkers and visitors to the city. The law, enacted this summer, caps the number of e-hail licenses in the city for a year and also enables the city to impose regulations on the type of compensation structures offered to drivers.

Who benefits? Politicians argue that it’s existing drivers who received their taxi registration before the one-year moratorium on new licenses was implemented, but if you think they’re the primary beneficiary then there’s a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you.

In reality, politicians got behind this legislation because they want to send a message to Silicon Valley, the startup community and their financiers: If you want access to the 8-plus million person New York City market, you’ll have to go through the local political class first, and that will cost you: in form of taxes, campaign contributions, lobbyists, and more.

True to form, the left and right have staked out their normal positions on this issue. For the left, it’s all about protecting the wages and rights of the less-than-10,000 existing drivers, even if that means higher costs for all New Yorkers and more obstacles for people who want to earn money by driving a car. For the right, it’s about protecting businesses and drivers from regulatory controls that will raise prices for consumers, even if that means facilitating the big business takeover of an industry that has been a source of wealth for independent individuals and small businesses in New York City for a century.

Like many issues involving new technology, we need to look beyond the left-wing or right-wing way to manage these technologies, and instead look to the “open source way.”

What do we want? Safe, convenient rides, with low prices for riders, high income for drivers, positive impacts on traffic, and data protection for everyone involved.

The best way to achieve these ends isn’t complex licensure regimes, quotas on new taxis, or putting more surveillance technologies in our cars or on our streets. Instead, New York City should do for its local cab industry the same thing successful industries do for themselves: standardize how information is formatted and exchanged between systems. This makes it possible for information from one app, like Uber, to be read, understood and interacted with by another app, like Lyft or Google Maps.

Making ride-hailing data more standardized and interoperable will have a number of benefits.

First, it aggregates supply and demand, which increases competition in the taxi market leading to lower prices for riders and more business for drivers.

Second, it gives riders and drivers more options, allowing them to use an app with the mission of benefiting New Yorkers instead of benefiting investors in giant tech corporations.

Third, it mitigates a threat many people fear: that Uber, Lyft, and other venture-backed ride-sharing apps are subsidizing their own cab rides to undermine the legacy taxi industry, and then once the legacy industry is dead, they’ll jack up prices. That strategy won’t work if New York City is committed to maintaining a system of its own.

The idea of establishing a “ride sharing” (or “e-hail”) standard isn’t new. It has been discussed and proposed by a number of people in New York City’s tech community for years, including Ben Kallos, a tech-aware City Council member who proposed it in a 2014 bill, and by Chris Whong, now the lead developer of NYC Planning Labs, who proposed it in a 2013 blog post.

Critics of this approach have claimed that the city doesn’t have the capacity to develop its own e-hailing systems, but that simply isn’t true. Generic apps similar to Lyft and Uber exist in hundreds of markets around the world. Even local cab companies in New York City have developed their own apps.

Creating an e-hailing system for New York City would likely involve a three-step process: (a) develop a “ride sharing data standards” body that would bring riders, drivers, city agencies, and app developers together to create specifications for how all taxi-hailing information should be formatted and exchanged; (b) develop and operate a basic, open source e-hail smartphone application that would use these data standards to, like any one of the dozens of ride-hailing apps available around the world, allow New Yorkers to request rides and drivers to fulfill those requests; and (c) create a city-administered server that not only processes information from the current city taxi app but also allows other ride-sharing apps to exchange their information with the server.

This approach would give Uber, Lyft, and other popular apps a choice: they can plug in to the city’s e-hail exchange server and share their rider and driver information with other apps - or go it alone and face the consequences of having less access to rider and driver information than their competitors.

This approach leverages the city’s considerable influence to produce a number of benefits:

By following established best practices from government digital service organizations and open source communities, this system could be produced quickly and inexpensively. And by open-sourcing an app and inviting other cities to use and modify the New York City code, we could join a small but growing community of cities around the world developing and sharing open source software (such as Madrid’s Consul project) that enables them to provide government services faster, better, cheaper, and in a more ethical manner.

The original meaning of “regulation” wasn’t the levying of taxes and fees to penalize innovation -- it was to “make regular” through the implementation of transparent business practices and the adoption of standard operating procedures. That is precisely what New York City should be doing, and it can do so by modelling best practice behavior that challenges Silicon Valley (and its New York-based counterparts) to produce better products, for lower prices, in more responsible ways, with more respect for the rights of their users.

