Pedicab Drivers, New York City Council Members Chat About Price-Gouging

NYC Pedicabs

Yesterday, RR attended the City Council hearing on Proposed Intro No. 597-A, which would require that all pedicab drivers calculate fares solely on the basis of time and that all pedicab passengers receive a Pedicab Information Card, showing rate, driver, and consumer complaint information, before the ride starts.

Consumer Affairs Committee Chairman Dan Garodnick, who officiated, and Oliver Koppell, who suggested that pedicabs be regulated by the TLC, were the only Council members to attend the entire hearing. Also in attendance, for shorter periods, were Council members Koslowitz, Barron, Comrie, and Nelson.

Chairman Dan started out with a nod to recent reports of price-gouging by pedicab drivers. In so doing, he proved the point that media coverage of pedicatastrophe is the best way to prod the City Council to action. It was the 2009 Williamsburg Bridge crash that galvanized passage of the current pedicab law. A spate of  reporting on $400+ rides, back in August, seems to have spurred the Consumer Affairs Committee to address rate-card-based price-gouging – a practice that Garodnick has been aware of at least since February 2011. RR wonders whether the Council is waiting for news of an ICE crackdown to appear in the New York papers before it institutes a quad-state license requirement for pedicab drivers, or otherwise addresses the problem of illegal operation of pedicab businesses by J-1 visa holders.

Garodnick stressed that the Committee’s priority was to simplify, and to avoid surprises – that is, to make rate calculation simple enough that even tourists can understand it. Deputy DCA Commissioner Fran Freedman offered the Department’s “hearty and enthusiastic” support for the Intro. She said the DCA would have no problem implementing the Intro as written – despite the fact that the pricing verbiage the law requires, in 2-inch letters, would sprawl over maybe three times the surface area available on even the largest pedicab “vertical panel.” She refused to comment on Council Member Koppell’s statement that gouging will still be possible, so long as drivers are allowed to set their own rates. Both Freedman and Koppell said they support testing the timer plan on a pilot basis, to see how effective it proves in cutting back on rip-offs.

Only four pedicab owner-drivers – all members of the New York City Pedicab Owners’ Association – testified at the hearing: Laramie Flick (NYCPOA President), Ibrahim Donmez (NYCPOA Secretary), Gregg Zuman (NYCPOA VP and Treasurer) and Rob Tipton (NYCPOA member). Where were the other 114 holders of pedicab business licenses? The other 1331 holders of pedicab driver licenses? Some undoubtedly knew about the hearing but chose not to attend. Most probably didn’t know about it, since only a few owner-drivers received invitations. Then again, why would the majority of drivers have shown up, even if they had been invited? To defend the current rate scheme, on the basis of how well it’s working for them?

Apparently, Garodnick garnered further feedback from the industry by speaking to random pedicab drivers on the street. I’m not sure what he asked them. He has yet to take a pedicab ride.

Koppell, it turned out, was the only person at the City Council table who had taken a pedicab ride in New York City (Gregg asked for a show of hands, at the start of his testimony). Though Koppell’s pedicab-pricing dream seems to be a taxi-style meter, with TLC-set pricing, he inadvertently proved his support for up-front fare-quoting when he admitted that when he took this ride – to Penn Station – he negotiated the fare before getting in.

After the industry panel had finished its testimony, the hearing turned into an extended, somewhat freeform discussion among Garodnick and the four NYCPOA members (with an occasional interjection by Koppell), covering such subjects as side-panel advertising, attaching rate signs to pedicab drivers’ seats, and the all-important up-front fare quote. Garodnick and his team may have additional objections to up-front fare quoting, but the only one he disclosed at the hearing was this: Some drivers he’d talked to had said that if they were to run into, say, an hour’s worth of unanticipated traffic, they might want to revise an initial quote upward. This, he said, would compromise simplicity and could generate unwelcome surprises. He has a point. However: This is like saying, “People shouldn’t run red lights, but some people say they would run red lights, if there were no one around, so let’s not outlaw running red lights.” If the law says, quote up front and stick to your quote unless the passenger changes the route, then that’s the law, and pedicab drivers flout it at their own risk. Gregg made the point that pedicab drivers, like plumbers, painters, and other service providers, should be required to quote up front, and then live with – and learn from – the consequences of pricing too low.

More than once, in the course of the hearing, Garodnick emphasized his willingness to revise the Intro. And he seemed to be paying close attention to points made by the pedicab panel. However: The discussion might have proved far more fruitful, had it occurred within the broad frame of how to prevent price-gouging rather than the narrow frame of how well a time-based pricing system might work. As it was, some of the pedicab reps offered grudging support for the timer strategy, not because it was what they really wanted, but because they thought it was better than no change at all, and the best they were going to get. Publishing the Intro first, and engaging industry reps later, was a great strategy for testing how much opposition time-based pricing might generate. It was not such a great strategy for stimulating the industry’s best thinking on how to encourage fair pricing.

Garodnick closed the hearing by saying he looked forward to consulting further with those present. RR, for one, would be happy to join the Consumer Affairs Committee in a round-table discussion of how to combat price-gouging by pedicab drivers in NYC. Perhaps a partnership approach might hasten the day when both parties get what they both want: an end to the rip.