Features, Law and Politics, New York, Retail, Transportation

Beyond Yellow: Can NYC Help Livery Cab Drivers?

January 21, 2020

By Steve Wishnia

IAM Dist. 15 is using its Black Car industry experience to win gains for Uber drivers in NYC.
“The crisis in New York City is beyond the yellow [cabs].” — City Council Transportation Committee Chair Ydanis Rodriguez

NEW YORK, N.Y.—Much attention has been paid to the way the arrival of app-based taxi services has battered the yellow-cab business. Much less has been paid to the plight of livery cabs, the car services that have long ferried passengers in upper-Manhattan and outer-borough neighborhoods where yellow cabs are rare.

“The crisis in New York City is beyond the yellow. It also includes the livery,” City Council Transportation Committee chair Ydanis Rodriguez told reporters in his Washington Heights district office Jan. 17. 

Cira Angeles of the Livery Base Owners uses the same word. “We are in crisis,” she says. The number of livery-cab vehicles has fallen from almost 25,000 in 2014, the year Uber and Lyft emerged as significant forces in the city, to 9,600 last month. The number of “bases,” the companies that dispatch them, has slipped from 510 to 439.

Rodriguez plans to introduce a bill Jan. 23 that would set up an 11-member task force to study “challenges to the viability” of the livery business. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for Jan. 22. It would parallel the city task force on medallion cabs that is supposed to release its report by the end of this month.

Livery cabs took their current form in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the city began regulating the “gypsy cabs” and car services that served poorer neighborhoods and those further from subway lines. For example, in Brooklyn, the number of people wanting a cab home from the Broadway Junction station late at night far exceeds the number of medallion cabs cruising in East New York and Brownsville.

They go “where the yellow doesn’t go,” says Rodriguez. Teachers, he adds, often work at schools that are more than 10 blocks from the nearest subway.

The main rule established was that livery cabs couldn’t pick up people hailing them on the street; only yellow cabs could. Passengers had to call the base to get a cab dispatched. (Since 2013, green “boro taxi” cabs have been able to pick up street hails in the outer boroughs and upper Manhattan. but as their arrival coincided with the emergence of app-based cabs, they never really took off. The number of licensed green cabs fell from 5,573 in 2016 to 3,579 in 2018, according to city Taxi and Limousine Commission figures.)

Originally, livery companies like Brooklyn’s Black Pearl owned fleets of cars and leased them to drivers. Now, virtually all drivers own or lease their cars themselves, says Angeles. They pay the base $35 to $85 a week for being dispatched, and keep all the fares and tips they get.

Rodriguez, who drove a livery cab as a City College student in the late 1980s, says they have a tight relationship with their neighborhoods, with drivers able to trust regular passengers to pay them on credit. Angeles echoes that, saying that working parents often call a livery cab to pick up their child after school to bring him or her to their grandmother’s building, and they stop by the base later to pay the fare. 

Livery cabs are also a vital service for older people who don’t have smartphones or credit cards, she adds. But the decreasing number of drivers means passengers have to wait longer for a cab to be dispatched, which discourages customers.

Neither Rodriguez nor Angeles are offering specific solutions. Angeles says it’s “too soon to tell.” Rodriguez says financial support would be only one part, and he wants to hear directly from drivers, passengers, and owners, for “the drivers to bring their problems and recommendations.”

“We’re looking to get the same attention the yellows have gotten,” says Angeles. “We have to find something. There’s still a need for this kind of service.”

January 21, 2020

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