An Uber driver makes a frantic phone call in Mandarin to gather information for paperwork. More than 20 staff members at Primetime Brokerage fields questions from swarms of anxious listeners that surround them.
Such was the scene at the taxi and rideshare service agency based in Sunnyside, Queens Thursday afternoon, as dozens of Uber and Lyft drivers hurried to submit applications in hopes of picking up an electric vehicle (EV) license plate from the city Taxi & Limousine Commission ahead of a surprise deadline.
The mad dash came after a judge on Wednesday night ordered the TLC to stop processing new EV license applications by 9 a.m. Monday — a temporary restraining order in response to a lawsuit filed earlier this month by the New York Taxi Workers Alliance.
The Alliance argues the city’s mid-October decision to lift its previous cap on TLC license plates for electric vehicles would add “an unlimited number of new cars to the roads” and “have a disastrous impact on driver income.”
Prior to the lawsuit, the TLC had been processing about 100 to 150 applications a day — adding up to a total of 1,746 before the restraining order on Wednesday, according to commission spokesperson Jason Kersten. But that number has since ballooned, with the TLC receiving a total of 5,943 applications between Wednesday and Friday at noon, he said.
At Primetime Brokerage, drivers can get one-stop-shop services that guide them through the TLC licensing process, from application to insurance — with the help of staffers who speak their native language, according to owner Aeraj Qazi.
Qazi said on Thursday that about 2,000 drivers had already dropped in by 4 p.m. that day to inquire about the application — with the line outside extending blocks away to the Long Island Expressway early in the day.
“This weekend we’re open 24 hours,” said Qazi, whose brokerage is usually only open from 9 to 5 on weekdays. “We’re doing a straight 100-hour marathon since 6 a.m. this morning to 9 a.m. Monday.”
Fahad Chowdhury, 35, was waiting outside the door for help Thursday. The father of two immigrated from Bangladesh in 2011, and is the sole breadwinner for a household of six that includes his two parents.
Chowdhury said he had started driving for Uber and Lyft in 2020 after losing a restaurant job in the pandemic — and was hoping to get his own TLC-approved license plate so that he could stop renting a car with a TLC plate for $450 a week.
But he’s caught in a limbo now, he said, because he had taken out a loan and sold some of his assets for a downpayment to order a Tesla in October, for a license plate application he’s not sure would come to fruition now because of the lawsuit.
“It’s really hard for me,” Chowdhury told THE CITY. “I didn’t sleep last night — the whole night — because I was so stressed out. We don’t even know what’s gonna happen, if we’re gonna be able to get the plate up.”
‘Too Much Headache’
Andrew Greenblat, policy director for the Independent Drivers Guild, a union partly funded by Uber and which advocated for the license cap to be lifted, criticized the Taxi Workers Alliance for the lawsuit outside the brokerage on Thursday.
“These are people who already have their own cars,” said Greenblat. “Medallion owners are saying ‘We can have cars, we can rent them to you, but you are not allowed to own your own cars.’”
But Taxi Workers Alliance Executive Director Bhairavi Desai said “that’s ridiculous,” and noted that her group only represents drivers — not fleet owners — and that 70 percent of its membership is made up of Uber and Lyft drivers.
“Our focus is we don’t want oversaturation. That’s the issue. What interest would NYTWA have in forcing drivers into any one arrangement over another?” Desai told THE CITY. “Our job is to protect the incomes of drivers.”
She added that the Taxi Workers Alliance has long advocated for the TLC to pass regulations for a rent cap on vehicle leasing to protect drivers from unscrupulous rates from fleet owners.
The Uber-supported Drivers Guild, on the other hand, has a vested interest, she added, not only in oversaturating the roads with Uber drivers without regard for their individual incomes, but also in pushing for EV licenses so as to expedite the rideshare giant’s compliance with new city goals to transition into a 100% electric for-hire fleet by 2030.
The frantic rush for license plates did not start from Wednesday’s restraining order, Desai argued. Rather, she said, it started when drivers flocked to electric car retailers in droves soon after the city lifted the cap on EV license plates in October.
Indeed, many of the drivers who spoke to THE CITY outside the brokerage Thursday said they had ordered electric cars just days after the city’s announcement. Some, however, have yet to receive the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) they need to submit an application to the TLC, leaving them in limbo with cars often bought with loans, said Qazi.
Muhammed Akkas Uddin approached Qazi Thursday as he stood outside his business to field questions, and inquired with a screenshot of his Tesla order in hand: “I have a VIN number and everything right, and I can apply for a TLC license right?” Qazi responded affirmatively.
Uddin, who immigrated from Bangladesh in 2017, currently rents a TLC-approved license plate for about $10,000 a year to operate a car he owns. He ordered a Tesla just a week after the city lifted the license cap, he said, in hopes that it would save him some operating cost in the long run.
Now, he’s not sure whether to continue holding onto the car he owns or to take a gamble with an EV license plate application that may or may not pan out.
“I have too much headache,” Uddin said. “My wife say, ‘You leave, go work. No need to come to the family.’”