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October 2009

I have to say, what a truly amazing week it has been, in which the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission hosted the International Association of Transportation Regulators’ (IATR) 22nd Annual Conference – its first in New York City.  Considering our fair city and the nothing-less-than spectacular reputations held by both the TLC and all its regulated industries, the bar was set high to create a conference that was relevant and informative, and yet engaging and even entertaining.  From the feedback I have received from many of our fellow national and international regulators, as well as those drivers and industry leaders who attended, we have succeeded in all of those regards.

The conference theme was “Technology” and New York City’s Taxicab Passenger Enhancement Program took center stage, from sessions on the necessary legal and contracting issues, to data applications and policy analysis, to systems security – in other words, a veritable toolkit of knowledge that a regulator needs to duplicate our program in their own cities and countries.  One great highlight of the very first day of programming was a session on the future of taxicab technology – an effort known so popularly now as “Taxicab 2.0” -- moderated by none other than David Pogue, the New York Times Technology Columnist, CBS Network television technology correspondent, and noted author of 50 books.  Pogue challenged his one million – yes, I said one million! – Twitter followers to come up with things they would like to see in taxicabs in the future, and they came through for him in the thousands.  Many of their “tweets” were practical and some were simply interesting!  (You can read his Web article on the session at http://pogue.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/09/17/taxi-tidbits-and-techno-tales/?hp).  I should also mention that the panel itself was every bit as impressive as its moderator, and included the president of WABC Television, one of the City’s three authorized technology providers, an MIT-affiliated expert in machine intelligence and the director of marketing for Verizon Wireless, who discussed the next horizon in wireless communication – 4G.

Day Two started with components on using technology to enhance the ability of regulators to communicate with their many constituents, i.e. passengers, drivers, owners and operators, as well as to enhance accessibility to better serve persons with disabilities.  As literally stated in the conference outline, these sessions deeply explored the concept of integrating technology with enforcement to implement a successful wheelchair accessible vehicle program, with expert panelists that included Chicago’s Consumer Affairs Commissioner, Norma Reyes.  Later modules allowed conference attendees to visit the TLC’s state-of-the-art Safety & Emissions facility in Woodside, Queens (they couldn’t believe how clean it was!) as well as our Licensing & Adjudications facilities in Long Island City.  Visiting regulators also had the opportunity to visit an active and thriving black car base to experience its operators’ intense use of technology to stay ahead of every curve.

Day Three saw regulators and industry members discussing and learning more about something that is absolutely central to what we all do and care about – how to effectively use technology to keep our licensed drivers as safe as humanly – and technologically – possible.  In one particularly interesting session, we saw “dueling panelists” debating the pros and cons of partitions and security cameras, mixing expert regulators with leading transportation providers as well as partition and camera manufacturers.

Skipping ahead, another true highlight of the conference was the IATR’s first annual International Driver Recognition Ceremony.  As many of you know, the TLC pauses each year to honor New York City’s crème de la crème – the drivers who have brought honor to their city and their profession by accomplishing deeds ranging from returning lost jewelry, cash and irreplaceable personal items to saving lives.  In discussing our success with these events with the IATR’s Board of Directors, the desire became apparent to merge the TLC’s annual event with an IATR event to create a truly spectacular happening.

We honored 20 carefully-chosen honorees in all, ranging from drivers whose efforts expanded service to disabled passengers in both Ottawa and Chicago, to New York City’s own “Jack The Hack” – the man who, until just a few short months ago, had the lowest active “hack number” in the city.  We also honored Washington, D.C.’s 56-year veteran humanitarian cabbie, a devout reverend that singlehandedly revolutionized the lives and health of 1,500 men, women and children living in a remote South Central African village.  We also paused to laud a crime-stopping hero hack from Manitoba.  Thanks to the generosity of their employers, many of these far-flung drivers were able to attend the ceremony in person, while we honored others in absentia with their gifts accepted by their local regulators.

Of course, everyone in New York City knows that there is some kind of bizarrely strange bond between irreplaceable antique stringed instruments and taxicabs!  Well, in recognition of this, we thought it would be fun to enjoy musical performances from several prominent musicians who went from the bottomless despair of believing that they would never see their lost instruments again, to the soaring joy of having that instrument back in their arms again, sometimes within only a few scant hours.  Violinist Hahn-Bin, who left his $650,000 Pressenda instrument in a taxicab for the TLC to find with its GPS capabilities last month, performed magnificently, as did talented violist Ann Roggen, whose own $60,000 18th century Tyrolean viola and bows were lost and returned by exemplary driver Deniz Getting (one of the day’s many honorees) last September.

The most memorable part of the day, however, came when we bestowed the “International Driver of the Year” award on Phoenix taxicab driver Thomas Chappell, who, in a few short months, will donate a kidney to his passenger-turned-good friend Rita Van Loenen, a special education instructor.  There was not a person in the room who was not moved by his humility, his humanity, and his sheer goodness, as he explained why his deed was simply “no big deal”……a common assertion of real heroes.  Everyone present smiled as one when he told of how his newfound celebrity brought he and his long-lost daughter together again after 31 years apart.  As of the moment of this writing, Tom is on a flight to Kentucky to see his daughter for the very first time in over three decades, and meet his four new grandchildren for the very first time.  Godspeed Tom!

Last but not least, the ceremony concluded with my taking the oath of office as the IATR’s new president – a role I am proud to assume on behalf of our city, the TLC, and its regulated industries, as it reflects so well on the groundbreaking work we have done over the years.  My goal is to expand the IATR, to learn even more about the best practices of governments and for-hire transportation industries worldwide, which benefits both the TLC and all IATR members.  Many thanks go to outgoing IATR President Malachi Hull from Atlanta, Georgia for his support and leadership over the past year.  Next year, the IATR conference will be in Chicago, Illinois – another great taxi town – and we are excited as we embark upon our ambitious agenda.

Until next time………

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