Lyft and Uber reshaping Long Island’s transportation sector
Lesly Remy says his taxi can’t compete with Uber, so he’s going out of business.
He is the sole driver for his company, Long Island Good Guys Taxi & Limo, a Brentwood-based operation that also shares customer calls with independent cabdrivers at no cost.
Remy, 52, said his incoming calls and revenue are down 40 percent due to competition from Lyft and Uber since the summer, when a state law allowed the ride-hailing services to expand on Long Island.
“It has hurt us . . . I’m leaving the business,” said Remy, who plans to exit by June, when he will offer a service transporting goods between homes and storage facilities.
Ride-hailing services, whose customers use mobile phone apps to summon drivers, and which charge variable prices based on demand for rides, have been changing Long Island’s transportation sector.
Cab companies are suffering, owners and officials said. The Nassau County Taxi & Limousine Commission said it is getting reports from its investigators that cab companies aren’t doing well, according to an official there.
Most of the municipalities in Nassau and Suffolk counties issue their own licenses for taxi operations.
Taxi company owners have been struggling in Oyster Bay — home of Uber’s busiest drop-off spot, the Hicksville train station — where Lyft and Uber are “eating into [cab company] profitability,” Town Clerk James Altadonna Jr. said.
He said he expected a contraction in the 252 drivers, 16 limo owner companies and nine taxi owner companies registered in the town.
Several cab business owners said in interviews their revenue had fallen, as Lyft and Uber, which are both based in San Francisco, have benefited from lighter regulation and lower costs.
The effect on Long Island’s public transit services is more mixed.
Ride-hailing services have been only one of many factors in a ridership decline of nearly 11 percent in the last six months of 2017 compared with the same period a year earlier, a spokesman for Nassau Inter-County Express, or NICE, said.
“NICE ridership, as with systems in the rest of the country, has fallen over the past five years. Some of this is tied to reductions in funding and more recently the ride-sharing aspect,” said spokesman Andy Kraus.
NICE also cited other factors for the ridership decline, including low gas prices, spurring more people to drive themselves, and fewer retail workers, reducing their need to commute by bus.
Long Island Rail Road and Suffolk County Transit officials said they didn’t think ride-hailing businesses had much impact on their ridership levels.
But some public transportation officials also said the ride-hailing services have made it easier for riders to get to and from public transit.
Uber and Lyft provide “services to first-mile and last-mile connections for folks,” said Darnell Tyson, deputy commissioner of Suffolk’s Department of Public Works. “The span of service that Uber has sort of exceeds ours.”
New York State approved the operation of Uber and Lyft on Long Island and upstate effective June 29, 2017, in a law bypassing local authorities that had often sought to block the new companies.
Before June, a reciprocity law had allowed ride-hailing companies to pick up passengers on Long Island as long as they were dropped off in New York City, and vice versa.
Cab owners say they had felt the effects of Uber and Lyft well before the June law change. The number of cab establishments on Long Island declined by 17, or 22 percent, to 62 sites between the second quarter of 2014 and the same period in 2017, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Since June, ride-hailing companies have enrolled more than 99,000 upstate and Long Island driver applicants in the state Department of Motor Vehicles’ License Event Notification System, or LENS, which tracks and reports violations and penalties that affect driving records.
The DMV, Lyft and Uber declined to disclose how many of those applicants became their drivers on Long Island.
An Uber representative wouldn’t give details on its business on Long Island, other than to say, “Our first six months in Long Island exceeded our expectations.”
Lyft did not respond to requests for comment on its business on Long Island.
Long Island was ripe for ride hailing because of its higher-than-average income, its population density and its relatively limited public transportation, said Jean-Paul Rodrigue, a professor of global studies and geography at Hofstra University in Hempstead. “You’re at that sweet spot where ride-sharing makes a lot of sense,” he said.
“The millennials like on-demand,” said James Andrews, administrative director of Suffolk County’s Consumer Affairs and its Taxi & Limousine Commission. “You call for an Uber, it’s there 10 minutes later,” he said. “As long as it’s safe, it’s fine.”
Westbury resident Maria Pham, 22, has a busy schedule as a Nassau Community College student, dog walker, and retail employee in Manhattan.
