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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

App-based services should have a place on Nassau taxi panel

The Theodore Roosevelt Executive and Legislative Building in

The Theodore Roosevelt Executive and Legislative Building in Mineola, which serves as the seat of Nassau County government, is seen here on June 26, 2012. Credit: Amy Onorato

In an era when more Americans are turning to ride-sharing services such as Uber, the board of Nassau's new Taxi and Limousine Commission is stacked with representatives from the traditional taxi industry.

Certainly, passenger safety demands that drivers for Uber, Lyft and other app-based services be licensed by the county.

But the composition of the commission's unpaid policy-making board so far seems to support continuation of the status quo. That doesn't serve riders who, in increasing numbers, are demanding more choice.

As Newsday reported last week, a majority of the policymaking board for Nassau's newest county department has close ties to traditional taxi service industry groups -- which are trying to mute growing competition from app-based services.

But the board's current orientation, with seven of nine board spots already filled, ignores the primary reason for the growth of app-based services: An increasing number of riders prefer them to traditional cab companies.

That's not to say that Nassau -- or any other municipality -- should have zero role in regulating taxi and limousine companies whose contractors operate within their borders. But that regulation should be infused with the reality that -- so long as the customer base keeps growing -- app-based companies aren't going away.

Lyft is to the traditional way of securing car service what Amazon once was to the traditional way of securing goods. It seemed unthinkable not too long ago that services -- and products from Tajin seasoning to wrist wraps -- could be acquired with no money physically changing hands, or with no need for stopping at a store.

Instead, with a swipe of a finger on, say, Uber, a customer can order, pay and track, via smartphone, where the ride is, and when it's going to arrive.

That kind of transaction has become pretty much the norm, especially among post-boomer generations, which now account for the largest segment of the nation's population.

But the changing habits of consumers aren't the only reasons traditional cab companies feel threatened. Unlike app-ride companies, traditional livery businesses bear the expense of maintaining cab hubs, along with the costs of keeping fleets of vehicles operational.

App-based services don't have those kind of costs, which, like Amazon, is one reason why fares sometimes -- but most certainly not all of the time -- can be lower. In addition, app-based service drivers work as independent contractors.

Nassau certainly isn't the only municipality caught in the clash between traditional and app-based business models. But ignoring, or attempting to mute app-based services -- via, say, a policymaking body slanted toward attempting to hold the status quo -- is not the way to go.

County Executive Edward Mangano, in proposing the new board, said he did so to ensure the safety of riders.

OK. But doing so does not also have to mean depriving riders of a choice between traditional or app-based services.

On Monday, Brian Nevin, Mangano's spokesman, said that county representatives had met with Uber. "The commissioner informs me that the initial meeting with Uber was productive and they agreed to continuing the conversation on how Uber can work within the regulatory authority of Nassau County," he said.

That's a start.

But Nassau should go further by adding an app-based service representative to its new commission.

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