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3 Years Ago, Uber Beat Back a Cap on Vehicles. What’s Changed? A Lot.

NEW YORK — When Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed capping the number of for-hire vehicles three years ago, Uber unleashed a frontal assault against the mayor that was so effective some considered it a blueprint for his future political challengers.

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Jeffery C. Mays
, New York Times

NEW YORK — When Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed capping the number of for-hire vehicles three years ago, Uber unleashed a frontal assault against the mayor that was so effective some considered it a blueprint for his future political challengers.

De Blasio tried to fight back, but it had become clear that there was not enough City Council support to approve his plan. Days before the vote, the measure was withdrawn — with the mayor safely out of sight, on his way back from a trip to the Vatican.

The scene was vastly different on Thursday, the day after New York became the first major American city to halt the issuance of for-hire vehicle licenses, instituting a one-year cap to study the vehicles’ effect on the city. De Blasio, arriving at a boisterous rally at Union Square, received high-fives from union members who supported the bill amid shouts of “Thank you, Mr. Mayor.” He hugged the City Council speaker, Corey Johnson, who shepherded the legislation through, and then declared victory.

“Three years ago, we took a stand against corporate greed but corporate greed won the day then,” de Blasio said. “Well, this time the people won. This time the drivers won.”

What changed in three years? Quite a bit.

Despite the popularity of Uber, Lyft and other ride-sharing services, the political and market forces have shifted in New York, with much of Uber’s wounds seemingly self-inflicted.

Since 2015, Uber has faced very public complaints over discrimination. It has a new chief executive who has been trying to rework the company’s public image.

At least six taxi drivers in New York have killed themselves in the last several months, prompted, friends and family say, by the difficulty in earning a living because of the abundance of for-hire vehicles on the road. One study found that for-hire vehicles are empty 40 percent of the time in the central business district.

And many technology companies have faced a backlash as cities across the country have dealt with the effect of technology on traditional businesses.

“The shine is off Uber,” said Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, which represents drivers of yellow cabs and for-hire vehicles. “Three years ago people still thought Uber was a social justice cause and that regulation would destroy it. Not anymore.” Not long after the first attempt at the cap failed, the saturation of ride-sharing vehicles in the street became more noticeable, Desai said, and there began to be some blowback over various issues, including surge pricing.

In January 2017, when some taxi drivers refused to pick up passengers at Kennedy International Airport in protest of President Donald Trump’s executive order banning certain refugees from entering the country, #DeleteUber became a popular hashtag on social media, after some accused the company of trying to profit from the situation.

“We all kept talking, we all kept the idea alive, we all kept waiting to see the moment we could get it done,” de Blasio said. “The world changed and it became the right time to act.”

The changing climate allowed city leaders to adopt tactics that were both nuanced and aggressive. Supporters of a cap noted that subway ridership had dropped, and that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority had cited the rise of for-hire vehicles as a reason.

Johnson tried to focus the problem away from politics and look at the taxi driver suicides as reason enough to act. After each vigil that was held for a driver, Johnson used Twitter to publicly offer support, Desai said.

Drivers who work for Uber “came out in favor of this package of legislation because their drivers are struggling,” Johnson said.

Another difference from three years ago is the increase in the number of for-hire vehicles now on the road. There are more than 100,000 for-hire vehicles in New York City, up from 63,000 in 2015, according to city data. More than 80,000 of them are associated with ride-hailing apps.

Every time he publicly spoke about the legislation, Johnson made the point that the number of vehicles on the road would not change.

The opposition’s strategy also changed from 2015.

Uber officials acknowledge not going as hard after de Blasio this time. They chose not to attack the mayor or others for having received campaign donations from the yellow-cab industry. And this time around, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who spoke out against a cap three years ago, did not oppose it.

Uber instead enlisted the help of civil rights leaders such as the Rev. Al Sharpton and Marc H. Morial, the chief executive of the National Urban League, to characterize a cap as a civil-rights issue, affecting the ability of minority residents outside of Manhattan to access broad transportation options.

Indeed, some council members, in explaining their vote on Wednesday, expressed deep concern over riders being discriminated against, based on their race or neighborhood. Nonetheless, the one-year cap passed 39-6. “We gave them a full seat at the table so they couldn’t say that they didn’t get to participate,” Johnson said of Uber. “We listened to their concerns, we looked at the data,” he said, adding, “we tried to come up with a sound public policy solution.”

Uber still plans to pursue expansion by getting drivers for other for-hire companies to drive for them. They say that one aspect of the new legislation, which promoted minimum compensation for drivers, will help with recruitment.

Uber and Lyft are banking that the problems with the city’s subways, as well as sparse taxi access in the boroughs outside Manhattan and for minorities, will remain issues. If there is evidence that service is being delayed in some areas, the legislation contains a provision that will allow the taxi commission to add licenses in those areas.

“The public is wide-awake to one thing,” said an Uber spokesman, Josh Gold. “Our city’s subway system is completely broken.” Joseph Okpaku, vice president of public policy for Lyft, said the legislation would hurt transportation access for “communities of color and in the outer boroughs” and that they would fight to “ensure New Yorkers have access to reliable and affordable transportation in every borough.”

The council has already introduced more legislation to regulate the for-hire vehicle and taxi industry, such as requiring a health fund for drivers and regulations around the leasing of vehicles, Johnson said.

At the rally on Thursday, Johnson noted that he was on the opposite side in 2015, opposing cap legislation then. “I was wrong,” he said.

“It’s all good, brother,” de Blasio happily responded. “We had to keep working for the day, and the idea was kept alive for sure.”

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