LOWER MANHATTAN — A controversial decision to let New Yorkers hail taxis via an app on their smartphone got the thumbs-up from the city's Taxi and Limousine Commission Thursday.
The TLC voted to allow passengers to begin using apps to flag nearby rides as part of a one-year pilot program — despite concern from critics who say the move will violate laws that ban drivers from using handheld devices while in motion.
“What really we have here is new technology that has come along and provided an opportunity for improved service to riders," said TLC Commissioner David Yassky, ahead of the commission’s vote.
“The short of it is, we should not ignore technology that is out there,” he said, pointing to companies that are already providing apps in other cities, including London, Chicago and Toronto.
“Regulation shouldn’t stand in the way of allowing passengers to benefit,” he said.
Beginning Feb. 15, passengers will be able to download apps that help them find empty cabs driving nearby. The apps will be designed so that cabbies can accept fares “with a single touch,” and passengers will be limited to contacting cabs half a mile away in Manhattan below 59th Street, and a mile and a half away across the rest of the city.
Yassky said the pilot “will allow apps to get out there, get out in the market” and give the TLC a chance to assess the apps' impact before making a final call.
But the idea has drawn criticism from many, including members of the livery industry, who say the apps will cut into their business, by allowing yellow cabs to pre-arrange fares.
Others have raised alarms about distracted cabbies tapping on cellphones instead of watching the road, and argue that older passengers without smartphones will be at a disadvantage finding a ride.
It's illegal for cabs to talk on cellphones while driving, and it's illegal for any driver to text while driving, under New York law.
Commissioner Nora Marino, who was one of two members to abstain from the vote, said that she was concerned about the impact on the livery industry and worried the TLC was jumping in too fast.
"Like a marriage, a lot of things are a lot easier to get into than out of," she said. "I don't know how we're going to regulate it."
Commissioner Frank Carone, one of the seven commissioners to vote in favor, said that he had concerns about the impact, too, but changed his mind when the vote was presented as a pilot.
"A pilot program is very different," he said, arguing that, once officials collect concrete data, they can make a final call.
Livery cab drivers slammed the tactic.
"The pilot was put forth as a way to bypass the fact that the TLC didn't have the votes need to pass a bad rule. So, now it's just a bad pilot that was approved without the disclosure of any substantive details,” Livery Roundtable board member Avik Kabessa said in a statement after the vote.
But some are looking forward to the change.
"It's really rather shocking that this is experiencing any pushback at all," said longtime cabbie Melissa Plaut, 37, who lives in Brooklyn, and has been working with app maker Hailo to test one of the apps that could hit the market soon.
She said that using the app is no more distracting than changing the radio station or upping the air conditioner, and she said they will make the taxi experience far more convenient for passengers.
"This just means that they can open their smartphone, open an app and hail a taxi the same way they book a restaurant or buy movie tickets," she said, arguing the vote will bring taxis "into the present."