NEW YORK CITY HALL — The City Council turned its attention to New York City’s struggling for-hire drivers Wednesday after passing first-in-the-nation limits on the ride-sharing giants that pay them.
Lawmakers introduced a package of legislation Wednesday aimed at protecting cabbies and for-hire vehicle drivers alike from financial burdens, continuing their efforts to tackle exploding app-based companies such as Uber and Lyft.
The seven bills would set up health benefits for drivers, authorize regulations of for-hire vehicle leases, offer drivers financial education, and study ways to help taxi medallion owners who are saddled with debt, among other things. There’s also a bill to create a new diversity office within the Taxi and Limousine Commission to address racial discrimination in the industry.
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The legislation came as the Council approved a controversial freeze on most for-hire vehicles like those used by the ride-hailing apps, making New York the first major U.S. city to impose such limits despite aggressive opposition from Uber and Lyft.
“This is not the end of the road, it’s the beginning of the road,” said Council Speaker Corey Johnson. “… We look forward to advancing more bills to protect all of the drivers in New York City who have suffered a lot already.”
Councilman Stephen Levin’s bill, approved 39-6, would stop the Taxi and Limousine Commission from issuing new for-hire vehicle licenses for one year, with an exception for wheelchair accessible vehicles, while it studies whether to impose additional regulations on the industry.
The measure, often referred to as a cap, was overwhelmingly passed alongside bills to set minimum pay for app-based drivers, create specific regulations for high-volume car services, waive licensing fees for wheelchair-accessible vehicles, and trim fines for illegal street hails.
Lawmakers noted the TLC could still allow more for-hire vehicles to hit the streets to meet needs in certain areas if they wouldn’t worsen congestion.
The bills’ success represented a victory for the city three years after a similar effort to rein in ride-hailing companies fizzled. Officials and advocates have blamed them for slowing traffic to a crawl, crippling the traditional taxi industry and pushing drivers into destitution.
“It’ll help stop death, loss of life and suffering,” said George Schifter, the brother of Douglas Schifter, one of six professional drivers who have died by suicide since November. “People will be able to put food on the table, keep a roof over their heads, pay the electric bill.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio said he would sign the bills into law. “Our city is directly confronting a crisis that is driving working New Yorkers into poverty and our streets into gridlock,” he said in a statement.
Uber, the dominant ride-hailing service, have argued the pause would hurt drivers and make its service more expensive and less reliable. The company, along with Lyft, also contended it would hurt New Yorkers in transit-starved parts of the outer boroughs, particularly communities of color.
Uber suggested the new rules wouldn’t hinder its efforts to ferry New Yorkers around. The company said it would try to recruit existing for-hire drivers to the app and work with vehicle owners to let new drivers use them when they might otherwise sit idle.
“We take the Speaker at his word that the pause is not intended to reduce service for New Yorkers and we trust that he will hold the TLC accountable, ensuring that no New Yorker is left stranded,” Uber spokeswoman Danielle Filson said in a statement. “In the meantime, Uber will do whatever it takes to keep up with growing demand and we will not stop working with city and state leaders, including Speaker Johnson, to pass real solutions like comprehensive congestion pricing.”
Uber did not substantively comment on the new bills to help drivers, only saying it would review them. But they won praise from groups representing cabbies and app-based drivers.
The proposals are aligned with the policy agenda of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, the drivers group that has persistently pushed for the for-hire vehicle freeze for months, said Executive Director Bhairavi Desai.
“The Council recognizes that there is a serious crisis here, and you can’t just take a band-aid approach,” Desai said.
The proposed health benefits could be a boon for the many app-based drivers who don’t have health insurance, said Ryan Price, the executive director of the Independent Drivers Guild. He said the Council’s newest effort to aid drivers is “a huge step forward.”
“This has only been happening because drivers have been coming together and fighting for a more fair industry,” said Price, whose group represents drivers for Uber, Lyft, Via and Juno.
(Lead image: Taxi workers rallied outside City Hall on Wednesday in favor of the Council’s efforts to rein in ride-sharing companies such as Uber and Lyft. Photo courtesy of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance)