I wanted to begin this month’s column with an observation…..there’s no denying that symbolism is important. I say this for many reasons, but the most relevant among them at this moment is the fact that the industries regulated by the TLC are very much about symbolism. Taxicabs are symbolic icons the world over, as are the wise cabbies who drive them. Perhaps less identifiable, but no less iconic, are the liveries and black cars that serve our neighborhoods and our business communities.
As all reading this column will know, the TLC is embroiled in several legal battles involving efforts to test the performance and effects of a technology-based service model that is already serving customers in dozens of major cities around the country and the world, as well as to bring Manhattan-quality taxicab service to the boroughs outside of Manhattan that have been starved for it for as long as anyone can remember.
As different as these issues may be, I believe they have a single thread in common…..the fact that symbolism played a strong role in people’s belief that these innovations should not go from concept to reality.
In the case of our efforts to implement a one-year pilot to test e-hailing apps for yellow taxicabs, there are those in the black car industry – who already use e-hail apps themselves to very positive effect -- who want to preserve the symbolic monopoly of street hails for yellow taxicabs for fear that e-hails will somehow – again, symbolically -- turn yellow cabs into black cars and compete in their arena. It’s hard to predict for certain what effect e-hails will have on all the various stakeholders, but that’s exactly why a pilot program, with detailed quarterly reports, is the way to go. Our take on this, of course, is that the public deserves the right to decide what services it does and does not want to patronize. But since New York City is so different from other cities that have embraced such apps, it will be interesting to see whether it translates well. I, for one, do not believe for a minute that the good old-fashioned hand-in-the-air hail is any danger. We’re a hail town, and I think we always will be. I do, on the other hand, believe that apps can fill a void at the fringes of existing service….late at night, way uptown or downtown, or at the very edges of the upper West or East sides. If an app can help someone get service they otherwise wouldn’t have or would have to wait significantly longer for, then bravo.
See, that’s where symbolism comes in.
We’re talking about using well-established technology to serve the public better with a test that may or may not result in any lasting changes. Interestingly enough, the black car industry is itself an offshoot of the yellow taxi industry that blossomed out of a need for better ways to match people with the transportation services they need. In other words, they bucked the symbolism to create something new….and it worked. At its worst, however, symbolism translates such history lessons into, “this is my turf, and that’s your turf, and nothing should ever change that.”
Symbolism is a wonderful thing when it inspires pride and public service, like when our regulated industries step up to help people as they did in the days after Super Storm Sandy, or more recently when the taxi, livery and paratransit industries helped so many special needs children stay in school when their bus companies were on strike. But when symbolism inspires only fear, no one wins.
PS: Love the cover of the February 22nd NY Post! See where it says “New Yorkers pick Oscar winners”? Well, they did it from the back of a New York City taxicab in the TLC’s first-ever movie survey! Check it out: