Brian Lehrer: Brian Lehrer on WNYC. As if there aren't enough cars on the road in New York City, the Taxi & Limousine Commission has lifted its cap on new licenses for for-hire vehicles, allowing companies such as Uber, Lyft, and startup Revel to deploy thousands more vehicles on city streets so long as they're electric or wheelchair-accessible. That's the criteria, electric or wheelchair-accessible, then you can flood the zone with as many more cars as you want.
The Adams administration and the Taxi & Limousine Commission have dubbed this new initiative, Green Rides. They say it's all a part of the plan to boost the number of electric vehicles in the city's rideshare and for-hire vehicle fleet. By 2030, all non-wheelchair-accessible vehicles will be required to be electric. Now experts have warned that the move could undermine the MTA's forthcoming congestion pricing program. There may be other consequences for Uber, Lyft, and yellow cab drivers who aren't currently in EVs. We'll get into the new initiative and take a look at its implications now with Evan Simko-Bednarski, transit reporter at the Daily News.
Hi, Evan. Welcome to WNYC.
Evan Simko-Bednarski: Thank you, Brian. Good morning.
Brian Lehrer: Listeners, we have time for a few of your calls. I know we always get calls from taxi and rideshare drivers. We love you, drivers. We are proud to be one of the places where you get a little bit of a public voice, so you are invited to help us report this story from your perspective. 212-433-WNYC, 212-433-9692. Call or text.
Evan, what's the new rule, if you want to flesh it out a little bit more than I did, and how is it supposed to advance the city's climate goals?
Evan Simko-Bednarski: Sure. There are two things at work here. One is the Green Rides Initiative, which the Mayor has hinted at and spoken about openly for a couple of months now, which, as you said, is supposed to mandate that by 2030, all rideshare dispatches should be zero-emission or wheelchair-accessible. That's going to be rolled out gradually, according to the TLC commissioners. The goal is to have, by the end of next year, 5% of all dispatches by the rideshare companies fit that criteria.
The new part of this, for those of us who are sort of fans and watchers of the TLC, is the ending of the license pause for electric vehicles. There was a license pause that went into effect in 2018 that was supposed to both reduce the congestion on the roads and also give some financial relief to yellow cab drivers who were really in dire straits at that point. The new rule that was announced this week will lift that cap for electric vehicles, allowing anybody with an electric vehicle to apply for a TLC plate to be a rideshare driver in the city.
Brian Lehrer: Of the existing rideshare fleet, how many cars are electric or wheelchair-accessible, or what percentage, and are the Adams administration and the TLC addressing a shortage of wheelchair-accessible taxis and rideshares by unveiling this program?
Evan Simko-Bednarski: There certainly is a shortage in the grand scheme of things. There are roughly about 78,000 TLC-plated rideshare cars in the fleet; of that, about 2,200 are electric vehicles and a little over 6,000 are wheelchair-accessible. It bears noting that there has been an exception for wheelchair-accessible vehicles since the cap was instituted, since the pause was instituted. Anybody who has a wheelchair-accessible vehicle has been able to apply for a plate this whole time, so this new rule applies predominantly to EVs.
Brian Lehrer: Except for a one-time exception in March of this year, the TLC hasn't issued new plates since Mayor de Blasio instituted a pause in 2018 after the streets had been flooded with tens of thousands more cars on the road, compared to the time before Uber and Lyft when it was just the very regulated number of yellow cabs and green cabs. Did that pause significantly ease congestion or moderate the number of rideshare cars competing with poor yellow cab drivers who got overwhelmed and the value of their medallions went down?
Evan Simko-Bednarski: It froze things in the status quo as they were. yellow cabs have recovered somewhat, but they're still down pretty significantly. In fact, the whole industry is down post-pandemic. By one statistic, there were about 14 rideshare rides per day per car in February of 2020. That's now down to about 11 or 12, depending on who you talk to. The cap has also created a situation where new drivers, drivers who want to come online now can't get a plate, and so they end up being shunted into a leasing arrangement with one of several large companies that own thousands of plates.
Brian Lehrer: Again, the TLC made an exception to the pause this past March. It offered 1,000 new license plates, but only two electric vehicles license plates. Why would the exception have been made then, and was there any outcome from that that led to this larger expansion?
