Taxi APP Leads to Court Battle

You just never know what might prompt a battle over technology.  This case is a perfect example.  A smart phone app designed to make it easier to hail a cab in New York City is the subject of some intense litigation in the Supreme Court of New York (those of you who watch Law and Order reruns know that the trial level courts in New York state are called the “supreme court”. I don’t get it either).  And it isn’t a fight over who owns the technology, as you might expect.  This is more of a turf war.

I did not know this until I read the case, but apparently there are two types of cars for hire in NYC – yellow taxis and black cars (three if you count the illegal cars that try to pick you up at the airport, but we’ll put those aside for now).  “Black cars” are the for hire limos that you call and arrange to pick you up.  Yellow taxis pick you up when you hail them on the street.  And that is actually a legally mandated provision in a New York ordinance.

Enter the e-hail app.  As the court describes the app, it enables passengers who have the app on their smartphone to communicate with a yellow taxi driver.  The driver, who would have a corresponding device and app, would confirm the request, indicate the taxi is “off duty” and pick up the passenger.  The New York City Taxi & Limousine Commission authorized a 12 month pilot program to test out the app. 

Several black car operators went to court asking for an injunction to stop the TLC from implementing the program.   Their primary argument was that the app for all intents and purposes allowed the customer to arrange a pickup via a phone call.  The court was not impressed.  It found that the TLC had authority to “depart from” certain licensing duties so as to allow the pilot program to go forward. 

But TLC made two more interesting arguments – first that the app would exacerbate the problem of taxis not picking up riders based on race and ethnicity and second that the app was a form of age discrimination.   On the first point, the court noted that the app would actually decrease the problem.  With the app, the driver is required to accept the e-hail without knowing the driver’s identity or destination.  And if the driver changes his mind at the last minute, the e-hail app provides a record of the incident which will help with the investigation. 

The age discrimination claim rested on two assumptions.  First, the app would make fewer taxis available for old fashion hailing.  Second, less older people use smart phones.  Thus, the app would have a disproportionate impact on older people.  The court noted that there was really no evidence supporting either assumption.  It also noted that the app would potentially cut down on the time older people would need to stand and walk while waiting for a cab.  I’m not sure the court considered the argument completely sincere. 

In any event, the court denied the injunction.  So if you are heading to New York anytime soon, take your smart phone and avoid at least one hassle.