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Taxi and Uber drivers are united in backing a cap on ride-hail vehicles
[NEW YORK] As New York City weighs new regulations for Uber and other ride-hail companies, a group that is often overlooked has entered the spotlight: the thousands of drivers who ferry New Yorkers across the city every day.
It is their economic despair — underscored by six driver suicides in recent months — that has prompted the City Council to consider legislation this week to cap ride-hailing vehicles in the city and set a minimum pay rate for drivers.
Both taxi and Uber drivers are optimistic that the city's proposals would halt the flood of vehicles clogging city streets and start making it easier for drivers to earn a decent living.
"There will be more wages for the drivers and things will get better," SN Singh, a taxi driver for more than 40 years, said on a recent morning as he waited at the taxi parking lot near Kennedy International Airport.
Drivers sometimes have to wait at the lot for two or three hours until they are dispatched to a terminal to pick up a passenger. They can often be found playing backgammon on trash bins, chatting in small groups or, on hotter days, napping in their cabs with the windows rolled down.
With an influx of vehicles from Uber and other ride-hail apps, drivers are having a difficult time finding passengers and traffic is slower than ever, Mr Singh said.
"You can't move in the city," Mr Singh said. "You can't move anywhere."
The City Council is expected to vote on the proposals Wednesday. Uber has mounted an aggressive and highly visible campaign against the cap, but Corey Johnson, the council speaker, believes it has enough support to pass — a stark difference from three years ago when Uber defeated an earlier cap proposed by Mayor Bill de Blasio.
The legislation would limit the number of vehicles at the current level by stopping the issuance of new for-hire vehicle licenses while the city studies the rapidly changing industry, which has been transformed by Uber's remarkable rise.
Ride-hail companies would be able to add new vehicles only if they are wheelchair-accessible. The legislative package, which Mr de Blasio supports, would make New York the first major US city to impose a limit on ride-hail vehicles. The regulations could set a precedent for other cities seeking to rein in Uber.
There is "resounding support" for the cap among drivers, said Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, a group that represents many taxi and Uber drivers. At a recent driver meeting after the council revived the idea, Ms Desai said: "It was the first real moment of hope that I've seen at any of our meetings in the last three years."
Her group has raised concerns about the recent driver suicides, which included three taxi drivers and were attributed in part to financial stress. Taxi medallions — the aluminum plates required for the roughly 13,500 yellow taxis in New York — once sold for more than US$1 million but are now worth less than US$200,000. The number of for-hire vehicles, which was 63,000 when the cap was proposed in 2015, has surged to more than 100,000 vehicles.
Mr de Blasio defended the cap Friday and argued that it was part of his broader efforts on income inequality.
"What's happening across the board because of these huge corporations is they are driving down the wages of hardworking people who work in this field," Mr de Blasio said in a radio interview. "That alone is a reason to call a time out and assess what's going on here."
Taxi and Uber drivers compete on the streets for passengers, but they find common ground on the cap. Uber drivers say they also struggle to make a good living after Uber takes its commission — sometimes more than 20 per cent — and after paying for high vehicle costs. With no new vehicles joining the app, Uber drivers say they will have less competition and could spend more of their day carrying passengers instead of driving around in an empty car.
"There's a better chance of drivers getting better trips," said Jacky Lin, who has driven for Uber for more than a year and is part of another driver group called the Independent Drivers Guild.
Lyft, the second most popular app, has joined Uber in opposing the cap and says that nearly a quarter of its drivers could leave because of routine turnover, leading to a shortage of drivers over the next year if a cap is adopted. Lyft's leaders say the city declined an offer from the ride-hail companies to establish a US$100 million fund to help taxi drivers in exchange for dropping the cap.
"The bills as drafted didn't really do anything to address the people who are in the most trouble right now, which are the taxi drivers with the underwater medallions," Joseph Okpaku, a Lyft vice-president, said in an interview.