NYC Taxi Reform Doesn’t Go Far Enough

This post originally appeared at Neighborhood Effects, a Mercatus Center blog where we write about the economics of state and local policy.

Via Flickr user Ian Caldwell

Next week, New York Governor Cuomo is likely to sign a bill that will marginally increase competition in the NYC cab market. The new rule will allow passengers to hail some livery cars in outer boroughs and add 2,000 additional medallions for yellow cabs with wheelchair access.

The auction of these medallions  is projected to raise $1 billion. This figure might seem outlandish, but last month two medallions sold at auction for over $1 million. That’s right, it costs $1 million for the right to drive a cab in NYC, not accounting for any of the costs associated with owning and operating the vehicle.

The price tag of these medallions that are sold to the highest bidder demonstrates that in a free market, many more drivers would enter the cab industry. Artificially constraining the supply hurts both consumers and those who are not able to drive a cab because they are unable to purchase a medallion.

Unsurprisingly, the Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade remains strongly opposed to this bill. The increase in the supply of medallions will lower the value of the medallions that cab drivers and larger medallion companies already own. Their lobbying efforts reflect their desire to profit through the political system.

While this increase in the number of medallions available for yellow cabs and allowing some livery cars to be hailed represents a small improvement for New Yorkers, the reform does not go nearly far enough. For real reform, Mayor Bloomberg should look to Indianapolis.

Before Stephen Goldsmith was elected as the city’s mayor in 1991, the number of cabs permitted in Indianapolis was limited to 392. Goldsmith created a Regulatory Study Council whose first project was to reform taxi regulations. The RSC recommended eliminating regulatory barriers to entry and allowing cab drivers and companies to determine their own prices. In a case study of regulatory reform in Indianapolis, Adrian Moore writes:

The main resistance came from existing taxi companies, and initially much of the city and county council sided with them in the name of the “public interest.” However, the support for reform by seniors, the inner city poor, minorities, the Urban League, and the disabled soon brought many of them over to the RSC’s side. The RSC expected little support from Democrats on the council, but the strong support for deregulation from that party’s traditional constituents turned the tide.

Some price controls remain in the Indianapolis taxi market, but the city has seen an increase in supply, a decrease in fares, and an improvement in service. Indianapolis and New York City are of course very different, but the laws of supply, demand, and rent-seeking are the same everywhere. By phasing out the medallion system, New York City would benefit consumers and allow many more people to make a living driving cabs. Medallion owners who have invested in some cases over $1 million in the current system would need to be compensated in some way, but not by continuing to profit at the public’s expense.