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COMMISSIONER'S COLUMN

April 2009

Chances are that, by now, you have heard about “Green Light For Midtown,” Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan’s highly innovative plan to reduce traffic congestion throughout Midtown Manhattan, focusing on the Times and Herald Square areas.  I thought that, since it was a matter of intense discussion by the members of the TLC’s regulated industries, we should spend a few moments on it.

Starting Memorial Day Weekend, Broadway would be closed to vehicles from 42nd Street to 47th Street in Times Square and from 33rd Street to 35th Street at Herald Square.  New pedestrian plazas will be created on Broadway between 47th and 45th Streets, 45th and 42nd Streets, and 35th and 33rd Streets.

The idea for Times Square is to simplify what is today a more complicated interaction between Seventh Avenue and Broadway, increasing green traffic light time for cars at Seventh Avenue at Times Square, and opening a fourth lane of traffic, and completely eliminating what has been quite accurately called a “lane squeeze” where Seventh Avenue bottlenecks from four lanes to three.

In Herald Square, drivers will likewise see an increase in green light time for vehicles traveling northbound on Sixth Avenue.

While these traffic improvements and pedestrian treatments will result in significant decreases in accidents, they will also result in equally significant reductions in travel time – as much as 20%, for example, for those traveling along Seventh Avenue approaching Times Square.

There are those who have expressed doubts that this plan will enable traffic to flow more freely, and that is understandable.  If we listen to enough people we will hear a variety of opinions.  But in my view, there is common sense and some very good analysis behind this plan.  Traffic congestion is a problem that needs to be addressed, and this bold plan will do just that, for the good of all – especially including our driver licensees!  While this pilot program will be monitored closely until the end of the year, at which time the experts will determine whether it should be continued, I have to say that I am very optimistic about the possibilities!  We will share further details about this initiative in the coming months.

Aside from traffic congestion, another critical subject on everyone’s mind these days is our challenged economy.  Based on recent statistics garnered by the taxi technology systems, when compared to other ground transportation industries, the medallion taxicab industry is much better situated.  For years taxi drivers have averaged about 450,000 trips per day and served between 600,000 and 650,000 riders per day.  In recent months, those numbers have remained essentially the same.  All things being equal (gas prices remaining relatively low, and no appreciable increase in driver-related expenses), the earnings of working drivers continue to be in excess of a living wage, between $14 and $16 per hour, net. 

 In what is perhaps the most interesting fact to report, it appears that the industry owes much of its current robust nature to its capability to accept credit cards!  While conventional wisdom would suggest that a small number of riders would transition away from taxicabs during a recession, we have also noted some ridership/billing decreases in related industries (the black car industry being one). It appears that some of the black car ridership loss has been picked-up by the taxicab industry due to credit card acceptance now being in all taxicabs. The number of credit card trips has continued to climb over the last year -- from 6% to about 21% -- and tips continue to average at or above 20% of the total fare, consistently higher than cash tips. I have no doubt that there are those drivers who, in their personal lives, are having some difficulty making ends meet.  In this, of course, they are far from alone.  But the reality is, and the numbers confirm, that the taxicab industry remains vital even in the face of these tough times.

So the numbers, in short, tell the story; one that is very encouraging for the taxicab industry, but creating unique challenges for the black car industry.  The one silver lining that I believe we can take away from the black car industry’s situation is that its decrease in business, estimated at 30% to 40% since last summer, may have leveled-off for now.  While the big picture remains grim, economic experts agree that recovery cannot begin before a “bottom” is established.  Of course, we at the TLC are doing what we can to assist – deferring the new fuel efficiency requirements for one year, streamlining operations to further reduce waiting times at our facilities to save licensees’ precious time, and keeping the pressure on illegal operators, to name a few things.  I also want to mention that we are very receptive to hearing ideas from the industry about how we can further assist them during these very difficult times.  For the moment, though, I have to say that once again, I am encouraged and inspired by the black car industry’s resilience and the ability of its leaders and workers to maintain their level of positivity and optimism.  This is not terribly surprising for an industry that continues to reinvent itself time and again - whether it be through cutting-edge technology, internal driver safety and quality control programs, or its ability to rebound from unexpected economic hurdles (such as the aftermath of 9/11).

So, in conclusion, I would say that while the news is good on the medallion taxi side, we have high hopes that we will be able to share some similar good news stories about our other regulated industries in the coming months.



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