Any municipality can throw rocks at Silicon Valley by imposing taxes and creating obstacles to market entry, but few have the capacity and scale to challenge Silicon Valley by creating innovative products. New York City has that ability. Let’s use it.

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Devin Balkind is a technologist and nonprofit executive who works on civic technology projects in New York City. On Twitter @DevinBalkind.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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New York City Shouldn’t Regulate Ride-Hailing Apps - It Should Compete With Them Thu, 29 Nov 2018 05:00:00 +0000
For-Hire Companies Must Make Rides Accessible to All https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7734-for-hire-companies-must-make-rides-accessible-to-all https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/7734-for-hire-companies-must-make-rides-accessible-to-all uberwav uber

(photo via Uber)


They may claim to be “doing the right thing” in their splashy campaigns, but for-hire-vehicle companies like Uber and Lyft are in New York courts right now fighting fairness -- when it comes to serving the city’s 99,000 wheelchair users.

Whether you need to get to a job interview, a doctor’s appointment, or a dinner with friends, finding reliable and affordable transportation is a daily struggle if you use a wheelchair in New York City. The subway system -- with its tiny number of functioning elevators -- remains almost wholly inaccessible. Buses creep along, and the MTA’s paratransit system, Access-A-Ride, runs notoriously late and slow. The taxi industry offers a limited number of wheelchair-accessible vans with ramps (after years of litigation), and the number does not match the need. And in any case, cabs remain heavily concentrated in Manhattan and are extremely difficult to find in the outer-borough neighborhoods where many people with disabilities live.

One might think that the giant for-hire-vehicle (FHV) industry would look to fill this urgent transportation need, but only two of the major companies -- Uber and Lyft -- even claim to offer wheelchair-accessible vehicle (WAV) service, while Via, Juno, and Gett offer none at all.

But, 70 percent of the time the WAV services offered by Uber and Lyft failed even to locate a WAV during our testing last month for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest’s report “Left Behind,” in which we requested identical WAV and “regular,” non-WAV rides for the same time periods, at common locations such as JFK and LaGuardia airports, major medical centers, and Grand Central Station. To make matters worse, in the few instances when the smartphone platform apps did locate a WAV, the estimated wait time averaged four times as long as the wait time for inaccessible vehicles.

In response to this blatant equal rights violation perpetrated throughout the city’s massive fleet of 100,000 for-hire vehicles, the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) prepared a new rule requiring FHV operators, including “e-hail” operators such as Uber and Lyft, to incorporate a minimum number of WAVs into their fleets, starting with a minimal five percent this year, and increasing to a not-that-much-larger 25% percent by 2023.

But instead of taking this opportunity to serve the public fairly, as required by law, Uber, Lyft, and Via are fighting the new provision in court, claiming that it will inflict “economic damage” on the massive industry. Even worse, the large for-hire-vehicle companies are doubling down on their discriminatory practices – they are now pushing a bill in the state Legislature that would entirely override the TLC’s authority to mandate more accessible vehicles and effectively create a separate and unequal FHV service for people with disabilities.

Accompanying the mega-companies’ profit-driven objection is the unsubstantiated argument that individual drivers will not want to operate ramp-equipped wheelchair accessible vehicles, because they are more expensive to purchase and slower to operate. These arguments ring hollow. Uber, Lyft, and other FHV dispatch corporations are expert at offering an extensive menu of bonuses and incentives to drivers to ensure that there are ample drivers and vehicles available when and where the company wants them.

For example, Uber’s website touts perks like $800 in guaranteed income for new drivers, immediate same-day sessions for new drivers to help “fast track” the TLC licensing process, and a range of vehicle rental, lease, and financing options for drivers who don’t own vehicles. Plenty of FHV drivers choose to drive large, inefficient SUVs and luxury vehicles (to the detriment of our local air quality and traffic congestion) because the company offers them incentives to do so -- and plenty would opt to drive accessible vehicles equipped with wheelchair ramps, if offered the right incentives.

If these FHV e-hail corporations want to continue operating in our city (and clogging our streets with thousands of inaccessible vehicles), they should be required to harness their enormous resources to provide equal access to the thousands of New Yorkers with disabilities who most need their services.

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Justin Wood is Director of Organizing and Strategic Research at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (@NYLPI) and author of the “Left Behind” report.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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For-Hire Companies Must Make Rides Accessible to All Sun, 17 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000