Hailing a cab in Manhattan can be a tricky art to master. It could be made easier by smartphone apps.

New Yorkers use smartphone apps to learn when the next bus is coming, find the gas station with the cheapest price and make dinner reservations. How about finding a nearby taxi? Turns out, there’s an app for that, too. The only catch is that it isn’t available in New York City — at least not yet.  

As part of Mayor Bloomberg’s drive to make New York City government more tech-savvy and accessible, the Taxi and Limousine Commission has proposed rules that would enable taxi-hailing apps. These rules are slated for a vote Thursday, but they face stiff opposition from big car service companies.

The case for taxi-hailing apps is straightforward. If the technology exists to allow a would-be passenger on Amsterdam and 75th to “e-hail” a taxi driver on Columbus and 74th — and now, that technology does exist — regulations shouldn’t stand in the way.

Taxi-hailing apps would be a particular boon to tourists who lack New Yorkers’ well-honed sense of the best places to hail a taxi. Also, by helping fill taxis when they would otherwise be empty, apps would make the fleet more efficient, saving fuel and reducing traffic.

E-hailing opponents have raised several objections. They claim that allowing e-hails will deplete the availability of taxis for traditional street-hailing. But our proposed rules ensure that drivers will earn the same amount from an e-hail passenger as from a street-hail passenger — so drivers will use the e-hailing software only when they otherwise can’t find a fare.

Another objection is that e-hailing will encourage distracted driving. We certainly don’t want taxi drivers fiddling with their smartphones while the taxi is cruising for passengers. That’s why our proposed rules limit the driver’s ability to accept a trip while his or her vehicle is in motion. (This is do-able thanks to the GPS in smartphones.)

In fact, our proposed rules will actually make taxi-hailing apps in New York better than the apps now available in other cities. Elsewhere, taxi-hail apps operate by having the driver punch in the fare on a smartphone. That creates opportunities for overcharging, whether deliberate or inadvertent.

Our proposed rules require apps that involve payment to integrate with the taxi meter, so that the fare is transmitted directly from the meter to the app. (This is do-able thanks to the in-taxi credit card equipment that Mayor Bloomberg mandated.)

A recent Daily News Op-Ed stated that our proposed rules are too burdensome because they would require all taxi-hailing apps to accept payments. That is not the case. Our proposal would allow apps that enable hailing only, apps that enable payment only and apps that do both.

Our philosophy is to give app businesses maximum flexibility to develop products that they think will appeal to customers — then let the market pick winners and losers.

The core opposition to taxi-hailing apps is coming from big car service companies, who argue that allowing passengers to e-hail taxis will hurt their businesses. Maybe so.

But I believe that most customers who use call-ahead car services will continue to do so, both because those customers value the certainty of reservation service and because there simply aren’t enough taxis to handle current black-car customers.

If some passengers do choose to e-hail a taxi rather than call a car service, that means those passengers prefer the e-hail service. That’s how the market works — and just as the purpose of government regulation mustn’t be to push customers from one business to another, neither should regulators stop customers from picking one business over another.

We’re lucky to have the best taxi service in the country. And we remain the only U.S. city in which every cab accepts credit cards. But there’s room for improvement. When new technology comes along, we should embrace it.

By David Yassky – commissioner and chairman of the Taxi and Limousine Commission.

Category: Blog, New York City

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