City Council, TLC talk merits of inside/outside advertising on for-hire vehicles

TLC Acting Commissioner Bill Heinzen at a City Council Transportation Committee hearing on Wednesday. (Photo by Mark Hallum)

The City Council’s Transportation Committee heard testimony on a bill that would prohibit the Taxi and Limousine Commission from banning advertising on or inside for-hire vehicles.

Councilman Ydanis Rodríguez said the ban hobbles the ability of livery vehicle drivers to make additional profit from their cars, but TLC’s Acting Commissioner Bill Heinzen argued that allowing ads to be displayed unregulated makes for environments that could be detrimental to both drivers and customers.

“We often hear customer complaints about interior advertising, but we also hear from taxi drivers that advertisements can be annoying,” Heinzen said. “Many of our concerns can be addressed through changes in the legislation.”

According to a TLC spokesman, this legislation could affect up to 120,000 vehicles, and just as many drivers stand to be bombarded by the same televised advertisements in an inexorable rotation for hours on end.

The TLC prohibition of advertising on and in for-hire vehicles has been challenged in court which led to  a year in which the agency could not enforce the rule. In that span of time, Heinzen said they receive”few” applications to advertise in for-hires, and only granted 82 permits until an appeals court upheld the TLC’s rule.

Heinzen warned that the city could be opening Pandora’s box.

“Once these ads are permitted, it would be very difficult to scale them back,” Heinzen said in testimony, explaining that unless content of the ads were lewd, the city would not be able to regulate.

Heinzen that as far as extra income went, he would want assurance that the bill would secure that money for the drivers, as opposed for any company managing fares such as ride-share apps.

The Independent Drivers Guild issued a statement supporting Rodríguez’ stance with the argument that for-hires could bring in more income from their vehicles while driving less. According to IDG, even after winning a minimum wage of $27.86 per hour in December 2018, it is  likely that for-hire vehicle drivers use a boost in their income.

“For years, drivers have been struggling to make ends meet. Rooftop advertisements are an easy way for drivers to supplement their income without having to drive longer hours and add to congestion,” IDG executive director Brendan Sexton said. “In the life of an Uber or Lyft driver, an extra $300 per month can mean the difference between being able to afford health insurance or not. It can cover a month’s worth of fuel expenses or after school child care.”

In terms of changing policies on illegal pick-ups, Heinzen told Rodríguez it was a matter of public safety to enforce against this in order to protect passengers.

Councilman Carlos Menchaca took the hearing as an opportunity to question Heinzen over the feasibility of requiring for-hire vehicles to have warnings on the doors cautioning drivers to look for cyclists before opening up. TLC-licensed vehicles already have “Look before you exit” signs on the majority of vehicles, a TLC spokesman clarified.

This story has been updated to clarify aspects of topics discussed in the hearing between Councilman Ydanis Rodríguez and Commissioner Bill Heinzen.