New York City

Meera Joshi on the historic changes to the taxi industry

Outgoing NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission head Meera Joshi discusses her tenure and the historic changes to the industry.

TLC Commissioner Meera Joshi testifies at a NYC Council committee oversight hearing on for-hire vehicles.

TLC Commissioner Meera Joshi testifies at a NYC Council committee oversight hearing on for-hire vehicles. John McCarten for the New York City Council

The person charged with overseeing New York City’s taxis and for-hire vehicles during what has arguably been the industry’s most tumultuous time in history is now stepping down, but not without saying a few words first. At a Crain’s New York Business event on Tuesday, Meera Joshi, chief executive officer and chairwoman of the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission, spoke about a new era of regulation for an industry that has been challenged by the proliferation of for-hire vehicle companies like Uber and Lyft. Joshi, who was scheduled to headline the Crain’s event before the news broke, joked about the timing of her resignation. “I hope you got a discount on your tickets,” she said.

In the past year, the New York City Council has passed a few historic policies, including a one-year cap on new vehicle licenses for ride-hail services which went into effect in August, and allowed TLC to set minimum pay rates for app-based companies that will go into effect next month. Joshi has been at the helm of TLC since 2014, a period that has coincided with massive growth in ride-hail usage in New York. Scheduled to step down in March, Joshi spoke about the financial pressure faced by taxi and app-based drivers, the disturbing pattern of driver suicides and what comes next for the TLC.

On her resignation

When New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced over the weekend that Joshi would be stepping down from her leadership of TLC in March, the news surprised some, given that this year has been seen as a turning point for how taxis and app-based drivers will cohabitate a congested city. While there hasn’t been enough time to observe the full effects of the cap on new vehicle licenses and the minimum wage won’t take effect until February, 2019 was set to be the year that Joshi and the commission would start to see the fruits of their labor, and work to make adjustments when necessary.

“There's never a right time, especially in this industry, to leave,” Joshi said on Tuesday. “We will always be at a critical juncture at the TLC, that's the nature of what we do. It's become truer and truer in more recent years.”

Asked how the resignation happened, Joshi insisted that it was a mutual decision with the mayor. “To resign is something you come to an agreement on,” she said. While Joshi is set to serve as TLC head for a few more months, Crain’s Assistant Managing Editor Erik Engquist raised the possibility of her staying on longer if a successor is not named by then. Joshi said she would cross that road if she gets there.

On the ‘Uber cap’

The cap on new licenses given to for-hire vehicles instituted in August is often referred to as the “Uber cap,” given the company’s prevalence in the city. In reality, the cap applies to licenses for-hire vehicles operated by companies like Lyft and Via, too. The city’s congestion problem has been attributed to the rise of app-based drivers, of which there are now more than 80,000. The move to cap the new licenses for one year allows the city to pause to study the industry without more cars adding to the clogged roads. The City Council passed other legislation last August alongside the cap that requires app-based companies to report details about each trip, like the duration, cost, driver earnings, and the company’s commission, giving TLC plenty of data to study.

Joshi applauded the City Council, not just for instituting the cap, but for giving TLC discretion to adjust the cap if needed, as well as to enact a regulatory scheme once the cap is lifted. “I think that is an excellent balance, when City Council makes the overarching changes that must be made at the Council level, but leaves the detailed policy making to the agency,” Joshi said. “That's the best of both worlds.”

On the financial pressure drivers face

While congestion has proven to be a major issue for New York City, 2018 was marked not just by traffic problems but by a pattern of suicides by taxi owners and other professional drivers, some of which have been attributed to the financial pressure the individuals faced in the industry. The value of taxi medallions has dropped precipitously since the arrival of companies like Uber and Lyft – medallions that were once sold for $1 million are now worth closer to $200,000.

Joshi said the extent of the problems taxi drivers face was not a surprise to her. “At the TLC, we're at the front lines,” she said. “We have people come in our office all the time that are at their wit's end.”

While new policies, including the cap enacted by the City Council, was backed by taxi drivers and will possibly ease their competition, action didn’t come soon enough in Joshi’s view. “It's sad that that's what it took to get the attention,” she said of the suicides. “I hope that on other issues and in other industries, that it does not take that kind of action to get lawmakers' attention. That's not the way government should ever work.”

On pay protection for drivers

When it was revealed by TLC that out of 80,000 drivers working for high-volume app-based companies, 96 percent made below the equivalent of the minimum wage, a somewhat hazy truth became crystal clear – app-based drivers are not having an easy time either.

To combat this, the TLC voted to set a new minimum wage for drivers who work for ride-hailing apps – thanks to a bill passed by the City Council in August giving TLC the power to do so. The new wage was set at $17.22 per hour, an increase of about $5 from their average hourly wage at the time.

TLC will conduct regular administrative data runs to ensure that the pay is enforced, and drivers will be able to come to the commission with complaints,” Joshi said. “In addition to enforcement, we'll monitor and regularly report on metrics of interests such as wait times, passenger fares, driver pay trends, restitution and enforcement,” she added, noting that there would also be a hearing in the spring to hear public feedback.

On what’s next

Joshi is not checking out of her job until March, even if her staff would prefer that she did, she joked. And she would like to have input in who her successor will be. Joshi rose to head of TLC after previously serving as the commission’s general counsel, and the possibility was raised that the current general counsel – or another attorney – could succeed her, given the litigation that can accompany the role. (A lawsuit filed against TLC by the New York Taxi Workers Alliance over the planned congestion surcharge for taxis and other for-hire vehicles is underway, and Joshi would not comment on that.) While she said her litigation experience was an asset in leading TLC, Joshi said it’s not a requirement of the job, and she does not have a shortlist of candidates in mind.

The role Joshi is vacating will be a difficult one to perform because of the rapidly changing industry and the lives at stake and the criticism that can accompany the role. When Engquist asked how she felt about being “reviled” by taxi drivers, Joshi responded diplomatically, saying that one party will always be upset in a competitive industry. “It's ironic,” she added. “Now that I'm leaving, lots of people who were very angry at me say they're sorry to see me go.”

For the person who will eventually take her place, Joshi has some simple advice: “Keep an open mind and get a thick skin,” she said. “It'll get thicker.”