Livery-backed councilmembers object to ‘e-hails’

Woman hails a cab in midtown, the old-fashioned way. (modenadude via Flickr)
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On Valentine's Day, members of the livery car industry filed suit against New York City's Taxi and Limousine Commission, charging that the Bloomberg administration had violated the law when it approved a one-year taxi app pilot program that would allow smartphone users to hail cabs by tapping their iPhones and Androids.

On Wednesday, Washington Heights Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez and Middle Village Councilwoman Liz Crowley, who've received campaign contributions from donors affiliated with the livery car industry, held a press conference at City Hall announcing their submission of amicus briefs in support of that industry lawsuit against taxi apps.

"As a member of the City Council, I am charged with safeguarding the balance of powers delineated in the City Charter," said Rodriguez, in a statement sent to reporters. "The TLC's actions are clearly illegal, violating rules and laws set in place to protect the process and the public. Their plan greatly distorts the competitive practices set out in city law, clearly favoring one industry over another. For all of these reasons, I am joining the suit."

"As an outer borough resident, I believe e-hails will enhance discrimination by drivers," said Crowley, in a separate statement. "Permitting cab drivers to be dispatched at the touch of a phone is a clear violation of City policy."

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Apps like Hailo, Uber and GetTaxi have spent millions trying to break into New York City's taxi market, to the consternation of livery car base owners, who fear that taxi apps will undermine their business model.

From a self-preservation standpoint, the livery car industry's position is understandable. In New York City's bifurcated taxi and livery car system, yellow taxis get to pick up street hails, and limousines and livery cars get to respond to prearranged calls.

The problem is that it isn't clear which one of these categories an e-hail falls into. If a smartphone user taps a screen and hails a cab, is it a street hail by other, more technologically advanced means? Or is it prearranged service, since it does, after all, involve a telephone?

The livery industry argues the latter. 

And those two councilmembers agree.

Dial 7 and Carmel are both plaintiffs in the suit; Dial 7 C.E.O. Eitan Chandally and Carmel C.E.O. Avik Kabessa, have contributed to Rodriguez's City Council campaigns.

Meanwhile, the attorney for the plaintiffs, Randy Mastro, as well as registered industry lobbyists Anthony Constantinople and Peter Vallone Sr., have contributed to Crowley's campaign.

Asked about what role, if any, those donations played in his support for the suit, Rodriguez sent over the following statement: "This issue is about upholding the laws of the city and serving the interests of my constituency. I am supporting the Black Car and Livery Industry's lawsuit because they are now the losing party in the TLC's decision to circumvent the City Council and violate city law. I have a long history of supporting the Livery industry since my time as a Livery car driver years ago."

Crowley sent over the following statement: "It's clear that e-hail breaks City laws on taxi dispatching. It also opens the door for possible discrimination, and any other discussion about the lawsuit is a red herring designed to obfuscate this fact."

The city was supposed to launch the apps on March 2, but after the lawsuit was filed, agreed to postpone the launch until, at the earliest, tomorrow's court hearing. Should the judge issue an injunction, the apps could be delayed a good while longer.

In a statement, TLC commissioner David Yassky said, "It is our obligation as regulators to ensure that the riding public has access to newly-available services, and that those services have crucial consumer protections built-into them. It’s a no-brainer to welcome these new services and provide those consumer protections."