Undercover Commish: TLC Boss Gets Hack License to Hit Streets as Cabbie
Freshman Taxi Commissioner David Do says he wants to know what life on the road is like for drivers so he can make more informed decisions for the industry.
The new head of the Taxi and Limousine Commission is not just at the wheel of the agency that licenses and regulates the city’s sprawling taxi and for-hire vehicle industry.
TLC Commissioner David Do will also be at the wheel of an actual taxi. He’s about to find out if he can hack it on the streets as a cabbie, after passing the TLC driver’s license exam in January.
Do — who was appointed by Mayor Eric Adams in April and confirmed in May — scored a 90% on the test, records show, and plans to hit the road soon. He’ll join the more than 100,000 licensed drivers who presently operate a yellow or green taxi, a livery cab, a limousine or a for-hire vehicle booked through ride-hailing apps.
“I hear stories all the time from drivers, that the regulator can never experience what they are going through,” Do told THE CITY. “Even for a moment in time, I want to experience that.”
Do cleared each hurdle of the winding process to obtain a TLC permit, including a 24-hour driver education course, undergoing training on how to assist passengers in wheelchairs for accessible vehicles, passing a drug test as well as a defensive driving course, and getting enough right answers on the license exam.
Do said he was particularly stumped by a question asking which expressway connects to Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn. The 35-year-old, who grew up in California, did not go with “Prospect Expressway” as his choice.
“I thought I had the answer,” said Do, who moved to New York last year after serving as director of the city of Washington’s Department of For-Hire Vehicles.
The 80-question, multiple-choice exam — for which a passing grade is 70% or higher — quizzes would-be drivers on the best routes between two locations, landmarks in each borough, transit hubs, geography questions and TLC rules. It comes with a $49 fee.
Do also covered the $252 fee for a three-year license, along with hundreds of dollars in various costs, including for a drug test, fingerprinting and other requirements.
“I just didn’t call up my licensing department and say, ‘Hand me the license,’” the commissioner said. “No, it was, ‘If a driver went through it, I have to go through it.’”
The test was among the final hurdles in a process that requires TLC driver hopefuls to be at least 19 years old, have a valid chauffeur (Class A, B, C or E) license from the state DMV, and submit a certified medical exam.
With those cleared, Do told THE CITY he hopes to take 100 trips a year as a way of learning firsthand what drivers encounter daily, whether that’s dealing with traffic and customers, or struggling to find designated spots where they can park and take bathroom breaks.
“With this experience, I’ll be able to go to [the Transportation Department] and say, ‘Hey, look, I was in the shoes of our drivers and they are 100% right that they cannot find that relief stand that is open without a car blocking it,” he said.
Meanwhile, the TLC big wheel is hitting the pavement at a chaotic time for cabbies.
The number of yellow taxis on city streets, according to the latest available TLC data, climbed back to 7,791 in December 2022 from a low of 2,191 in April 2020. In March 2020, just before the pandemic effectively shuttered the city, there were 11,313 yellow taxis on the streets.
It’s also a time when many drivers continue to grapple with financial pressures from debt, even after several lenders, the city and cabbies agreed to a debt-restructuring deal in November 2021.
Drivers also face competition in an ever-changing marketplace and the potential for additional fees on trips in the busiest parts of Manhattan if the congestion pricing vehicle-tolling plan to raise revenue for mass transit improvements is implemented.
Do said he hopes to speak with drivers at taxi stands — “I will of course identify myself,” he pledged — so he can hear their insights on driving and agency rules.
“I’m the lead of the agency that regulates,” he said. “But I want to regulate from a point of view where I use experience.”
A TLC spokesperson said Do was cleared by the city’s Conflict of Interests Board to obtain the license, but he is bound by several rules: He’s not immune from disciplinary measures if a passenger files a complaint against him; and he cannot collect fares or tips.
So, any passenger who happens to hail his cab — which initially will be a yellow taxi in the TLC fleet — will get a free ride.
“It’s like the Cash Cab, right?” Do said, referring to the TV gameshow that rewards seemingly unsuspecting riders who are good at trivia. “Except I’m not giving [money] away, I’m just giving a free ride.”
At a taxi stand outside the subway and boat terminals at South Ferry in Lower Manhattan, cabbies told THE CITY that the commissioner can learn a lot from being on the front lines.
A veteran cabbie who asked to be identified only by his first name, Chris, said “bosses and big shots” should mix it up with rank-and-file drivers more often.
“If somebody’s going to be in a high position, at least he should know something about the job,” said Chris, 64, who has been driving a taxi for more than 30 years. “You got the traffic, you have to be very patient. It’s not easy.”
Another longtime driver, Joseph Ntiamoah, said Do should see for himself how drivers fare against sometimes-challenging passengers and road conditions.
“You have to do it and see how the job is, how we are suffering on the streets, how we don’t have places to park to use the bathroom,” said Ntiamoah, 67, who has been driving a cab for nearly 20 years.
Do tried a similar approach at his previous post, where he briefly drove for D.C. Neighborhood Connect, an on-demand shared-ride shuttle.
“I didn’t do it in-depth like I want to do here,” he said.
Do said he wants an authentic experience while driving a TLC-licensed vehicle, adding that he plans to switch out his sportcoat for more comfortable driving attire.
But, as the TLC bigwig learned during the three-day driver education course, it might not always be easy to keep his cover intact.
“My face just showed up on the [lesson] screen and then everyone collectively looks over, because I was in the back of the room and says, ‘Oh my God,’” Do said. “The guy next to me says, ‘Look at the new commissioner!’”
“He said, ‘Yeah, I had an inkling, you knew too much and I Googled you last last night.’”