NYC Cracks Down on Uber, Lyft With New-Driver Cap

MANHATTAN (CN) – The New York City Council passed a package of bills Wednesday that made it the first major city in the U.S. to put a temporary cap on new vehicles for hire, like Uber and Lyft.

For-hire drivers rally on the steps of New York City Hall before a vote on measures that will cap companies like Uber from hiring new drivers. (AMANDA OTTAWAY, Courthouse News Service)

A few hours before a council vote where the primary cap bill passed 39-6, four members of the New York City Council hosted a press conference in City Hall this afternoon touting the legislation package that calls for a year-long study on the city’s ride-for-hire industry before companies can add new drivers to the city’s already congested roads. The Taxi and Limousine Commission will conduct the study.

The number of Uber, Lyft, Via and similar vehicles on the city’s streets has exploded in recent years, from 12,600 in 2015 to more than 80,000 now, according to data from the Taxi and Limousine Commission cited in Bloomberg. More cars mean more of them drive around empty, increasing congestion and emissions.

“This is about supporting and uplifting drivers,” said City Council Speaker Corey Johnson at a press conference before Wednesday’s vote. “In my heart, I believe that it is the best path forward. It represents the broad outlines of what we think our next step should be in this industry.”

The bills make some exceptions: for example, companies could continue to add wheelchair-accessible vehicles without a cap during the study. During Wednesday’s meeting, one councilmember likened the cap instead to a “requirement for accessibility.” Currently, according to Councilmember Brad Lander, just 0.5 percent of for-hire vehicles in the city are accessible to people with wheelchairs.

The bills also call for reducing the fines on vehicles caught picking up passengers outside so-called “hail-exclusionary zones,” a measure which passed 42-3, and requiring minimum payments to drivers, which also passed 42-3. Two more bills, which both passed unanimously, waive licensing fees for accessible vehicles and add a new two-year license for vehicles regulated by the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission.

There were five bills in all, introduced by Councilmembers Ruben Diaz, Sr. (South Bronx), Steve Levin (Brooklyn) and Brad Lander (Brooklyn). Diaz is the council’s chairman of the Committee on For-Hire Vehicles. The bills are intended to regulate the for-hire vehicle industry in the city, primarily the companies Uber, Lyft, Juno and Via.

Speaker Johnson explained that the city will get quarterly reports on the study as it is carried out by the Taxi and Limousine Commission.

New Yorkers are split on the issue, with some saying the city should instead address other causes of its traffic-congestion crisis, such as by implementing congestion pricing in midtown Manhattan. The city’s residents are also widely frustrated with the crumbling subway system, which sometimes forces people to find alternate methods of transportation.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio released a statement in support of the legislation.

“Our city is directly confronting a crisis that is driving working New Yorkers into poverty and our streets into gridlock. The unchecked growth of app-based for-hire vehicle companies has demanded action – and now we have it. More than 100,000 workers and their families will see an immediate benefit from this legislation,” he said.

Shakeel Shabbir (right), who drives for Uber, Juno, Via and Lyft, protest outside New York City Hall on Aug. 8, 2018, ahead of a vote that will enact the country’s first hiring cap on ride-hail companies. To Shabbir’s left, driver Ibrahim says he works for “most of the apps.” (AMANDA OTTAWAY, Courthouse News Service)

Brooklyn NAACP President L. Joy Williams told WNYC that access to Uber and Lyft and similar companies is a civil rights issue, saying yellow cabs have a long history of race discrimination and some communities depend on the app services instead.

Some of the six councilmembers who voted against the pause on new licenses said the study should be conducted prior to any cap, citing constituents who have trouble accessing traditional cab services either because they are people of color or live in far-flung neighborhoods in the outer boroughs, or both.

“For me it’s simple,” said Steven Matteo (Staten Island), explaining his vote. “We need more transportations on Staten Island, not less.”

In explaining his no vote, Eric Ulrich (Queens) argued, like several of his colleagues, that New York’s public transportation system had failed his constituents and for-hire companies stepped in to fill the gap.

He also likened a for-hire vehicle cap to a cap on Netflix to keep Blockbuster in business.

“The market changes, and we need to be able to move with the market,” Ulrich said.

Taxi and for-hire drivers, for their part, both widely back a cap, convinced it will help them make a living wage.

“We have no money to feed our families,” said Shakeel Shabbir, who had joined a rally outside City Hall before Wednesday’s vote. He said he drives for Uber, Lyft, Via and Juno. He held a sign that said “Vote yes to limit the # of drivers entering the industry.”

“I have no money,” he said. “That’s why I’m here.”

Another driver who wanted to be identified only by his first name and said he drives for “most of the apps” agreed with Shabbir.

“What we want is to organize the whole industry,” Ibrahim said. “Because you don’t want the situation when a driver comes and signs on the app and goes and gets himself, you know, rents a car, or [takes] a lease on the car, takes a loan to buy a car, and now he gets into the industry and there is no job. He is sitting. And at the end of the month he’s got to pay the rent for the car.”

Six drivers have died by suicide in recent months, at least three of them taxi drivers. Families and friends held a vigil for the deceased drivers Tuesday outside City Hall, organized by the New York Taxi Workers Association. The group claims financial stress from “unregulated app companies” contributed to the drivers’ deaths.

“It’s time for New York drivers to stand up and unite,” said one member of the African Livery Drivers Association at the vigil.

New York City Councilmember Ruben Diaz Sr. (left) and Council Speaker Corey Johnson (center) speak at a press conference on Aug. 8, 2018, with Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, a former taxi driver. (AMANDA OTTAWAY, Courthouse News Service)

Speaker Johnson recognized the deceased drivers at Wednesday’s meeting. Earlier in the afternoon, security officers cleared the balcony of City Council chambers when protesters shouted and chanted repeatedly at Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez over an unrelated proposed rezoning. Johnson told the Council later that the drivers’ family members had been among the members of the public removed from the balcony, and thanked them for having been there.

Some the drivers’ employers, however — namely Uber and Lyft corporate — have loudly opposed the legislation, telling customers caps won’t reduce congestion but will increase wait times and prices, especially in the outer boroughs.

The taxi industry has donated to campaign funds for Mayor de Blasio, who backs the cap, and to Diaz, according to The New York Times.

Pressed on that issue at Wednesday’s press conference, all of the sponsoring councilmembers and the speaker said campaign donations and special interests had no impact on the bills.

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