The City Council will once again explore capping the number of vehicles driving for Uber and similar app-based taxi services in New York City streets — beginning with a yearlong ban on issuing new licenses for most for-hire cars.
The move comes three years after a similar effort to limit the ride-hailing apps in the name of congestion. It was pushed by Mayor de Blasio, viewed skeptically in the Council and failed in the summer of 2015 in the face of aggressive push back from Uber.
But calls for restrictions on the companies have grown in recent months, as studies have borne out that the cars — often driving without passengers — have indeed increased congestion. Perhaps more stark has been the reckoning of the services’ impact on the city’s old-fashioned taxi and livery industry, and on drivers who spent their entire fortunes or mortgaged their homes to buy taxi medallions, only to see them plummet in price. Six struggling drivers have killed themselves this year.
Council Speaker Corey Johnson (D-Manhattan) said the Council’s package of bills aimed to create fairness between the various kinds of taxis in the city, to support drivers who work for all those kinds of taxis, to combat congestion and increase accessibility for the disabled.
"We aren't taking away any service that is currently being offered to New Yorkers,” he said. "We are pausing the issuance of new licenses in an industry that has been allowed to proliferate without an appropriate check."
But Uber, as it did in 2015, promptly mobilized against the effort — rolling out a seven-figure television ad buy targeting the bills, in addition to ads on social media and elsewhere. That’s on top of a prior ad buy of more than $1 million for a campaign dubbed “Uber’s There.”
And the company will directly reach out to its millions of New York users by email, it said, a strategy that paid dividends three years ago.
“The New York City Council has proposed a series of bills that could make Uber more expensive and less reliable throughout the five boroughs — severely impacting those who rely on Uber when public transit isn’t an option,” the e-mail, shared with the News, will read.
The message includes a link allowing riders to “tweet to the City Council.” Sure enough, tweets started appearing online — some using the exact same language and the hashtag #DontStrandNYC.
The direct outreach went even further: Uber appears to be reaching out to New Yorkers by phone about the legislation, according to one source who received a call. The caller even tried to connect the source directly to their City Council member’s office, though the source noted the caller had the wrong district.
Lyft also pushed back against the cuts, arguing the city was fighting not for small-time medallion owners but “corporate” ones and misplacing blame for congestion.
“I think to put the blame squarely on ridesharing companies for that misses the point - there’s many studies that show ridesharing is not the cause of increased congestion,” Lyft communications director Adrian Durbin said.
Durbin, like his counterparts at Uber, argued the cap would make drivers head to the most lucrative area — Manhattan’s central business district, which would hurt outer borough riders and worsen congestion.
And the yearlong ban means the service will be unable to replace any driver who departs, he said.
But the bill does allow for the TLC to add new licenses if they don’t believe it will impact traffic — and it contains a carve-out allowing new licenses for wheelchair accessible cars.
"If any of these companies, like Uber, want to put a new wheelchair accessible vehicle on the road, they can do that,” Johnson said.
Medallion owners cheered the effort.
“In the last few years, Uber and other ride share companies have congested Manhattan streets, deprived passengers in wheelchairs from receiving meaningful service and decimated the lives of immigrant taxi drivers and their families,” the Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade said in a statement.
The board said the legislation was overdue but a “meaningful start” and urged the Council to pass them quickly.
De Blasio has long offered support for a cap on the services, and has repeatedly returned to the idea in discussing the driver suicides.
“As far as I can see this proposed legislation is addressing some really serious issues in a smart way, and I look forward to looking at it and I think the Council is trying to do something important here,” he said Friday.
While the last attempt to cap Uber went down in flames in the Council amid opposition, Johnson said that after drivers died by suicide, people have recognized it’s time to action.
"We are really just doing what we think is the right thing to do,” he said. “If that means that they're going to launch ads and campaign, I think it's our duty as elected officials to explain why we're doing this and to be able to explain that to the public on why we think this is a good public policy decision."
The bill to bar new licenses for a year is sponsored by Councilman Stephen Levin (D-Brooklyn).
"There's been an average 2,000 new vehicles added to the streets every single month,” Levin said. “At this point, it's pretty well-saturated, if not over saturated."
Council staff characterized the bill as a pause, not a cap — but the pause is intended to allow for a study of the impact of those vehicles and, after the study, to allow the TLC to cap new licenses if necessary. The TLC would also be able to set a “vehicle utilization standard” for the industry, aimed at regulating how often the cars are plying the city streets empty.
Another bill, sponsored by Councilman Ruben Diaz Sr. (D-Bronx) — who has been showered in taxi industry donations and leads a new committee on the subject — would require a new license for companies handling more than 10,000 trips a day. That would apply to the big names in ride-sharing, like Uber, Lyft, Via and Juno. The cost would be set by the TLC. Other bills from Diaz Sr. would waive license fees for wheelchair-accessible cars, and lower fines on livery drivers caught picking up street hails.
The bill aimed at driver pay, sponsored by Councilman Brad Lander (D-Brooklyn) would require the TLC to set a minimum payment for drivers and would also allow them to study whether to should set a minimum fare.
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