When City Councilman Ben Kallos proposed a taxi-hailing app that would allow New Yorkers to summon yellow and green cabs from their phones, he hoped to help city-licensed taxis compete in a market increasingly impinged upon by ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft.
Ironically, his plan already has the support of at least one rideshare start-up, and it’s the city’s biggest cab drivers union, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, that remains lukewarm on the proposal.
Some cities have banned apps that allow people to hail rides online. Kallos is suggesting an approach that’s more carrot and less stick.
“Uber disrupted the marketplace,” he says. “When you turn on your phone to hail a vehicle, if it works, you keep using it. And people want to be able to hail yellow-and-greens.”
That’s why Kallos proposed a bill in City Council in mid-December that would require the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission to create its own e-hailing app; cab drivers could choose to opt in and use the app if they wanted to pick up more riders. Along with the app, the TLC would also be asked to create an API, or application program interface, which would allow third-party apps to use the city’s information on local cabs.
The API, a sort of digital keyhole for software developers, would allow those third parties to receive data about where yellow and green cabs were available to pick up passengers across the city. So essentially, in addition to the city, app developers could create new platforms to connect riders with drivers, all using the same stream of public information.
Kallos says the API will allow the commission’s rules to stay relevant even as technology changes. “It’s really hard for government to keep up with the private sector,” he explains.
Alex Pasternack, a co-founder of Bandwagon, a rideshare app that matches up customers who are looking to split cab fares with other riders, says he actually agrees with Kallos’s approach.
“There’s a need in the taxi industry for a new approach to how taxis are dispatched, and how drivers are treated as a professional class,” says Pasternack, who also edits Vice‘s technology site, Motherboard. Pasternack says the open API will allow new start-up companies to use the information about available cabs and make apps that offer cab riders more choices about how they get a car. He even says he’d like to work with Kallos on making the app a reality. “There’s a lot of upheaval right now, but there’s also a lot of opportunity.”
Kallos hopes app-makers will opt in to the API and accept corresponding rules that prevent them from coercing passengers to use alternative services — because having access to more vehicles results in more successful matches for customers, and customers return to an app that works.
Uber is already dispatching taxis with its Uber Taxi service. There are 13,637 yellow and 6,000 green cabs roaming through New York City. Rideshare apps thrive on their ability to match people with cars. The new rules would mean that Uber could, theoretically, have access to even more taxis for the dispatch program.
“If Uber doesn’t do it,” says Kallos, “someone else will.”
But New York Taxi Workers Alliance executive director Bhairavi Desai remains unconvinced. Her group let Kallos promote his bill at a January 16 press conference about fighting Uber; the cosmopolitan airing-of-grievances included cab unions from as far away as Belgium and England. But that platform “wasn’t an endorsement on our part,” she says.
“I think there are still aspects of his bill we don’t understand yet,” she adds.
Shortly after Kallos proposed his bill, the TLC released a proposal for its own new rules about e-hail apps. But the commission’s proposed rules don’t include plans for a city-owned app, which Kallos says is crucial for helping cabs compete. “Their response doesn’t go far enough,” he says.
Representatives from Uber and Lyft did not respond to requests for comment.