Let’s Raise Standards for Cab Drivers, Not Race to the Bottom

The Uber web site emphasizes emphasizes the ease of obtaining  a TLC license.
The Uber web site emphasizes the ease of obtaining a TLC license.

As cab medallion owners complain of competition from Uber and Lyft, the Taxi and Limousine Commission appears to be making it easier for applicants to acquire a hack license.

On Sunday the Times reported that the TLC hack license exam will have fewer questions on geography, since drivers can use GPS to navigate the city. The TLC says this will allow for a greater emphasis on TLC rules, including safety regulations. But GPS is distracting enough that cabbies are not supposed to use it while driving. And it’s not as if the TLC is limited in the breadth of knowledge it can require of prospective drivers.

Uber and Lyft drivers are required to have a for-hire vehicle license, which for some reason remains easier to obtain than a license to drive a yellow cab. (“Getting a TLC license is not a complicated process,” says the Uber web site. “All it requires is a little paperwork.”) According to the Times, the change to the TLC exam comes as fleet owners worry that interest in driving yellow cabs is on the wane, and cabs sit idle in garages.

The Times said more people are passing the revised TLC test. One applicant “said he had found it easy despite his complete lack of driving experience in New York City.”

Asked if he could pilot a cab to prominent Manhattan locations such as Penn Station, Times Square or Grand Central Terminal, the applicant, a recent immigrant from Bangladesh now living in Briarwood, Queens, said, “Absolutely not.” He asked that his name be withheld because he feared angering the taxi commission.

The Times reported that the TLC exam is still evolving, and agency spokesperson Allan Fromberg noted that a more rigorous for-hire curriculum is under development. Fromberg said there will eventually be less of a distinction between exams for the two types of licenses. But applicants for either license still won’t be required to pass a New York City road test.

To elevate the profile of cab driving as a profession, the TLC should make for-hire licenses and hack licenses more difficult to get. The London taxi exam — which requires encyclopedic knowledge of the street grid — is likened to a degree in law or medicine, and it’s not uncommon for a driver to earn around $100,000 U.S. a year. Higher licensing standards, better pay, and improved working conditions would make driving a yellow cab more appealing without letting unqualified drivers behind the wheel.

Dumbing down the TLC exam might mean more money for fleet owners. But for the safety of cab drivers and the public, the TLC needs to raise standards across the board, not make yellow cabs more like Uber.

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