Tuesday, September 04, 2018

New York Times: Where Yellow Cabs Didn’t Go, Green Cabs Were Supposed to Thrive. Then Came Uber.


Mohammed Uddin was having a bad day, and it was only lunchtime. He was fourth in line at a green-taxi stand in Astoria, Queens, and not happy about it.

But he was not waiting for a green cab to pull up. He was in a line of green cabs waiting for passengers to pick up in the shadow of the Astoria Boulevard subway station.

“I started at 9 o’clock,” said Mr. Uddin, a green-taxi driver since he left a hotel job on Long Island in 2014. “I made $47 so far. That’s very bad. If Uber hadn’t come in, it wouldn’t be like this.”

Uber and Lyft, the ride-share services that have transformed the way many New Yorkers get around, have plunged the yellow cab industry into an existential crisis. But green-cab drivers are no less angry about app-connected rides, saying that Uber and Lyft have torpedoed their fledgling segment of the taxi industry before it even had a chance to establish itself.

Mayor Bill de Blasio recently signed a bill into law that capped ride-share vehicles at their current level, around 100,000, making it the first major American city to impose a limit on the booming industry. But drivers like Mr. Uddin said the cap was unlikely to create a new window of opportunity for green cabs, in part because ride-hail cars outnumber green cabs 30 to 1. City officials estimate the number of green cabs on city streets to be around 3,500.

The city wanted green taxis to be an antidote to a longstanding problem: Yellow cabs rarely pick up people outside Manhattan, except at the airports. But their arrival more or less coincided with the rise of Uber, which, after establishing itself in Manhattan, expanded across the city.

“Uber and Lyft really decimated the green cab sector,” said Bhairavi Desai, the executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, which represents taxi and ride-hail drivers. “There was high expectation among drivers that this would be an opportunity to earn without the same level of pressure that you face in the yellow-cab industry.”

Uber counters that it helps green cabs, because many green-taxi operators also drive for Uber. An Uber spokesman said the ride-hail service dispatches more than 50,000 trips to green taxis every month — of course, for passengers, it can be confusing to order an Uber car and have a green taxi pull up to the curb. The Uber spokesman, Jason Post, said Uber provided “an enormous earning opportunity by connecting drivers with more rides,” especially in far-flung neighborhoods where fewer green cabs circulate looking for passengers.

Uber riders say it is often much easier and faster to get an Uber car with a couple of taps on a cellphone than to it is to look for a green cab to hail on the street.

Figures from the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission underscore how much business for green cabs has declined since ride-share cars arrived. In May, green taxis made 25,693 trips a day across the city, a 55 percent decrease from May 2015, the busiest month on record, which had 57,637 trips. By contrast, Uber says it handled more than 84,000 trips to or from a single neighborhood, East New York, Brooklyn, between July 18 and Aug. 15.

For green cabs, revenue has declined proportionally as trips have dwindled, to $386,965 a day citywide in May 2018, from $862,099 in May 2015. Green-cab drivers are working less than they were, 5.7 hours in May 2018, compared with 6.5 hours in May 2015.

Brooklyn accounted for a third of green-cab pickups from January through May of this year, according to the taxi commission. Almost another third, 31 percent, were in northern Manhattan, and 29.5 percent were in Queens. By contrast, only 5.3 percent were in the Bronx, and only one one-hundredth of one percent on Staten Island.

And, while the number of ride-hail vehicles has soared, the number of green cabs has shrunk. A total of 8,345 permits have been issued since 2013, but the taxi commission considers only 3,514 active.

As for whether Uber had hurt the green cabs, Mr. Post, the Uber spokesman, said, “I would say Uber has built a better mousetrap.”

Green taxis were supposed to be that mousetrap — a new category for the entrenched taxi industry, created when Michael R. Bloomberg was mayor. “The right to hail a legal taxi in all five boroughs,” he said in 2013, was “something that New Yorkers have deserved and never had.” A survey by the taxi commission found that 95 percent of yellow taxis picked up passengers below 96th Street in Manhattan and at the airports.

The solution — taxis that could only operate away from the areas dominated by yellow cabs — now seems so 2011, which is when the Bloomberg administration first proposed it. The new category of taxis that was created, the green cabs, could not pick up passengers in Manhattan south of East 96th Street or West 110th Street. They can stop if someone hails them anywhere in the other boroughs, except at the airports.

By coincidence, 2011 is also when Uber began operating in New York.

Now, some passengers say green cabs tried, but never fulfilled their promise.

“They filled a crucial void in areas like Harlem where yellow cab service was spotty at best” when they first hit the streets, said Derek Q. Johnson, who lives in Harlem. “But I think it’s hard to dispute that the ride is better with Uber and Lyft and the reliability is more assured.”

Different rules apply to green cabs at airports, where they can drop off passengers but cannot pick them up, except by prearrangement — for example, if they are sent there by a dispatcher. Many drivers complain that those rules force them to go to the airports empty if they are dispatched for a pickup or return empty if they take someone there. Unlike yellow cabs, they cannot wait in the taxi lines. Uber and the other ride-hailing apps are not bound by airport rules.

The yellow-cab industry responded to the plan for green cabs by going to court. Yellow cab owners worried that the value of their million-dollar medallions would plummet.

The city won the court challenge and the value plummeted, but not because of competition from the green cabs that went on the streets in 2013.

“Unfortunately, they came along at the same time as Uber and Lyft,” said Mitchell L. Moss, a professor at New York University where he is the director of the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management. “The benefit of Uber is it can come pick you up in highly dispersed locations, which the green taxi can’t really do because it’s got to stay near dense transit pickup locations.”

Green cabs, he said, are “basically clustering at transit and retail hubs” — near where subway lines end, for example — because they are more likely to find passengers there than if they cruise the streets they are authorized to cruise where people are not used to seeing cabs. Indeed, Ms. Desai, of the Taxi Workers Alliance, said that “significant street-hail markets” had not developed outside Manhattan.

But that was not the only problem for green cabs. “The city was kind of undercutting them by licensing all those other cars” — the ride-share vehicles, said Graham Hodges, a historian of the taxi industry and a professor at Colgate University, who predicted that a shakeout is coming.

“There are far too many vehicles on the road, and that’s where I think the T.L.C. will tighten up regulation,” he said, referring to the taxi commission. “And when they do, the ones with those permits will be in the best legal situation. They’ll be the ones that survive.”

Copyright 2018 The New York Times Company.  All rights reserved.

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