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Cabbie Group Sues City to Put Brakes on New Pilot Program

The Taxi Workers Alliance on Monday filed suit to stop the TLC from rolling out an initiative that would allow dormant “green taxi” licenses to be used for a new type of unmetered livery vehicle.

SHARE Cabbie Group Sues City to Put Brakes on New Pilot Program

The program would allow unused “green cab” licenses to be used for a new type of livery vehicle that could only operate out of bases.

Jose Martinez/THE CITY

A new lawsuit accuses the Taxi & Limousine Commission of doing an “end run” around state and city laws as part of its efforts to re-issue up to 2,500 unused livery permits in Upper Manhattan and the boroughs.

In court papers filed Monday, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance charges that the TLC’s proposal to create a new type of for-hire vehicle (FHV) license — for rides that cannot be hailed on the street — is “in direct conflict with state law, which defines [street hail liveries] by their essential characteristic: their ability to be hailed on the street like a taxi.”

“Only the state legislature can change state law,” Bhairavi Desai, president of the NYTWA, told THE CITY. “Calling these licenses [street-hail liveries] but changing how they can be used is,  in essence, changing state law.”

THE CITY reported this month that the TLC intends to issue up to 2,500 out-of-use “green taxi” licenses that would do away with the Granny Smith apple-colored paint jobs, metered trips, vehicle markings and rooftop lights — and require cars to be booked via livery bases, not hailed on the street.

“TLC is slapping a new [street-hailing livery] decal on what is otherwise a conventional [for-hire vehicle] in an apparent effort to avoid its obligations under City law and its own rules,” the new filing in Manhattan Supreme Court alleges. 

The TLC approved the two-year pilot program at a rowdy May 3 commission meeting where drivers chanted “Stop the vote!” and charged that putting hundreds of new cars on the roads would further dilute driver income as the industry still recovers from the pandemic. 

Drivers last week also protested at City Hall, calling on TLC to walk away from the plan.

Feeling Blindsided

The NYTWA contends the city provided only four days’ notice before the TLC approved the pilot program, which it alleges bypasses a 2018 cap on new licenses for app-based ride-hailing services save for vehicles that are electric or wheelchair accessible. 

The short notice, the court papers allege, offered “no meaningful opportunity for public review and comment.”

“The [street-hail livery] Pilot Program is a brazen abuse of TLC’s limited pilot program powers,” the Alliance charges in the court papers. “If TLC believes it can properly license 2,500 new FHVs through a pilot program in this manner, nothing would prevent TLC from issuing 5,000 or 10,000 further licenses.”

NYTWA also contends that with the addition of more vehicles, the pilot program will cut into raises drivers received in March, their first in nearly a decade.

Drivers rally at City Hall for greater pay and job security, Aug. 3, 2022.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“Drivers will finally get to earn more from every trip,” Desai said. “But if you take their trips away, you take away their raise — it’s the most basic math.”

TLC Commissioner David Do earlier this month called the new program “promising,” touting its ability to reduce upfront and operating costs associated with the shrinking green taxi program — like the paint job and meter equipment.

It does not require green paint jobs on vehicles or in-vehicle camera systems and partitions. It also reduces inspection requirements to every other year.

Jason Kersten, a TLC spokesperson, said the commission is reviewing the complaint. He praised the plan for the pilot program.

“There are already 20,000 fewer TLC vehicles on the road than before the pandemic, and the SHL Pilot Program is based on direct input from the industry,” Kersten said in a statement. “We are optimistic that this will increase outer borough service and serve those who are traditionally not served by yellow taxis — especially those who need the non-emergency medical transportation that these licenses will also provide.”

Cira Angeles, spokesperson for the Livery Base Owners Association, called the pilot program a potential boon for long-struggling outer-borough car services. 

“We have a crisis in our communities that are outside of the central business district and it’s very real,” she told THE CITY. “This study will determine the real needs in our immigrant communities and communities of color.”

‘Another Nail in the Coffin’

TLC data shows that the number of active green taxis — which offer metered trips and can be hailed on the streets — fell to 891 in February. That’s down nearly 18% from 12 months earlier, and a 86% drop-off from a peak of 6,539 in June 2015. Those vehicles allow for street hails north of East 96th and West 110th streets in Manhattan and in The Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island.

Green taxis debuted on city streets in 2013, with nearly 5,000 in service by the following year, according to analysis by THE CITY of TLC data. But that figure has been shrinking for years, with app-based services such as Uber and Lyft cutting into demand.

NYTWA President Bhairavi Desai and other members protested before a Taxi & Limousine Commission meeting, May 3, 2023.

Jose Martinez/THE CITY

The COVID pandemic further upended the taxi and for-hire vehicle industries, with TLC numbers showing that there were 74,404 vehicles for app-based services on the road in February, up 10% from the same period one year earlier. At their peak in April 2019, there were more than 86,000 vehicles.

As he waited to pick up hails at Metro-North’s Harlem-125th Street station earlier this month, green taxi driver Rodney Villegas said passengers regularly pressure him into turning off the meter.

“This new program, it just feels like another nail in the coffin for the green taxis,” he said.

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