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Taxi hailing apps off to slow start in New York, but could still accelerate

Taxi hailing apps off to slow start in New York, but could still accelerate

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New York City Taxi TLC (STOCK)
New York City Taxi TLC (STOCK)

Some of the first data on New York City's nascent taxi e-hail program was released earlier this week, and the headline stat painted a grim picture: only 0.25 percent of all taxi trips were e-hails, and just 17 percent of electronic cab requests resulted in an actual ride. New Yorkers should be careful, however, before they write off the program — and apps like Hailo and Uber — as a bad fit for the city.

Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) chair David Yassky defended the e-hail program, saying in a statement that "it’s way too soon to draw any meaningful conclusions." And he has a point. The data (provided by the TLC, which oversees the program) ostensibly shows the failure of the program to make an impact during the month of June. But a restraining order banning e-hailed cars from city streets wasn't lifted until June 6th, and the first full day of authorized e-hailing didn't come until the 7th.

"It’s way too soon to draw any meaningful conclusions."

Not only is the program in its early days, and it isn't even in full form yet: the TLC only gave Hailo and Uber permission to facilitate e-hails as part of a yearlong trial. It will undoubtedly take time for New Yorkers to remember that e-hailing is an option, and only a limited number of the city's 13,000 cabs are set up to accept such rides at this time. New Yorkers are also indoctrinated to system that prohibits prearranged taxi rides (there's no way to phone a taxi operator in New York), so the idea of "calling ahead" for a cab is a foreign concept to many riders. And considering that the program had a number of false starts mired by months of legal battles, it isn't surprising that more customers haven't used the service.

The data itself isn't as bad as it looks, either. While only 17 percent of attempted e-hails were converted into actual rides, that number includes any hail that failed because either no cabs were available or the driver rejected the request. Across the city during the month of June, then, 54 percent of all confirmed rides were successful, with the rest being canceled by either the driver or the passenger. That isn't a stellar number, but controls are in place to limit cancelations: as in the other cities they operate in, both Hailo and Uber charge fees from $5 to $10 if hailers cancel a ride after a certain amount of time. They also will kick drivers out of the program if they garner a record of abandoning e-hails.

E-hails are helping “at least some passengers at least some of the time.”

Nevertheless, it's clear that e-hail apps haven't yet revolutionized the way New Yorkers get cabs. But perhaps what's more important is the realization that these apps won't serve each city in the same way. Beyond the nuances and complexities of taxi interests and regulations in each city, geography and usage habits will change how e-hail apps are used from city to city. New York, more than cities like San Francisco, Washington DC, and Boston, has such a large concentration of cabs and customers in central areas that e-hails in those spots make little sense for either drivers or customers — it's simply faster and easier to stick your hand up at the curb. While apps like Hailo might serve as nearly complete replacement for traditional hails in a city like San Francisco, the benefits of e-hailing in New York may very well be limited to customers looking for rides during off-peak hours and those in underserved areas like the outer boroughs.

Indeed, the statistics released this week show that areas with the greatest percentage of e-hailed rides were in boroughs like Brooklyn and Queens. Some parts of Brooklyn, like Williamsburg, saw over 5 percent of all trips coming from e-hails while less than half of 1 percent of all trips in central Manhattan came from e-hails. The data also shows that e-hail ridership peaks during off-hours (between roughly 11PM and 6AM), when there are fewer cabs on the street.

So while it may be early to draw conclusions, it appears that this new form of taxi hailing can serve a purpose in New York by filling in the gaps where street hails fall short. That makes e-hail apps far from a game changer, but bringing cabs to underserved areas is still a worthy cause.