Smartphone taxi hails are a real thing, but not in app-proof New York

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A Hailo co-founder demonstrates the app. (via youtube.com/hailocab)
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Taxi Magic is a smartphone app that helps people find available taxis and which, last month, facilitated 1.2 million rides across the country. None of those rides took place in New York City. 

Hailing taxis by smartphone may be the wave of the future, but in New York City, the trend has foundered on the idiosyncratic regulations governing the city's taxi industry. Basically, the entrepreneurs who have entered the market elsewhere can't seem to figure them out here. 

Some, including at least one app developer backed by millions in venture funding, assert the apps are legal. Others, including taxi fleet operators and a former taxi commissioner, think they aren't. No one is totally sure.

The New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission, which ought to be able to break the tie, can't, quite.

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"Maybe there’s a need for clarification and updating the rules, because as technology changes, you might have to revisit some of those rules," said Ashwini Chhabra, the commission's deputy commissioner for policy and planning, echoing the findings of a recently released report on the topic by Matthew Daus, the city’s former taxi commissioner.

At issue is the notion of a street hail, and what precisely those words mean. In New York City, yellow cabs are allowed to respond to street hails, and livery cars respond to service requests by phone.

So what, then, is a request for service by app on a iPhone, which is essentially a souped-up phone? Is it a digital-age street hail that a taxi can answer? Or is it really just a fancy version of a call?

Jay Bregman, the founder of Hailo, a London taxi-app import preparing to launch by the end of this year in 2012, argues it's “the natural logical extension of a doorman with a whistle.”

Bregman believes Hailo can operate in yellow cabs without any regulatory overhauls whatsoever.

Mike Levine, who runs cabs in Chicago and in New York City, could not disagree more. As C.E.O. of Chicago's Taxi Affiliation Services, Levine uses Taxi Magic. As president of Arthur Cab Leasing In New York, he does not.

“Right now, it would be illegal,” Levine explained.

Hailing by smartphone would seem to be a logical next step in taxi technology.

At the end of World War II, the taxi industry helped pioneer the use of two-way radios to control the movement of vehicles, according to Alfred LaGasse, C.E.O. of the Taxicab, Limousine and Paratransit Association.

The 1970s saw some early experimentation with computer-aided dispatch systems, followed, in the '80s and '90s, by full-on computerized dispatch systems.

Then came cell phones, GPS and now smartphones, with all of their attendant apps.

Today's GPS-enabled applications, like Taxi Magic, Uber, getTaxi and soon Hailo, allow a rider to request a cab or luxury sedan, call the driver to check in, or chart the cab’s progress by iphone map. The customer can even pay by phone.

“Will it revolutionize the industry?" asked LaGasse. "I’m not sure it revolutionized anything, but it is a significant enhancement."

It may be a while before New York gets to find out.

Last year, the Taxi and Limousine Commission notified livery car drivers, which handle the pre-arranged segment of the market, that they can use apps like Uber and the new Sedan Magic, assuming they do so through their livery base, and not independently (livery bases are regulated and have all sorts of liability insurance).

But in March, New York’s Taxi and Limousine Commission issued a request for proposals for an app that would allow riders to pay fares using their phones.  The TLC said it was also interested in other functions, including an app that would allow riders to find available cabs.

Yet, as Chhabra readily acknowledges, “The word ‘hail’ is not defined in our regulations.”

Chhabra suggested at one point that the apparent lack of urgency around bringing taxi apps to New York may have something to do with actual levels of demand in most of Manhattan.

“I can step outside of my office now and a yellow taxi will come by within the minute,” Chhabra said. “By the time I fish the phone out of my pocket, fire up the app and try to request a taxi ... an empty cab will probably approach.

"But 'I don’t know' is the short answer.”