Whoa! Johnson calls for ‘cap’ on hail apps like Uber and a study

Jennifer got into an app-hail car outside the Soho Grand Hotel Wednesday morning. The driver declined to answer when a photographer asked which company he worked for. More people were taking app-hail rides than yellow cabs at this location by a ratio of about 3 to 1. Photos by Tequila Minsky

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA | The City Council plans to crack down on the for-hire vehicle industry, targeting app-based companies such as Uber and Lyft.

The Council is expected to vote on a package of bills next week — with Speaker Corey Johnson’s backing — that would halt the granting of new for-hire vehicle licenses for one year while the Taxi and Limousine Commission studies the impacts of the industry, for which licenses have more than tripled since 2011.

“This is the plan that we came up with and in my heart I believe it’s the best path forward,” Johnson said by e-mail. “Our goal has always been to protect drivers, bring fairness to the industry and reduce congestion.”

In addition to the halt on issuing new licenses for any non-wheelchair-accessible for-hire vehicles, other bills would create a new license for high-volume transportation services with more than 10,000 trips a day, waive the license fee for wheelchair-accessible services, lower fines on livery cabs picking up in street-hail exclusionary zones and set a minimum payment for drivers.

Uber — which supports the bulk of the proposals, though strongly opposes the license freeze — started an ad campaign on Twitter, TV and radio against the Council’s legislation. Early this week, it launched a so-called “App takeover,” which the Daily News first reported, calling on its app’s users to “Tell the City Council not to restrict your access to reliable transportation.” The company launched a hashtag campaign under #DontStrandNYC.

Like Uber, Lyft vehemently opposes what both companies call a “cap” on licenses. The legislation, as it stands, is a one-year freeze on new licenses besides wheelchair-accessible licenses.

Adrian Durbin, Lyft’s policy communications director, slammed the proposal to cap licenses as regressive.

“It would take New York back to an era where you would have to stand on a corner and hope to get a ride,” he said. “It would be particularly problematic in the outer boroughs, and for people of color who historically have had a difficult time getting rides in traditional taxis.”

Civil-rights groups rallied behind Uber and Lyft, The New York Times reported, saying that people of color have long faced difficulties hailing yellow cabs. Plus, in the outer boroughs, there are fewer yellow cabs, not enough of the new green cabs, and often inadequate public transit — gaps that companies such as Uber, Lyft and Via have filled.

Tuesday, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Council launched the Office of Inclusion within the T.L.C. to combat service refusal during the ongoing feud between the apps and the city.

Another bill in the Council’s package of Uber regulations would create a new type of T.L.C. license for companies like Uber and Lyft. As currently construed, the legislation would require companies to submit a business plan, conduct an environmental assessment and provide data to the T.L.C.

“One of the alarming things about that proposal is that it would require us to quote, unquote ‘justify the service we provide’ on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood or zip code-by-zip code basis,” Durbin said.

Though the license-freeze legislation doesn’t directly remove services, Durbin added that the high turnover rate of drivers will, in fact, cause a decrease in services, especially in the outer boroughs, since the company won’t be able to readily add new licenses during the freeze. Driver job opportunities at Lyft would also shrink during the year-long freeze, he added.

“We aren’t taking away any service that is currently being offered,” Johnson argued. “We are pausing the issuing of new licenses in an industry that has been allowed to proliferate without any appropriate check. And if anyone wants to put a new wheelchair-accessible vehicle on the road, they can do that. In fact, we encourage them to do that.”

Councilmember Margaret Chin, who is co-sponsoring the bills that would freeze new app-hail licenses and increase driver wages, said she believes the measures would address congestion issues in Manhattan.

“The time for us to take action to address congestion — while giving drivers from all sectors an opportunity to make a living — is long overdue,” Chin said by e-mail. “With roughly 2,000 new for-hire vehicles being added to the road every single month, more and more Lower Manhattan residents are forced to suffer from the traffic-safety and quality-of-life issues that stem from worsening congestion on our overburdened streets.