Evan Simko-Bednarski: Well, I think the TLC commissioners would say and said at the time that it was a little bit of a test to see what the appetite was, and they were scalped up in minutes. They were two batches of plates that were assigned, some earmarked for individual drivers, others that were open to, again, these larger leasing companies. In both instances, the plates were up for minutes online before they were all spoken for.
Brian Lehrer: Yes, they were gone within minutes, and maybe that's a sign of what's to come with the removal of this cap. How many more rideshare and for-hire cars do the TLC and the Adams administration believe this new rule will put on the roads, and how quickly?
Evan Simko-Bednarski: Well, if there's a number written on a study or a document somewhere, I haven't seen it. I've asked the question. The TLC commissioners feel as though, since there's already such a small number of EVs, that the bulk of these, in their opinion, will be people who are converting their extant cars, drivers who already exist on the road. If you asked the commissioners, they are not anticipating a huge influx of cars out of this, but with eliminating the cap, there's really very little they can do to adjust if there ends up being a large influx of EVs coming online.
Brian Lehrer: Yes. I wonder if anybody active in the environmental movement with respect to climate or anything else has an opinion about this, or for that matter, the disability rights movement. Do you like this order by the Adams administration to allow an unlimited number of new for-hire rideshare cars on the road as long as they're electric or wheelchair-accessible? 212-433-WNYC. Or is the net negative of so many more cars on the road to come, presumably, does that outweigh it? 212-433-9692. Or any taxi or rideshare drivers of any kind. 212-433-9692. Call or text.
I wonder if any of you who are still driving gas-powered vehicles are going to trade them in now or try to up the pace at which you trade in your gasoline-powered car for one that is electric, or if that's just not something you have the money for or worth your investment. Drivers, 212-433-9692, for Evan Simko-Bednarski, transit reporter for the Daily News.
Evan, the traffic engineer and expert, Gridlock Sam Schwartz, known as Gridlock Sam in the Daily News, told WNYC and Gothamist Transportation Reporter Stephen Nessen that it's a mistake to raise the cap and that the city should "wait for congestion pricing to be implemented before making significant changes." Why this timing?
Evan Simko-Bednarski: Well, it's not exactly clear. This comes as part of a larger set of initiatives on the part of the city to decarbonize the municipal fleet. There are a greater number of EVs in city worker cars and things of that nature. Timing on congestion pricing has been in flux for a while. We're still waiting on the results of a separate state board that's supposed to tell folks what it's going to cost to drive into Lower Manhattan.
We do know that cost of rideshares is probably going to go up or almost certainly going to go up. It's looking like the MTA and the TMRB, the board that's coming up with those rules, is going to be charging on a per-ride basis for rideshare cars coming into Manhattan south of 60th Street. Some of the concerns that I'm hearing from drivers and driver advocates is that you're going to end up with a situation where there are more cars on the road, where post-congestion pricing things are going to be more expensive, and overall this is going to drive demand down for drivers, and we're going to see that trips per car per day plummet even further.
Brian Lehrer: Lifting the cap would appear to undermine congestion pricing, given the prevalence of rideshare and for-hire vehicles on the city streets. Is Mayor Adams a fan of congestion pricing?
Evan Simko-Bednarski: He said that he is. The state and the city are not always on the same page in transit policy. I don't know the extent to which the two were in conversation on this, but I think in terms of the spirit of the law, the city sees this as dealing with pollution, if not congestion, and sees it as being very much in line with the goals that the MTA says are behind congestion pricing.
Brian Lehrer: Peter in Bay Shore has a question. Peter, you're on WNYC. Hello?
Peter: Hi. How are you today, Brian?
Brian Lehrer: Good.
Peter: My question is-- I was thinking about in terms of yellow cab drivers, but it could be for your rideshare people also. You're requiring them to be electric by 2030. Let's say a fellow just bought his car today, it's gas-powered. Now you're forcing him to buy another vehicle, which he might not have had to have done at that point, and I think that's unfair.
