By Jillian Jorgensen
The City Council voted Wednesday to stop issuing new licenses for most for-hire vehicles for a year in an effort to regulate e-hail apps like Uber, Lyft and Via, whose rapid growth has thrown the city's taxi industry into chaos.
"This is about supporting and uplifting drivers, making sure they are paid enough to support their families," Council Speaker Corey Johnson said. "Our goal has always been to protect drivers bring, fairness to the industry and do our best to reduce congestion -- or at least not add to it."
The legislative package, which also includes a bill requiring a minimum wage for drivers, cruised to victory three years after a similar push led by Mayor de Blasio and aimed at curbing congestion failed.
This time, the effort was bolstered by the vocal support of yellow and livery drivers who have seen the values of their taxi medallions, at one time worth more than $1 million, plummet in the face of competition from the apps. Six struggling drivers have died by suicide so far this year; one, Douglas Schifter, died just outside the gates to City Hall.
"There was a time in New York City when you could, as a recent immigrant to New York City, drive a cab and be able to make into the middle class, provide a better future for your family and your children," Councilman Stephen Levin (D-Brooklyn), the prime sponsor of the license legislation, said during a committee vote on it. "What we've seen over the last few years is that foothold of the American dream slip away for thousands of drivers."
Among those present to watch the vote was Richard Schifter, whose brother Douglas died outside of City Hall and, in a posting to Facebook shortly before his death, assailed politicians for not acting as the taxi medallions, which many independent drivers mortgaged their homes to afford, lost their value.
Levin's legislation puts a yearlong pause on issuing new for-hire vehicles while the Taxi & Limousine Commission studies the impact of the vehicles on the city's streets, whether their total number should ultimately be capped, and whether to regulate how often the vehicles are allowed to drive without passengers -- a practice that helps reduce wait times compared to dispatching from a base, but which increases congestion.
There are two carve-outs in the bill. New licenses can be issued for wheelchair-accessible vehicles, which are in short supply in the city. And the TLC will be able to issue new licenses if it determines parts of the city -- like those outerborough areas poorly served by yellow cabs -- are in need of more for-hire vehicles and that adding them won't "substantially contribute" to traffic.
It was neighborhoods like those that Uber, Lyft and other apps made the focus of its opposition to the legislation -- arguing that drivers who left the platform wouldn't be replaced, reducing the number of rides available and prompting drivers to flood the most profitable area: midtown Manhattan.
That, the companies had argued, would only worsen traffic in the most gridlocked part of the city, while meaning fewer vehicles available to pick up riders in parts of outerboroughs poorly served by mass transit or yellow cabs.
"The City's 12-month pause on new vehicle licenses will threaten one of the few reliable transportation options while doing nothing to fix the subways or ease congestion," Uber spokeswoman Danielle Filson said in a statement.
The company said it would take Johnson at his word that the effort isn't "intended to reduce service" and asked him to hold the TLC accountable.
"In the meantime, Uber will do whatever it takes to keep up with growing demand and we will not stop working with city and state leaders, including Speaker Johnson, to pass real solutions like comprehensive congestion pricing," Filson continued.
Having lost its effort to stop the bill, the company Wednesday pointed to the possibility of additional licenses in areas that need them as one way it would seek to maintain service levels, and said it would explore ways to ensure that drivers who weren't sing their licenses could give them to other drivers, to prevent attrition.
The Council also voted Wednesday to require the TLC to set a minimum pay level for drivers of the largest e-hail companies, like Uber and Lyft -- whose drivers work as independent contractors. Uber has noted that won't apply to black car livery drivers who work for other base dispatchers -- and who may be more tempted to work for the app-dispatched companies that will be required to have a pay floor.
The bill's sponsor, Councilman Brad Lander (D-Brooklyn) said the bill also includes a study on expanding that minimum pay floor to other livery drivers.
"I think our goal is to make it so that all drivers across all sectors of the TLC make a living wage," Lander said.
Joseph Heller, 27, who commutes from Scarsdale to Manhattan for his sales job, said the e-hail apps are a big help when he's working late -- but he saw upsides to a cap, too.
"I think one aspect is that it could lead to less traffic in the city," he said. "I'm definitely sympathetic to cab drivers who have invested a lot of time and money into their medallions."
But Milton Diaz, 33, of Sunset Park, a full-time Uber driver whose been working for the company for two years, said he had been hoping the cap would fail. A former yellow cabbie, he said he didn't want to return to "square one" -- and that Uber had been the "best thing" that had happened to the industry.
"I was sick of people being robbed and of people who didn't want to pay," he said.
But MD Sarker, 42, of Queens, who has driven a cab for six years, said the legislation would help him -- and others.
"It'll be a good thing for me. Because there's too [many] uber and only traffic and not make money. It's not bad only for taxi drivers but for everybody. Having too many doesn't work," he said.
But passenger Melissa Ramirez, 24, of Queens, a childcare worker, said Uber has been more convenient -- and allows you to determine the price before you ride, and prevents drivers from declining to pick you up based on your destination.
"I think there's another way that you can help cabs without cutting out the whole business," she said.
Emily Chan, 21, said she had mixed feelings about the council vote.
"I feel like in our generation--especially younger people, and a lot of working people--they use Uber and Lyft and ride-sharing technologies a lot more than hailing a cab," said Chan, a Briarwood resident, and St. John's student who works as a hostess at Manhattan's Public Hotel.
"But at the same time, it's a New York thing to have taxis, and in a way, you are taking a way from peoples' livelihoods and their source of income."
With Khadija Hussain, Emilie Rusco, Irene Spezzamonte, Esther Shittu and Mikey Light
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