An industry group warns that taxi apps could kill the New York street hail

Woman hails a cab in midtown, the old-fashioned way. (modenadude via Flickr)
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Yesterday, a group of livery car companies warned that the imminent arrival of taxi apps like Hailo and GetTaxi to city smartphones could have "adverse and unintended consequences" on New Yorkers' ability to catch cabs, and faulted the city's taxi and limousine commission for acting too hastily.

“The primary objective of the [Taxi and Limousine Commission] should be to introduce technology in a fashion that minimizes chaos and maximizes the service to the consumer," wrote Carolyn Castro, executive director of the Livery Roundtable, a group of more than 200 livery car bases that includes Carmel and Dial 7, in an emailed memo. "Unfortunately, there appears to be a rush by the regulatory body to incorporate a Smartphone application into the New York City ground transportation system that, if implemented, will most certainly result in a multitude of adverse and unintended consequences.”

Several taxi app developers have raised money with the intent of breaking into the nation's biggest taxi market. The apps vary in detail, but all of them would allow a desk jockey with an iPhone to send out a digital signal indicating his desire for a taxi. Some of the apps, though not all, would then allow the cab driver to accept the smartphone user's request.

Even the city's Taxi and Limousine Commission is intent on getting in the game.

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In March, the agency issued a request for proposals for an app that would allow taxi riders to pay fares via smartphone. The agency said it was also interested in apps that would enable riders to find cabs.

All of this seems well and good, but for one looming and still unanswered question: when an iPhone user requests a cab using his smartphone, does that constitute the modern-day equivalent of a street hail, or does it constitute the digital equivalent of a telephone call to a cab company, in other words a pre-arranged service.

That matters, because, by law in New York City, only yellow taxis can respond to street hails, and only livery cars can respond to requests for pre-arranged service.

And while some livery companies have adopted app technologies like TaxiMagic, most such apps, with the exception of Uber, have yet to make inroads into the yellow cab sector.  

The city has yet to figure out where it stands on that issue. 

The Livery Roundtable argues, in its memo, that the answer is fairly self-evident: "such arrangement is clearly a new form of prearrangement."

The group then takes the argument one step further, arguing that to allow taxi apps into the yellow cab market would essentially send the city back 30 years, when cabs responded to radio dispatchers, and street hail service was scarce.

From the memo:

Many have commented that radios were removed from yellow taxis due to their contribution to discriminatory practices. In fact, the radios were ultimately removed from the yellow taxis due to the way this technology impacted the availability of yellow taxi service.
What the TLC learned in the 1980s, and what is still true today, is that when yellow taxis were engaged in prearranged service (the aforementioned radio service) the number of yellow taxis available for street hail service was drastically diminished. The TLC removed radios from yellow taxis to remedy this "availability" issue. However, rather than completely banishing radios from New York City's transportation services, the TLC mandated that radios be transferred to the for-hire vehicle. By doing such, the TLC addressed the refusal issue AND added a significant number of available vehicles to the New York City's ground transportation system: the for-hire non-medallion sector. This is an important lesson in New York City's ground transportation history: allowing yellow taxis to engage in prearrange service will reduce the availability of street hailing yellow taxis.

The Taxi and Limousine Commission had no immediate comment.