Second thing is, does anyone know how many miles on average, I'll say yellow cab because they've been around longer, drives in the course of a day? If so, electric cars, they have a limited range- well, every car does. Their range is somewhere around 200, give or take 50, 75 miles either way. For a gas car, if they're running low on gas, they pull in a station five minutes, they can fill the whole tank and they're on their way. Electric, they could be anywhere from, I don't know, let's say 18 minutes on up, depending on how fast their charger is, that they're sitting stationary, not making any money and having to wait for this car to recharge. [crosstalk]--
Brian Lehrer: Right, and Peter, I'm going to leave it there and have our guest respond to both questions. Our time is running low, but thank you for those questions. We will get them answered. Evan, to take the second question first, charging stations. If we're converting to an all-electric taxi and rideshare vehicle fleet by 2030, does the city have a plan to keep up with that, as the caller highlights, with enough charging stations?
Evan Simko-Bednarski: That's the elephant in the room. That's what makes or breaks this policy in a lot of people's view. The city seems to be reliant on private partners to be building out the infrastructure. Revel, which you mentioned at the top of the segment, has committed to building a lot of chargers in the outer boroughs. I don't have the exact number in front of me. The charging infrastructure is potentially a problem here. That's what a lot of drivers, a lot of advocates, and even city officials have been saying.
We have hundreds of chargers around the city at this point, but a lot of them are not fast chargers, and to the caller's point, time is money, especially for a rideshare driver. That infrastructure needs to be built out. The TLC has said on multiple occasions that they reserve the right to go back and adjust the timeline on this or amend the rule if, as we approach 2030, the charging infrastructure just isn't up to snuff to meet the fleet.
Brian Lehrer: The first part of the caller's question, drivers with maybe relatively new gasoline-powered cars that they use as Uber and Lyft drivers, will they have to exchange them by 2030? People might debate and say, "Hey, that's seven years out. That's pretty doable. That's enough of a timeline to give people notice," but he was saying, well, maybe they won't be able to afford that even then with cars that might be in relatively good condition still. Is it that all cars doing rideshare will have to be electric by 2030 or all new cars starting in 2030?
Evan Simko-Bednarski: It is all cars, Brian. That's one of the concerns that I'm hearing from drivers the most is that a lot of folks have invested recently in new cars, cars that are going to cost them less in gas because they're hybrids, or cars that are going to cost them less in maintenance, especially as things have gotten a little bit more difficult industrywide. There's concern that they're going to have to buy a, most likely, still more expensive EV before they were planning on replacing their car in order to be dispatched.
Again, the TLC plans, and we don't know what it will be, come 2025/2026, but plans on ramping up the requirements gradually for how many rideshare rides need to be dispatched to zero-emission vehicles. There's concern that if they don't get a zero-emission vehicle or an electric vehicle, they'll be at the back of the list. When asked about this, TLC says, well, this is why we're doing it gradually. The Commission's Chair, David Do, made sure to say multiple times when this was announced, we are not asking people to go out and buy an EV today or this week or this month, but it is something that's front of mind for a lot of drivers right now.
Brian Lehrer: I take it from the start of that answer that hybrids do not count as electric.
Evan Simko-Bednarski: Correct.
Brian Lehrer: Ayzal in Brooklyn, you're on WNYC. Hi, Ayzal.
Ayzal: Good morning. I have one question because I always hear of this congestion below 60th Street [crosstalk]--
Brian Lehrer: And you're a driver for Uber and Lyft, just so the listeners know, right?
Ayzal: Yes, I drive Uber and Lyft. I actually have this question. The congestion fee, is it going to be a one-time one-day thing, or is it going to be anytime you go below 60th Street?
Evan Simko-Bednarski: The folks who are charged with making that decision have not made a solid decision yet, but the confusion is that in the environmental assessment, the MTA proposed a one-time once-a-day charge to taxi and rideshare drivers. Taxi and rideshare drivers have argued against that saying, "Look, that's harder for us to pass on to our passengers." It seems like the state is now leaning towards putting into effect a per-ride surcharge, much the way that a lot of the congestion charges are already assessed in yellow cabs, so that it can be more readily passed on to the passenger and not paid for by the drive company.
Brian Lehrer: Thank you for your call, Ayzal. Good luck. I know you and so many other drivers are enraged by getting a congestion fee on top of the fees you already pay and that your riders already pay. Yes, obviously that's a big point of contention and something that, as Evan says, the MTA is trying to figure out how to be fair to you and still accomplish the goal of congestion pricing, when for-share rides and yellow taxis are such a high percentage of the cars on the road at all below 60th Street.
