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Ride-Hailing Cap & L Train Shutdown Will Turn North Brooklyn Into A 'Transit Desert,' Business Owners Fear

Traffic crosses the Williamsburg bridge in New York from Brooklyn into Manhattan on a typical morning.
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Traffic crosses the Williamsburg bridge in New York from Brooklyn into Manhattan on a typical morning. Mary Altaffer / AP / Shutterstock

Residents and business leaders are starting to digest what a raft of City Council bills to reign in the app-based ride hailing industry could mean for Williamsburg, and some of them are not liking it.

"Because our city has a robust network of transit, ridershare, bikeshare, ferries and more we were hopeful that we could adapt. But if the city council institutes this cap and reduction on rideshare, that possibility disappears," Elaine Brodsky, Chair of the North Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce said. "Overnight, North Brooklyn will become a transit desert."

The city council is looking at several bills to regulate the for-hire vehicle industry that would make New York the first large American city to crack down on ride-hailing apps.

The most controversial of the bills was introduced in January by council member Stephen Levin, who represents Greenpoint and Williamsburg. His bill would stop the Taxi and Limousine Commission from issuing new licenses to for-hire vehicles for a year while the agency studies the industry. In April council member Brad Lander put forward a bill that would set a minimum wage for app-based drivers and a minimum fare.

Brodsky spoke at a press conference of business leaders held at Brooklyn Bowl Thursday morning. The speakers insisted they organized the press conference themselves out of business concerns, and other then a representative for the group Tech: NYC, which does work with Uber and Via, none of the other organizations receive money from any of the ride-hailing app companies. The press release for the event came from the same PR firm that represents Lyft.

Sharing the dais was Felice Kirby, former owner of the Williamsburg bar Teddy's and founder of the Brooklyn Allied Bars and Restaurants. Like others, Kirby was most concerned about what the impact a one-year cap have during the L train shutdown set to begin in April, 2019.

"We would like to see more negotiations, more looking at best practices in other cities, more conversations with us the consumers who'll be impacted," Kirby said. "We use the ride hail app services, mostly in the evening seeking safe transportation for a very significant number of young women who are out at night and want to travel safely. There is no alternative. This is not the time in our opinion to be changing available transportation modes."

During the 15-months the L train will not run from Bedford Ave to 8th Ave. the Department of Transportation plans to get the 225,000 daily L train riders into the city with a mix of additional buses, ferries and service on the J/M/Z and G lines. Advocates have urged the city to create a bus-only lane on the Williamsburg Bridge, but for now, the city plans to make all lanes on the Williamsburg Bridge HOV 3+ from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week, with the exception of commercial vehicles and buses.

In an informal, thoroughly unscientific poll of random people who live and work in Williamsburg, Gothamist/WNYC found there was little interest in cracking down on the ride hailing apps.

"I think it's a silly idea," said Emmanuel Burke, an East Flatbush resident, Uber user and construction worker in Williamsburg. "And a way to increase the growth of the taxi service rather than Uber or Lyft. I think it's the government competing with independent companies."

Another Williamsburg resident and Uber user, Tom Wilde, agreed the city should do something to prevent the ride hailing service from clogging the streets of Manhattan. But he doubts the council's current bills would help.

"I don't know whether it's the most innovative way to curb the problem," Wilde said. "I think that they should be encouraging services like Via and Uber Pool to try to get more people in single cars."

On Tuesday, Uber, Lyft and Via offered to create a $100 million fund to support struggling medallion owners in exchange for the council dropping its proposed bills. The council declined.

"City leaders have repeatedly stated that helping struggling taxi drivers is a top priority, so it is baffling that they rejected $100 million of direct support for individual taxi drivers, " Lyft's Vice President of Public Policy, Joseph Okpaku, said in a statement. "They are prioritizing wealthy medallion owners over taxi drivers who need help."

Sponsors of the council bills argue there's no "cap" on for-hire vehicles, it's merely a "pause" so the city can study the impact of the industry without fluctuating numbers of drivers on the road.

The bills come as six taxi drivers have reportedly committed suicide this year, with many citing economic hardship from competition, plummeting value of taxi medallions and debt from loans taken out to buy medallions when the value was much higher.

A spokesperson for Lyft argues that across the for hire vehicle industry there is a 25 percent attrition rate, so a one year pause on new licenses would amount to a reduction in service.

The bills are expected to come up for a vote on August 8th, according to a spokesperson for City Council Speaker Corey Johnson.

“Obviously the L train shut down will be a significant disruption to the city’s transportation network, and we will be monitoring it closely," Johnson said in a statement. "But nothing in these bills will bring a reduction in service from current levels overall or in the outer boroughs. In fact, app-based companies are free to add as many wheelchair accessible cars as they want. And we put in a provision in the bills that we are examining the impact of the pause throughout, so if we find service is lagging in the outer boroughs, we can add service there.”

Transit economist Charles Komanoff argues that this proposed cap is easily "game-able" by the for hire vehicle industry and that Uber and Lyft drivers will just share vehicles, which probably won't reduce the availability of cars in Williamsburg or anywhere else. He argues it could even increase the gridlock in the city.

"Caps rarely deliver as intended; workarounds are too easy. An Uber ceiling will encourage permit-holders to rent their idle vehicles to other drivers who want in," he wrote this week. "Traffic will worsen, further diluting driver earnings and slowing down everyone trying to get around."

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