Uber filed a lawsuit on Friday to overturn New York City’s first-in-the-nation law capping the number of ride-hail drivers that operate on its streets. The law, which went into effect last August, paused the issuance of new licenses to drivers for 12 months. But Uber wants the law overturned for fear that the city will ultimately make the cap permanent.
The law was part of a sweeping legislative package passed by the New York City Council last summer to give regulators more control over e-hail companies. In addition to the cap, the city council also approved a minimum pay standard among drivers, with the goal of reducing how much time empty cars spend on the road.
Supporters claimed the cap is necessary to examine the impact of app-based cars on worsening traffic congestion in the city. But the cap amounts to a “ban first, study later” approach, Uber argues. According to the suit filed in the New York Supreme Court:
Rather than rely on alternatives supported by transportation experts and economists, the City chose to significantly restrict service, growth and competition by the for-hire vehicle industry, which will have a disproportionate impact on residents outside of Manhattan who have long been underserved by yellow taxis and mass transit. The City made this choice in the absence of any evidence that doing so would meaningfully impact congestion, the problem the City was ostensibly acting to solve.
While wildly popular among riders, Uber and Lyft have been a source of almost constant grief for policymakers, disability advocates, taxi medallion holders, and driver groups. Critics complain that Uber and Lyft have been allowed to dominate the market without having to follow many of the same rules that apply to taxis. This has led to a glut of drivers that has outstripped demand, driving down wages and increasing traffic congestion. At the time, New York City’s law capping the number of drivers was held up as a potential model for other cities that want to rein in the ride-hail industry.
For NYC mayor Bill de Blasio, the cap was also an opportunity for a do-over. He first proposed to limit the number of new Uber and Lyft vehicles in 2015, but ultimately dropped it after a bruising public relations battle with the app companies. Finding success his second time around, de Blasio has said publicly he’s inclined to keep the cap in place after the 12-month period expires.
“We’re going to put ongoing caps in place on the for-hire vehicles and we’re going to work to increase the wages and benefits [of] the drivers,” he said in a recent radio interview. Uber says this amounts to a “‘post hoc rationalization’ of a remedy the City appears to have already selected,” according to the suit.
A spokesperson for de Blasio did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for the city’s Law Department declined to comment until the lawsuit had been filed.
An Uber spokesperson said the cap blocks new drivers from receiving the benefits from the wage hike. “The City Council’s new law guarantees a living wage for drivers, and the administration should not have blocked New Yorkers from taking advantage of it by imposing a cap,” the spokesperson said. “We agree that fighting congestion is a priority, which is why we support the state’s vision for congestion pricing, the only evidence-based plan to reduce traffic and fund mass transit.”
The number of new app-based vehicles in New York City has surged in the past few years, growing from 63,000 in 2015 to over 100,000 today. These new vehicles have added an unprecedented number of new miles driven in New York City, according to a recent analysis by traffic analyst Bruce Schaller. Trip volumes have tripled in the last year and a half, and 600 million driving miles were added citywide. In addition, Schaller found evidence that ridership was shifting from public transportation to ride-hailing apps.
Meanwhile, taxi medallion owners have seen the value of their licenses drop steadily since Uber’s arrival. Saddled with debt, some taxis drivers have committed suicide — six in as many months.
“Uber thinks it is above the law,” said Bhairavi Desai, the executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. “The company wants the right to add more and more cars to our streets without limit. But there is a very human cost to Uber’s business practices.”
The cap was originally presented along with a proposal to increase wages for ride-hail drivers. That law, which went into effect on February 1st, mandates the wage floor of $17.22 per hour after expenses for drivers, or $26.51 per hour before expenses. Lyft filed a lawsuit to block the implementation of the wage law, but it later confirmed it would pay its drivers the increased rates.
Uber’s lawsuit came a day after Amazon stunned the city by pulling out of its deal to build a second headquarters in the borough of Queens. Julie Samuels, executive director of Tech:NYC, a nonprofit that helps grow tech companies in the city, said she’s concerned that these combined events will send the message that New York’s elected officials are “putting a target on tech’s back.”
“I’m not worried about Uber,” Samuels said. “I’m worried about the next company that will think twice before coming here.”