Interview: PPA’s James Ney on Uber X, the insurance bankruptcy, and Philly taxi politics

After Tuesday morning’s PPA board meeting we caught up with James Ney, the director of PPA’s Taxicab & Limousine Division, to discuss the various controversies that have embroiled Philly’s taxi market over the past few weeks. Here’s a transcript of our Q&A.

 

PlanPhilly: Alex Friedman of the PA Taxi Association said at the PPA board meeting that 99% of the cabs which lost their insurance had already been reinsured under a different insurer. That seemed a little high – do you know what the exact number is?

 

James Ney: The numbers that we got last night were, out of the 466, it was up to around 400 that had been placed.

 

PP: What’s your plan for handling the Uber X situation?

 

JN: We didn’t think this was going to be an issue for us, because they haven’t been authorized by anyone. We have a statute that we have to uphold and enforce, which states that anything that appears to be giving taxicab service that’s not one of the 1,600 medallions is basically illegal. What we would characterize as hacks.

 

In Pittsburgh they’ve been able to operate under an experimental service category. I know these guys were out operating for some time, they were given temporary authority to operate in some ways, but not full authority. 

 

PP: Suppose the state legislature legalizes the “transportation network services” next year, and a TNC category is created in the PA code. You’ve been lobbying for a carve-out for Philly, but could PPA choose to regulate the service as a TNC once that becomes an official regulatory category?

 

The board can’t do it on their own. It would have to be legislated. If it’s legislated that the TNCs can operate in Pennsylvania, but not Philadelphia, then we’re not going to have an issue at least for some time. If they legislate that they are legal throughout Pennsylvania including in Philadelphia, we would hope that the Parking Authority would be the regulator, so that they could be regulated side by side with the taxicabs and limousines as a separate service.

 

PP: What’s your personal view on the service? A lot of our other peer cities have been legalizing the TNCs. Mayor Nutter and others feel it’s something that a 21st century city needs to have. Do you think there’s a place for them in the network?

 

JN: I think that the technology is available now to the existing carriers, for taxicabs and limousines. E-hailing apps have been developed in a number of cities, including here. There’s an e-pay app that’s pretty great. And they’re following up and creating an e-hail service that will work as if you’re hitting up an Uber. And in fact we do authorize Uber use as a limousine service. But there is an e-pay app that is in use in all taxicabs.

 

PP: What kind of funding does PPA get from the medallion system? Do you get a percentage cut of what medallions sell for?

 

JN: It’s a transfer fee. It actually just reflects the administrative fee for the vetting of the sale, the holding of the closing.

 

PP: I recently read that the prices went from $55,000 in 2005 up to half a million..

 

JN: That’s pretty much par – in New York they’re worth over a million, and they were worth less than what they’re worth here now back at that same point. 

 

PP: We did an analysis of the ratio of cabs to people in Philly compared to some of our peer cities, and Philly has a lot fewer cabs. Even with the 45 new medallions, Philly has 1.12 cabs per 1,000 people, while Chicago has 2.6, Boston has a bit more, and New York, all told, has about 6 per 1,000. It’s weird there because of the borough cabs. Should Philly have a ratio more in line with those cities?

 

JN: When we talk to the industry, and we talk to people, we see that there are plenty of cabs on the street. When the guys were out on Saturday night, there were lots of cabs around. In the downtown area, for hailing, there seemed to be – except for when it’s raining and inclement weather and all that. Could we use more? Possibly.

 

PP: What do you think the ratio should be?

 

JN: I’ve heard that actually our ratio is not that bad.
Ratio of Cabs to Population
(Schaller Consulting)

PP: It’s more in league with auto-oriented suburban cities like Dallas.

 

JN: Cities like Washington that have 7,000 cabs with a small population – when I talk to regulators there and I talk to cabbies, they say they’re looking for work all the time, so that’s too many. 

 

PP: They have about 12 per 1,000 people. But a city like Chicago or Boston, where it’s 2.5 or 3 per 1,000 people – is that better for consumers if there are more cabs on the street?

 

JN: I guess it would be.

 

PP: So how does PPA come down on the politics then? If consumers have an interest in a higher ratio; medallion owners obviously have an interest in a lower ratio. Who are you guys working for?

 

JN: Again, we’re hearing that there’s not enough business from the cabs that are existing. 

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.