A judge’s decision unfreezes the city’s taxi-app program

Traffic in Midtown. (onesevenone via Flickr)
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Starting soon, New Yorkers will be able to hail taxis using apps on their smartphones, thanks to a New York State Supreme Court judge's ruling that was handed down today.

The judge, Carol Huff, lifted a restraining order that had kept the city from moving forward with its one-year taxi app pilot as planned in March.

On Valentine's Day, members of the livery car industry filed suit against the city arguing that its one-year pilot, which was itself a diminished version of its original taxi app plan, violated the long-time distinction between yellow taxis, which respond only to street hails, and black cars, which provide only pre-arranged service.

The livery car companies argue that hailing a taxi by app, or "e-hailing," is merely pre-arrangement by another name and believe that taxi apps pose a dire threat to their very business model.

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The livery companies also argue that taxi apps will enable the sort of discrimination against disadvantaged riders that regulators tried to solve back in the '80s when they took radios out of cabs and made pre-arrangement the exclusive province of livery car companies.

Here's Huff's take on that point:

...petitioners devote much argument in the petition and other papers to the contention that granting medallion taxis the ability to use e-hail apps is impermissible in light of a general legislative intent to limit taxis strictly to street hails in order to avoid taxi unavailability and passenger discrimination. (Petitioners cannot and do not contend that any legislature intended to establish or maintain black cars’ economic advantage with respect to new technologies.)

Petitioners point to no statute that directly supports their contention. Medallion taxis have the exclusive right to respond to street hails...and black cars may pre-arrange pickups but are prohibited from picking up street hails...In 1985 the TLC – not the City Council or other legislative body – mandated that medallion taxis were prohibited from using two-way radio communications by March 1987...finding that “the problem of taxicab unavailability has been severely exacerbated by the growth of medallion taxicab radio groups in recent years whose members service radio customers thereby making their taxicab unavailable for street hails.”

Even if they could point to a legislative scheme in that context, petitioners have not demonstrated that the 1985 radio-dispatch situation with taxis is sufficiently comparable to the proposed e-hail Program so that the same problems of taxi unavailability and passenger discrimination are destined to occur.

Neither the Livery Roundtable nor the Black Car Assistance Corporation, both plaintiffs in the suit, had any immediate comment.

Here's the judge's decision in full.

“This decision is a victory for all the riders who want to decide for themselves what technologies and services they want to use,” said taxi commissioner David Yassky, in a statement. "The market will ultimately decide which apps rise or fall and we have an obligation to give the riding public that choice. Thanks to today’s ruling, they have that choice."

The city could not immediate provide a date by which the taxi app pilot will become operational.