On Monday mornings, after spending the night in Manhattan, she takes the LIRR to Hicksville, then gets an Uber for a 10-minute ride home, which usually costs about $9.
“Right before I get off [the train], I can request it. By the time I’m downstairs, Uber should be there,” she said at the Hicksville station recently.
Last month, Uber and Lyft each released a list of their top 10 destinations on Long Island, and six on each list were train stations. Of 107 Long Island Rail Road stations, more than one-third had parking areas that were at 90 percent capacity and 15 were at full capacity, according to a 2015 study by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Ride-hailing services “will help eliminate a lot of road congestion, help with the parking situation and maybe being able to develop on the parking lots around rail stations,” said Moses Gates, director of community planning and design for the Regional Plan Association, a Manhattan think tank.
Several cab company owners said in interviews in January and February they are losing drivers and cutting prices as Uber and Lyft take customers away.
Keith Kaufman, owner of Long Island Yellow Cab, based at the Hicksville LIRR station, said his company has about 50 drivers, after losing 20 in the last year because their fares have declined. Business is down about 40 percent, he said.
His company is trying to adapt to compete with Uber and Lyft, he said.
“We’re trying to give better service. We’re in the process of computerizing our operations and getting an app going,” he said.
His business is licensed by the Town of Oyster Bay and Nassau taxi commission, and it is required to have an office in the town to obtain a license. Ride-hailing companies are not licensed locally — giving them lower costs and an unfair advantage, he said.
Oyster Bay charges a $500 application fee for a company’s first cab and $100 for each cab after that, both paid annually, and $150 for the taxi owner’s license.
Companies are also required to have taxi stands that cannot be at a residential dwelling, plus off-street parking for all cabs.
With 30 taxis, Kaufman pays $3,300 to Oyster Bay each year, he said.
Aaron Gelbman, who owns Aaron Limousine Ltd., a Deer Park-based provider of town car and SUV services, said that lighter regulation of Uber and Lyft means their fares are too low to match. The ride-hailing companies have cut into Gelbman’s business by about 30 percent, he said. He has cut some drivers, which increased passengers’ wait times for pickup. He’s also lowered his company’s prices, he said.
“I was always charging roughly $3 to $3.25 a mile before the ‘epidemic,’ ” he said of the growth of Lyft and Uber. “Now I’m lucky to get $2.50 to $2.75 a mile . . . I’ve had to charge as low as $1.85 a mile just to get the job about two months ago,” he said.
“That price is not sustainable in today’s economy,” he said.
Another complaint: Uber and Lyft drivers are “catching flags” — that is, picking up riders from the street who hail them without using the app first, said David Rosenfeld, 52, a Uniondale resident and Long Island Yellow Cab driver. Only taxis are allowed to pick up such riders, according to the state DMV.
Uber said it prohibits its drivers from illegal street hailing and encourages observers to report violations to Uber on its website.
“No one should be fooled by misinformation,” Uber representative Danielle Filson said. “New York State law requires thorough background checks, insurance minimums 20 times higher than what Suffolk and Nassau county require of local taxis and limos, and extensive consumer and driver protections, including participation in the LENS program, a safety feature that no other state has.”
Lyft and Uber drivers on Long Island said they were drawn to ride-hailing jobs to supplement their incomes and for the flexibility to set their own work schedules.
Wheatley Heights resident Earl Fortin, 55, works part-time jobs as a driver for Coach buses and a limousine company.
Because the bus and limo jobs slow down in the winter, he also began driving for Lyft and Uber a few weeks ago, he said in February.
“As long as they have work, I work,” he said.
“It’s been doing fine because, you know, it allows you to be independent,” the married father of two adult children said.
Uber driver Cris Lepurage, 44, of East Meadow, said he sees the growth of ride-hailing as a sign of the times.
“Yeah, I understand how the local taxi companies can be upset. But it’s just like with any industry. It’s like when Home Depot came and all the local hardware stores went out of business,” he said.
Lepurage works full time as a music technician for the rock band Foreigner, and they tour worldwide about nine months a year. About four months ago he began driving for Uber when he’s not touring — 10 to 40 hours a week after 10 p.m., he said.
His weekly earnings range between $300 and $800.
He has found that demand for the service is strong, he said.
“Sometimes I’ll try to go home, and I keep getting rides.”