The recent hubbub about my beloved green Boro taxis has been awkward to witness.
As someone who lives in New York City, but not in Manhattan, it is wondrous and refreshingly easy to readily hail a cab (legally!) on the street where I live. Until last year, most residents outside Manhattan were basically unable to hail cabs on the street. The privilege of responding to street hails was restricted to yellow taxis, which rarely cruised the outer boroughs. This changed with the creation of the green Boro taxis, which now provide a safe, reliable, and more affordable choice to get around the outer boroughs than traditional car services. They are also clearly providing connections to transit – in-taxi surveys from last year showed that 44% of passengers were also taking a train or bus as part of their trip. This fact shows that taxis can be just one link in the overall urban mobility network, providing a complement to fixed route, traditional transit.
The green taxis can bring me to Manhattan, yet I can’t hail them in certain parts of that island. It was a turf war that resulted in this geographic limitation: the yellow cabs reign supreme on the Manhattan market, and fought tooth-and-nail to try to stop anyone from breaking into their million-dollar-a-medallion fiefdom. And it looks like they’re still fighting.
Thus we came to the hiccup of last week when the new head of the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC), Meera Joshi, stated that the city was blocking the planned expansion of 6,000 more Boro taxis to be added to the 5,000 on the street today. The Commissioner cited the need for deeper stakeholder engagement as the reason to halt the expansion. As a planner it is nothing more than music to my ears when I hear the phrase: “stakeholder engagement,” but this angle seemed empty. With whom was the TLC going to engage? When would this happen? At the announcement, there was no specificity of timeline and plan.
The New York Times readily pointed out that Mayor de Blasio’s campaign coffers were filled by the yellow taxicab industry, the major opponent to the green taxis. Is this the gap in engagement? Were the yellow taxicabs left out of the discussion when planning the Boro cab system? I don’t think so, since the green chariots are banned from picking up passengers in downtown Manhattan and the airports in Queens, where the yellow cabs make a majority of their money.
Thankfully, the TLC has relented on its planned block of the expansion, and will allow 6,000 more green taxicabs on the streets by the end of the summer. The original state legislation that allowed for the program still calls for a third tranche of 6,000 more green cabs, but the TLC is not committing to that at this point. The TLC points to the concern of accessibility for disabled persons to these cabs, and this is a valid concern, but one that can be responsibly and promptly addressed. The Commission approved a 30¢ fee for all taxis (yellow and green) that will fund a program to get the number of wheelchair accessible cabs (only yellow) up to 7,500. Can some of this revenue also fund a program for green cabs?
The story of NYC’s green taxis has some similarities with how the taxi industry has resisted peer-to-peer mobility technology in other cities. Somewhat unusual in New York was regulators’ willingness to open up the closed taxi market, even in the face of resistance from entrenched interests. Hopefully they maintain that willingness. With some subway disruptions going on more than a year and new a G train closure this summer to look forward to, green Boro taxis can provide an alternative and a complement to traditional transit. I am not saying that they can replace mass transit, but they should continue to expand to allow for more choices for those of us not living in Manhattan.
As these and other mobility innovations carve out their spaces in our cities, the conversation will continue to be complex. TransitCenter is co-sponsoring an event that will delve into these issues as well as others about urban mobility at the Shared-Use Mobility Summit in Washington, D.C. June 10-11. Register now to join the conversation!
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