One of the signature quests of Mayor Bloomberg’s third term was throwing the weight of City Hall behind car-service apps like Uber and Hailo, which promised to make hailing a taxi in the streets of New York as easy as tapping a smartphone screen. Now, those same start-ups are worried that a mayoral win by Bill de Blasio could reduce their progress to rubble.
De Blasio, who currently has a 40-point lead in the race against Republican Joe Lhota, is seen by many involved in the city’s transportation program as favoring medallion holders, the owners of New York’s official yellow taxi licenses, who have been battling against Uber and Hailo in court for years. De Blasio has collected more than $250,000 in campaign donations from the taxi industry, and has been one of the most outspoken opponents of Mayor Bloomberg’s outer-borough transportation policies. He’s said that he would replace David Yassky, the tech-friendly commissioner of the Taxi and Limousine Commission, with a commissioner of his own choosing.
And a week away from De Blasio’s all-but-certain election as mayor, transportation start-ups are bracing themselves for change.
Publicly, these companies aren’t saying much about the possibility of a De Blasio win. But interviews with several people close to the transportation companies reveal a sense of impending doom. They fear that the gains they made under Bloomberg’s watch — namely, an “e-hail” program, which allowed riders to hail taxis with smartphone apps, and the introduction of an outer-borough taxi plan that gives more competition to livery services — will vanish under De Blasio. They worry that a De Blasio–led City Hall will join ranks with the city’s medallion holders and livery-car companies instead of new entrants like Uber, which give riders more options for getting themselves around but also cut into the profits of traditional transportation services. And they know that Lyft and SideCar, two ride-sharing apps that have taken off elsewhere in the country but are still considered illegal in New York City, will have a harder time getting a foothold.
“They’re right to be nervous,” said one person with ties to the Bloomberg administration. “De Blasio has talked the yellow fleet’s talk and walked their walk to date.”
A spokeswoman from the De Blasio campaign didn’t immediately return a request for comment. Stu Loeser, an Uber spokesman (and former Bloomberg press secretary), declined to comment on the company’s behalf. And a Hailo spokesman sounded a hopeful note. “Bill de Blasio is bullish on tech,” he told me. “He recognizes that New York has to lead. And we’re confident that if he becomes the next mayor, he’ll recognize the importance of technology.”
But there’s little in De Blasio’s history with the taxi industry for Uber and Hailo to be optimistic about. As public advocate, De Blasio filed an amicus brief against the mayor’s borough taxi plan, which he said needed “major revisions.” The plan, which allows for up to 18,000 new, green taxis to pick up passengers in upper Manhattan and the outer-boroughs, was part of Mayor Bloomberg’s attempt to blur the divide between livery cars and the yellow cabs that course through the streets of Manhattan, and make it easier for passengers in both kinds of cars to get a ride. (The taxi industry sued to stop the outer-borough taxis, but a state appeals court upheld the plan last June.)
The main question for these companies is whether De Blasio will oppose New York’s e-hail pilot program. The program, which began in June and is scheduled to run for a year, allows passengers to hail a yellow taxi from their smartphones, and it, too, was contentious among livery-car owners, who sued to stop it and are still appealing the June verdict. Livery owners claimed that the e-hail program could lead to unfairness and discrimination by drivers, but they were protecting their pocketbooks as well.
Between the two biggest companies now operating e-hail services in the city, Uber has the advantage of being bigger — it currently operates in twenty countries — and having a stand-alone black car business. Its UberTAXI service for yellow cabs could be shut down if another challenge to e-hail is successful, but the service isn’t a big money-maker. Hailo works exclusively with New York’s yellow cabs, though, meaning that a policy change could put a severe dent in business.
De Blasio’s support for the conventional taxi industry over on-demand and ride-sharing apps is just one of the reasons New York’s start-up community might fear the end of the Bloomberg era. Another is the legal battle surrounding Airbnb, the house-sharing service, which is to apartments what Lyft and SideCar are to vehicles. Airbnb has been locking horns with state attorney general Eric Schneiderman, who subpoenaed the site for information on how its users are renting out space to strangers. And De Blasio appears to be skeptical of the site as well, saying in a Reddit AMA that “the challenges posed by AirBnB today are real, in terms of safety, public tax revenue, etc.”
The taxi apps’ one advantage over Lyft, Sidecar, and Airbnb: Namely, they’re already legal. This week, a state appellate court allowed the e-hail program’s yearlong pilot test to continue, and it could be hard for a new mayor to throw the brakes on the program now that it’s been established. But the taxi industry in New York is notoriously persistent, and with a less tech-friendly mayor and TLC commissioner, it could push to roll back the transportation laws that Bloomberg changed.
Airbnb’s co-founders, Nathan Blecharczyk, Brian Chesky, and Joe Gebbia, seem to have understood the need to get De Blasio in their corner ahead of Tuesday’s election. Despite the fact that they live in California, all three gave the individual maximum of $4,950 to the De Blasio campaign. The taxi services may be following suit. Another Californian, Shervin Pishevar, an early Uber investor who has been a strategic adviser to the company, recently maxed out his De Blasio donation as well. These new campaign donors know that if you’re trying to change the way New York gets around, it helps to have City Hall on your side.