Uber Gains Civil Rights Allies Against New York’s Proposed Freeze: ‘It’s a Racial Issue’

As president of the New York Urban League, Arva Rice often relies on ride-hailing apps such as Uber and Lyft to reach her home in Harlem after late-night events.

“I have been passed up by yellow taxis on numerous occasions,” explained Ms. Rice, who is black. “When you live in Harlem or Bed-Stuy, getting home is harder than it should be.”

Black and Latino New Yorkers — and those who live in the boroughs outside Manhattan — have long said they are not served well by yellow taxis. Now, a proposal by the City Council to place a one-year freeze on for-hire vehicle licenses is being opposed as a civil rights issue by organizations such as the National Urban League, the National Action Network and the N.A.A.C.P.

“I’m trying to get to work, I’m trying to get to school — I want somebody that’s going to pick me up,” the Rev. Al Sharpton told an audience on Saturday at the Harlem headquarters of his organization, the National Action Network.

“Some yellow cabs won’t even go uptown or to parts of Brooklyn,” Mr. Sharpton later said in an interview. “If you are downtown they won’t stop.”

The package of proposed legislation from the Council, which could be voted on as soon as Aug. 8, would stop new for-hire vehicle licenses while the impact of their growing presence was studied. That could lead to a cap on the number of for-hire vehicles, which would be a first for a major American city.

There are more than 100,000 for-hire vehicles in New York City, up from 63,000 in 2015, according to the city. More than 80,000 of them are associated with ride-hailing apps.

The increase has led to congestion on city streets, according to a 2017 report, and contributed to the troubles of the yellow cab industry. The value of a yellow cab medallion — which is required to operate a taxi — has fallen precipitously since 2014, when the city last held a medallion auction. That year, one was selling for $900,000 to $1 million, according to data from the Taxi and Limousine Commission. In June, prices ranged from $165,000 to $700,000.

There have also been six driver suicides in recent months, including a man who fatally shot himself outside City Hall, after writing a long post on Facebook about the dire effects of the competition.

Other bills in front of the Council would set a minimum wage for drivers and authorize the taxi commission to study whether to set a minimum fare; create a new license for high-volume, for-hire vehicle services; and waive the licensing fee for wheelchair-accessible vehicles.

“I understand the concerns about people of color being denied service, but I want to make clear that we are not diminishing service,” Corey Johnson, the City Council speaker, said. “The vehicles that are out there now will remain out there.”

He added: “We are not saying Uber is bad. They have met a significant need. We are saying the industry needs to be regulated.”

Mr. Johnson said the legislation would allow vehicles to be added to specific neighborhoods if the taxi commission determined that access to service was being hurt during the yearlong study. Wheelchair-accessible vehicles could also be added.

Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, which represents drivers of yellow cabs and for-hire vehicles, said it was important to discuss transportation in the context of civil rights.

“Race-based refusal is a serious issue among yellow taxis and in the Uber and Lyft world,” Ms. Desai said. “But Uber and Lyft don’t have a supply problem, they have an efficiency problem.”

For-hire drivers in the city, many of whom are nonwhite immigrants, are being hurt because the roads are oversaturated with vehicles, Ms. Desai said. Ride-hailing vehicles and yellow taxis were empty a third of the time while in Manhattan’s central business district, according to the 2017 report by Bruce Schaller, a former city transportation official.

“Defending the oversaturation which has resulted in the deep poverty of a work force made up of immigrants of color is not a civil rights position, it is the antithesis,” Ms. Desai said.

This is the second time the city has sought to slow the growth of for-hire vehicles. Mayor Bill de Blasio proposed a cap on for-hire vehicles in 2015, but the city backed down after Uber waged a public-relations campaign. Mr. de Blasio voiced support on Friday for the most recent proposal.

Uber has started a social media campaign against the proposed license freeze, and this year created a website that emphasizes the number of trips “in areas long ignored by yellow taxis and where access to public transit is limited.”

“We are growing fastest in the outer rings of the outer boroughs because we are serving communities that have been ignored by yellow taxis and taken for granted by the M.T.A.,” said Josh Gold, a spokesman for Uber, referring to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Uber statistics, he said, show that ridership in neighborhoods such as East New York in Brooklyn and Kingsbridge in the Bronx had more than doubled since this time last year.

Mr. Sharpton and Ms. Rice say their nonprofits have received donations from for-hire companies such as Uber and Lyft. The taxi industry has donated money to the campaigns of Mr. de Blasio and members of the City Council, including Rubén Díaz Sr., chairman of the Committee on For-Hire Vehicles.

Mr. Johnson, who was against the 2015 push to cap the growth of for-hire vehicles, now says the concerns are too much to ignore.

“What’s changed is the level of congestion, the explosive, unbridled growth of for-hire vehicles and the number of taxi drivers who have taken their lives,” Mr. Johnson said. “I’m for us figuring out a sound public policy solution.”

Those assurances are not enough for those who oppose the plan.

“This does not directly deal with the historic and current problem of yellow cabs’ bias of servicing us in our community,” Mr. Sharpton said.

The Rev. Dr. Johnnie M. Green Jr., the pastor of Mount Neboh Baptist Church in Harlem and president of a statewide clergy organization, said he recently had trouble getting a yellow taxi at La Guardia Airport to take him where he wanted after he had returned from Georgia.

“It’s a racial issue,” Mr. Green said. “The people that champion the crusade against Uber do not have a problem hailing yellow cabs.”

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