City cracks whip on Uber, and the Bronx could suffer

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Jose Maldonado was ready to call it a day. 

He’d been driving since 6 a.m., transporting passengers in the cool confines of his Honda. But the late afternoon’s blistering heat wasn’t making life any easier. 

He’d just dropped off a customer in Putnam Valley, zipping up from Manhattan, before swinging back down to the northwest Bronx to pick up one more fare. Home — in Bayside — beckoned.

Maldonado’s journey to life as a Lyft driver was anything but direct. He’d worked in accounting for more than two decades, but crunching numbers got old.

“I needed a change,” Maldonado said. And he found it two years ago with Lyft, where smartphone users hail him for rides using an app.

 

Facing the cap

Maldonado counts himself lucky he got into the ride-hailing racket when he did. The city officially put the brakes on Lyft, Uber and other similar services Aug. 14 after Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a bill into law limiting the number of Uber- and Lyft-style vehicles in the five boroughs. It’s part of an aggressive plan to address congestion, driver wages, and the struggling taxi industry.

But Maldonado isn’t so sure de Blasio’s move to cap for-hire vehicles at just over 100,000 was the right one.

“I get it,” Maldonado said. “Sometimes there’s empty cabs,” including yellow cabs. “There’s congestion, there’s traffic. There’s a lot of cars.”

Still, Maldonado said, the city “shouldn’t stop people from wanting to work. People who want to do it, now they have to wait a year,” while the city studies the environmental and economic impact of services like Lyft and Uber. 

“I feel like it’s wrong.”

Aug. 14 was the last day a driver could register a vehicle with a ride-hailing service, although companies can still add wheelchair-accessible vehicles, a Taxi and Limousine Commission spokeswoman said. 

Not surprisingly, Lyft isn’t thrilled about the cap.

“These sweeping cuts to transportation will bring New Yorkers back to an era of struggling to get a ride,” said Campbell Matthews, a spokeswoman for Lyft, “particularly for communities of color, and in the outer boroughs.”

While the city council believes the law will reduce congestion and ensure existing drivers earn a livable wage, Lyft claims capping for-hire vehicles isn’t the answer.

 

Other alternatives

Targeting Lyft- and Uber-style vehicles, which make up a small fraction of cars on the road, will do nothing to improve travel speeds through the city’s most congested corridors, a Lyft spokesperson said. The company argues congestion pricing — tolling private vehicles entering Manhattan’s busy central business district during times of heavy traffic — would not only reduce the number of cars on the road, but also raise funds for long-term structural investments.

As for wages, Lyft said its New York City drivers currently earn around $24 an hour on average before expenses. Factored in, they bring net hourly earnings down to $16.42 — not quite at TLC’s goal of $17.22 an hour.

The 12-month pause on new licenses “will threaten one of the few reliable transportation options while doing nothing to fix the subways or ease congestion,” Uber spokeswoman Alix Anfang said, adding the company will do “whatever it takes to keep up with growing demand — especially in the Bronx.” That means also pushing for congestion pricing.

Many for-hire vehicles sit unused during much of the week, according to Uber. The company plans to reach out to owners about allowing new drivers to use these cars during their downtime since the law puts a pause on new vehicles, not drivers.

“I think it’s a good idea to stop and take a look at the industry and the effects on transportation within our city,” said Dan Padernacht, Community Board 8’s traffic and transportation committee chair and a candidate for city council. But he knows all too well that some commuters, in a bind, turn to ride-hailing apps for an instant salve.

“I do share the concern that (capping Uber-style vehicles) could affect the outer boroughs,” Padernacht said. “I hope that the city council can work quickly and diligently in assessing the industry.”

Crucial is the fact the bill doesn’t cap wheelchair-accessible vehicles, said Eric Dinowitz, a public school educator and son of Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, who also is considering a run for city council. His father has opposed congestion pricing championed by the ride-hailing apps.

“In our community, we’re in dire need of handicap-accessible vehicles,” he said. “If you’re someone in a wheelchair, the city should be providing more options for those people to travel around independently.”

And better pay for drivers is a no-brainer. 

“I think they’ll all tell you they deserve to get paid more,” Dinowitz said. “These are people who drive for hours and hours. They deserve a living wage.”

 

Easing some tension

Antonio Mendez, who’s driven for Uber for about three years, suspects putting a halt on new vehicles could help him and other drivers economically, possibly driving up wages. And while he’s skeptical of whether the interregnum could ease traffic, he believes it may also have been driven, in part, by the raw impact of six professional drivers who killed themselves in recent months — including three taxi drivers.

Yet, it may be too early to tell what impact capping ride-hailing vehicles could have on commuters in, say, Spuyten Duyvil, said TLC spokesman Allan Fromberg.

“The purpose of the bill was to hit the pause button while we get a better data-driven grip on the effects of the for-hire vehicle sector’s explosive growth — primarily due to Uber — with new and better data than was available several years ago when this was initially explored,” he said.

But with the cap, Maldonado anticipates customers — especially in places like Kingsbridge and North Riverdale, where public transit isn’t always the most reliable — could face longer wait times. And while demand could go up, that might not necessarily work out so well for him.

“It’ll come to a point” where a customer may say to themselves, “‘OK, maybe I should call a car service,” Maldonado said, “or I should jump in this cab, since they’re right there.’”

Nevertheless, he plans to keep driving. 

“I’ll do this until I can think of what is it, really, that I would like to do,” Maldonado said. “I just hope it goes to that point where I can do that.”

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