“By putting a temporary cap to the number of new for-hire vehicle licenses,” she said, “we as a city can push the pause button to better understand how these vehicles are utilized, level the playing field for drivers, and ensure that our streets are safe for children and seniors — all while continuing to give riders from all five boroughs the option to use their transportation method of choice.”

Roman Onikashvili, who has worked for Uber for five months, waited outside the Soho Grand Wednesday morning for about five minutes, before getting notified to pick up a fare on Grand St. “I like it, but I work really hard,” he said.

Councilmember Carlina Rivera, who co-sponsors four of the bills, said she supports congestion pricing, but that a temporary cap on for-hire vehicles is necessary to determine a more permanent solution to address Manhattan’s congestion.

“Since I entered office in January, increased traffic on our streets has been one of the biggest concerns that constituents in my district have let me know about,” Rivera said by e-mail. The added for-hire vehicles, she added, “are driving or idling on district side streets day and night, often without passengers, and they are keeping critical bus lines, like the M15 or M9, at a crawl while increasing environmental pollution as well.”

In 2015, the city tried to regulate the industry, to no avail. But in recent months, six suicides by taxi drivers — including one in front of City Hall — have added to the urgency.

A Council spokesperson said that the city cannot forget those six deaths, which he attributed to shifts in the taxi industry and the rapid growth of app-hail companies.

But Wednesday, Politico broke the news of a private conference call where Uber, Lyft and Via offered Johnson a deal: The companies would underwrite $100 million for a “hardship fund” for yellow cab drivers who have financially suffered from the decreased value of their medallions, so long as Johnson scraps the yearlong freeze from the package of bills.

Johnson declined the deal, according to Politico.

“We feel that the hardship-fund concept would actually directly address one of the key problems that policymakers seem to be trying to solve here,” Lyft spokesperson Durbin said, “which is providing relief for those individual medallion owners.”

Jennifer Fermino, the Council’s communications director, said Lyft and other companies can establish a fund without Council authority.

“We don’t negotiate in public, but we can say that we are confident the bills that will be voted [on] will help drivers, reduce congestion and bring fairness to the industry,” Fermino said in a statement. “Lyft and other high-volume for-hire vehicle companies are welcome to establish such a fund with a nonprofit and assist drivers who are experiencing serious financial difficulties. They don’t need any Council authority to do that.”

Uber spokesperson Danielle Filson and Lyft’s Durbin called for congestion pricing as a true solution to traffic problems that have been exacerbated by the for-hire cab industry. Filson said the Council should pass a resolution in support of congestion pricing that would fund the city’s subways.

“We must work together on real solutions New Yorkers agree will fix the city’s subway crisis without stranding outer-borough riders,” she said in a statement.

Nick Sifuentes, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, echoed the call for congestion pricing, saying the legislation doesn’t address the root causes of the city’s traffic problem.

Sifuentes said legislation to reduce “deadheading” — when drivers are driving around without any passengers — would be an example of a better regulatory approach than temporarily capping licenses.

“So we freeze [licenses] for a year and then what?” Sifuentes said. “Freezing the status quo isn’t going to work for anybody. The question then becomes, ‘So what?’

“If we artificially suppress the number of vehicles available or create structures that incentivize going for the wealthy areas and not the outer-borough areas, we’re going to have an equity problem,” Sifuentes said.

He added that his organization is supportive of raising pay standards for drivers and waiving license fees for fully accessible vehicles.

“At the end of the day, we’ve had congestion problems in Manhattan long before Uber and Lyft ever existed,” he said. “Have they exacerbated the problem? Yes.”

But reducing the number of Ubers, Lyfts, Vias and the rest on the streets, he added, is “taking options away from people instead of doing the thing we should be doing, which is saying to people, ‘Fine you can drive in Manhattan below 60th St. if you want to. You’re just going to pay your fair share to do that.’ And that will change human behavior,” he said, “not by taking away an option, but by fairly charging people for taking that option.”

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