New York City’s yellow cabs may operate and function more like their ride-hailing app competitors in the future, according to the Taxi and Limousine Commission’s strategic plan released late Friday.
The agency said it wants to roll out shared rides, variable pricing and be included in transit apps that compare taxi prices to other ride services “in the coming years.”
“TLC is excited about ways that technology and innovation can facilitate the taxi industry’s continued recovery from the impacts of the pandemic,” TLC Acting Commissioner Ryan Wanttaja wrote in a statement. “The Taxi Strategic Plan includes big ideas that will help ensure the long-term viability of the industry, and we are looking forward to working with drivers, industry members, and other stakeholders on implementing these initiatives.”
The plan includes 40 recommendations, some of which are currently underway, like the medallion debt relief program. Other ideas would change the way yellow cabs have historically operated, with plans to open the door to testing automated vehicles and exploring a future of prices that rise and fall based on demand, as opposed to a flat meter rate.
The TLC said it is committed to “supporting the Taxi industry and its future as a critical part of New York City’s transportation network,” and noted these 40 suggestions were created as “a first step to ensuring the continued viability of the industry.”
The yellow cab industry has been facing headwinds for a decade now. For-hire vehicle apps entered the city in 2012, leading to a decline in taxis.
The value of a taxi medallion was more than $1.2 million in 2014, but is now worth about $100,000. The medallions’ nosediving worth has sent owners – taxi drivers who thought the medallion was a foothold in the middle class – into financial and mental crises.
These upheavals have been further exacerbated by the pandemic, which has wiped out any fares from tourism and business sectors. The TLC’s initiatives received mixed reactions, with the drivers’ union hoping for more actions to improve workers’ livelihoods and drivers eager for any possible changes that will earn them higher wages.
Bhairavi Desai, executive director of New York Taxi Workers Alliance which represents taxi drivers, said she was glad to see that the TLC plan includes increasing the flat rates to and from the airports, as well as continuing with the medallion debt relief.
The medallion debt program, which was announced last November , followed a two-week hunger strike workers went on last year, seeking relief from the city. The strategic plan notes that the city has agreed to be the guarantor on the principle of medallion loans that are written down to “$170,000 or less, with an interest rate of 5% or less, and that are fully amortized over 20 years.”
But Desai said she was dismayed that the TLC is trying to change the way yellow cabs operate to make them function more like Uber and Lyft.
“We need to replace that economic model that’s already left Uber and Lyft drivers at sub-minimum wages and use this as an opportunity to elevate the standard so all drivers can earn more,” Desai said.
But some yellow cab drivers said they think the TLC’s plan is a positive move.
“We need something to compete with Uber, and I think this is the right step. I feel like this should help the yellow cab industry,” Al Khan said. “I’m hopeful … I don’t see the downside.”
Khan, a 29-year-old Staten Island resident, has been driving for 10 years. He said he would still like to see the city restrict more for-hire vehicles from being allowed on the streets.
The TLC’s document noted it will continue to reevaluate the number of for-hire vehicles every six months and will decide whether to issue new licenses.
While there are 13,587 taxi medallions, the document notes at the end of 2021, only 6,750 were actively picking up passengers, while the others were in storage.
Yellow cab ridership is still down from pre-pandemic levels. While there were over 250,000 taxi rides in February 2020, there were about 106,000 this February. Still, that’s an increase from January 2022, which saw just 79,000 taxi trips.
The TLC plan also calls for advocating to avoid any additional MTA congestion pricing charges. The first phase of congestion pricing, which passed the state legislature in 2019, included a $2.50 surcharge on all taxis that drive below 96th Street, which the TLC document notes is nearly every trip that isn’t an airport trip. The details of the next phase, how much drivers that enter the congestion zone below 60th Street might be charged and which vehicles would be exempted, will likely be announced later this year.
“TLC will work with industry stakeholders and governmental partners to advocate that Taxis be excluded from congestion pricing,” the plan noted.
The MTA hasn’t said if taxis will be exempt from the higher charges, which could be as much as $23 for an E-Z pass user, and $35 for others, according to details during the first round of public hearings on congestion pricing.
“Any credits, discounts or exemptions for any vehicles need to be counterbalanced by not just charges on other drivers, but also on the impact they will have on traffic flows as the primary purpose of the Central Business District Tolling Program is to reduce congestion in the central business district and raise sufficient funds to support $15 billion for the region’s subways, buses and commuter railroads,” MTA spokesperson Aaron Donovan wrote in a statement.
Still, other drivers said there are things the TLC can’t control that are still contributing to low wages and ongoing hardships for drivers, like gas prices, and the cost of leasing vehicles
“We are suffering,” MD Islam, 52, who has been driving a cab for eight years, said. “Lose money, too much lose money, that’s the problem.”