Do you have that number, by the way, Evan, top of mind? I don't know it, but it's some really large percentage of all the cars at any given moment, especially during the business day, I guess, below 60th Street.
Evan Simko-Bednarski: I do not have it top of mind, but it is the majority of rides during certain hours of the day.
Brian Lehrer: Question from listener Nick in Fort Greene via text, "Isn't part of the goal of congestion pricing in most cities, for example, London, linked directly to improving ambient air pollution, not simply reducing traffic?" I'll add, not simply reducing carbon emissions for the sake of preventing climate change. The listener continues, "Obviously, these are inextricably linked, but on the whole, more EVs in a dense area seems good if they are replacing gas vehicles."
I think the listener has a point, Evan. It's something that in all our conversations about congestion pricing and about these laws forcing transitions to electric vehicles, we talk about climate so much, but it's also just regular ground-level air pollution which causes so much disease, especially in poorer urban areas.
Evan Simko-Bednarski: Yes. I mean, you look at parts of the Bronx and Brooklyn that are close to major truck thoroughfares, and you see astronomically higher rates of asthma and similar conditions very much. There's a degree to which congestion is congestion, but there's also, I think, an important degree to which not having an internal combustion engine idling outside your window - I live next to a bus stop, I'm very, very aware of that - it's a good thing. It doesn't solve all of the problems, but it does potentially solve a few very important ones.
Brian Lehrer: By the way, the cap on for-hire vehicles that de Blasio imposed has not been without consequences. Because TLC-plated vehicles were so scarce, many drivers were paying $400 to $500 per week to lease those cars, and barely breaking even after five or six days of work. It's not just the yellow cab drivers, but also the Uber and Lyft drivers.
How much did concerns about the burden or leasing factor into the TLC's plan to lift the cap at least on electric and wheelchair-accessible for-hire vehicles?
Evan Simko-Bednarski: The TLC has said that they hope that this will allow a lot of drivers who are currently leasing and again, spending-- yes, I've heard numbers ranging from $300 to $600, depending on the car, per week to drive, and working 60, 70-hour weeks as a result. The hope is that this will allow them to trade that for, say, a $400, $500-a-month financing arrangement on an EV.
It's worth saying that, as I mentioned earlier, when they did the 1,000 EV licenses in March, some of those were earmarked specifically for individual drivers. That is to say an LLC or a larger leasing organization couldn't come in and buy up the licenses. That's not the case here. This is, strictly speaking, sort of a deregulated approach. The hope is that without the stranglehold, there's less incentive for these companies to buy up a large batch of license plates and lease, but it remains to be seen how that's going to play out.
Brian Lehrer: Last question, and in a way it's a little off-topic, of the Adams administration lifting the cap on new for-hire vehicles as long as they're electric or wheelchair-accessible. Because you've also reported that New York is on track to have the deadliest year for cyclists since 1999-
Evan Simko-Bednarski: That's right.
Brian Lehrer: -and the Adams administration and the TLC have dubbed this new plan to boost the number of electric for-hire vehicles, Green Rides. Well, if you aren't walking, what's greener than riding a bike? Won't more cars on the road, even if their electric vehicles or wheelchair-accessible, just make cycling more hazardous?
Evan Simko-Bednarski: It's a good question and, yes, so we are on track to have the deadliest year for cyclists since 1999, when 40 cyclists were killed on New York City streets. Currently, there have been 26 deaths atop bicycles on the streets this year; 18 of those have been folks riding e-bikes, 8 have been folks riding traditional bikes.
By and large, it seems as though the traditional cycling deaths have dropped. E-bikes, being faster and heavier, seem to be contributing to that death toll, but what kills folks in most cases-- so six of the deaths this year were what the Department of Transportation called solo crashes, folks whose bikes did not crash into another vehicle or were not hit by another vehicle. This could be somebody who hit a stationary object, hit a curb, lost control. All six of those have been e-bikes. The remaining deaths have been, as traditionally is the case, being hit by another vehicle.
Having heavier, quieter EVs on the road, having more of them, is something that we may need to think about designing our streets around.
Brian Lehrer: Evan Simko-Bednarski, transit reporter for the New York Daily News. Thanks so much.
Evan Simko-Bednarski: Thank you very much, Brian.
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