New York’s Taxi Time Warp

The yellow taxi is a New York City icon. But in a city that prides itself on being on the cutting edge, those cabs are bound by an archaic system that shows no signs of budging.

New York’s taxi medallion system was established back in 1937. For decades, there were 11,787 cabs in the city, and that number has barely inched up to 13,237 today. Only medallion taxis are legally authorized to pick up street hails.

You can generally find medallion taxis at airports and in Manhattan below 96th Street or so. In some parts of the outer boroughs, you might go days without seeing a yellow cab – unless you happen to catch one in the act of dropping off another passenger, since taxis are legally required to take passengers anywhere within New York City (though this requirement is not always observed).

In the capital of American capitalism, the car-for-hire industry has been carved into fiefdoms and locked in a time warp that disadvantages drivers and passengers alike.

The medallion system is the basic problem in New York’s taxi industry, and the basic problem with the medallion system is that medallions are treated as private property that can be bought and sold, rather than as licenses or franchises that ultimately belong to the city itself.

New York’s medallions are traded through a close-knit community of authorized brokers. Medallion owners make their money through appreciation in the medallion’s price and by leasing their medallions to cab drivers.

Back in the ‘30s, the medallions functioned more like licenses, and could not be leased. When that changed in 1979, medallion prices began their dramatic rise. Last year, medallion prices passed the $1 million mark. Purchasing a medallion is effectively out of reach for most taxi drivers. Only about 40 percent of New York’s fleet is operated under individual, rather than corporate, medallions; even those only have to be driven by the owner occasionally, and can still be leased. Bhairavi Desai, the head of New York’s nonprofit Taxi Workers Alliance, described the system as “feudal.” The system enriches medallion owners and the financial system that has sprung up around them, while injuring the drivers themselves.

So it is only a small added insult that, in order to maintain this misguided system, the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission seems inclined to prevent drivers from using modern conveniences to find customers who want rides.

Uber, a company based in California, wants to get its smartphone app into the hands of New Yorkers, drivers and passengers alike. The app allows taxi seekers to broadcast their location with a push of a button. Available cabs that are nearby receive the request on their version of the app, which allows them to go find a fare they might have otherwise missed.

The TLC claims that, among other potential violations, Uber is violating the rule against pre-arranged rides for yellow cabs. Instead, the commission would rather force drivers to wander the city aimlessly, burning $5-per-gallon gas looking for street hails. (The commission says it might get around to authorizing one or more apps sometime next year, probably in return for the city getting some cash from the vendor.)

Street hails might quickly become obsolete anyway. If given the choice, who wouldn’t prefer to press a button and have a cab come to meet them, especially in the outer boroughs? Travis Kalanick, Uber’s chief executive, is still confident that his service and services like it are the future. “The bottom line is the genie is out of the bottle,” he told The New York Times. It’s hard to imagine that a population as obsessed with cutting-edge convenience as New York cab riders would willingly give up such a useful service once it’s in their hands – a fact Uber is betting on by offering its service for free in a preview stage.

If street hails eventually vanish, what exactly will a $1 million medallion be worth? It will be interesting to watch the city that invented the New York minute try to modernize a taxi system stuck in the era of Fiorello LaGuardia.

About Larry M. Elkin 553 Articles

Affiliation: Palisades Hudson Financial Group

Larry M. Elkin, CPA, CFP®, has provided personal financial and tax counseling to a sophisticated client base since 1986. After six years with Arthur Andersen, where he was a senior manager for personal financial planning and family wealth planning, he founded his own firm in Hastings on Hudson, New York in 1992. That firm grew steadily and became the Palisades Hudson organization, which moved to Scarsdale, New York in 2002. The firm expanded to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2005, and to Atlanta, Georgia, in 2008.

Larry received his B.A. in journalism from the University of Montana in 1978, and his M.B.A. in accounting from New York University in 1986. Larry was a reporter and editor for The Associated Press from 1978 to 1986. He covered government, business and legal affairs for the wire service, with assignments in Helena, Montana; Albany, New York; Washington, D.C.; and New York City’s federal courts in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Larry established the organization’s investment advisory business, which now manages more than $800 million, in 1997. As president of Palisades Hudson, Larry maintains individual professional relationships with many of the firm’s clients, who reside in more than 25 states from Maine to California as well as in several foreign countries. He is the author of Financial Self-Defense for Unmarried Couples (Currency Doubleday, 1995), which was the first comprehensive financial planning guide for unmarried couples. He also is the editor and publisher of Sentinel, a quarterly newsletter on personal financial planning.

Larry has written many Sentinel articles, including several that anticipated future events. In “The Economic Case Against Tobacco Stocks” (February 1995), he forecast that litigation losses would eventually undermine cigarette manufacturers’ financial position. He concluded in “Is This the Beginning Of The End?” (May 1998) that there was a better-than-even chance that estate taxes would be repealed by 2010, three years before Congress enacted legislation to repeal the tax in 2010. In “IRS Takes A Shot At Split-Dollar Life” (June 1996), Larry predicted that the IRS would be able to treat split dollar arrangements as below-market loans, which came to pass with new rules issued by the Service in 2001 and 2002.

More recently, Larry has addressed the causes and consequences of the “Panic of 2008″ in his Sentinel articles. In “Have We Learned Our Lending Lesson At Last” (October 2007) and “Mortgage Lending Lessons Remain Unlearned” (October 2008), Larry questioned whether or not America has learned any lessons from the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. In addition, he offered some practical changes that should have been made to amend the situation. In “Take Advantage Of The Panic Of 2008” (January 2009), Larry offered ways to capitalize on the wealth of opportunity that the panic presented.

Larry served as president of the Estate Planning Council of New York City, Inc., in 2005-2006. In 2009 the Council presented Larry with its first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award, citing his service to the organization and “his tireless efforts in promoting our industry by word and by personal example as a consummate estate planning professional.” He is regularly interviewed by national and regional publications, and has made nearly 100 radio and television appearances.

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