Hey New Yorkers, Are You Ready to Hail a Taxi With Your iPhone?

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New York City regulators have approved a pilot project to test the viability of smartphone-based taxi cab hailing. The decision comes after months of wrangling between city government and upstart transportation firms, most notably Uber.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has fashioned himself as a tech champion, and he wants to cement his legacy as one of New York City’s greatest mayors. The pilot program, which is designed to test out the process in a city of eight million people, is a significant step forward for New York.

Official support was overwhelming. The Taxi and Limousine Commission voted 7-0 in favor of the one-year pilot project. There were two abstentions. The test-run begins on February 15th.

For the last several months, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick has been waging a campaign aimed at NYC officials, whose options have been limited by the city’s contract with in-taxi digital payment processor Verifone and other companies. (Uber’s payment model is credit card only, no cash.) Uber won an incremental but substantial victory Thursday; but remember, the newly-announced pilot program is just a test.

NYC officials are pleased. “This is an exciting day for taxi riders,” Taxi and Limousine Commission Chairman David Yassky said in a statement. “It’s the TLC’s job to represent passengers, and when new technology comes along, we want to make sure it’s available to them.  New York City is known for embracing innovation, and we’ve certainly done that today.”

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After February 15, 2013, New Yorkers will be able to “e-hail” taxicabs using their smartphones. Taxi riders south of 59th Street will be able to hail any cab within a half-mile radius; elsewhere in the city, they can hail cabs that are up to a mile-and-a-half away, according to officials.

“Mayor Mike Bloomberg — himself a technology pioneer who saw how a storied old industry needed to be reinvented for a digital age — pushed for changes,” Kalanick said in a statement. “And his Taxi and Limousine chief, David Yassky, got it done.”

San Francisco-based startup Uber offers a service that allows people to order so-called “black-cars” — high-end sedans, limousines and SUVs — from their smartphone. The mobile application, which is available on Apple’s iPhone and Google Android devices, displays the wait-time and shows the car’s progress on a GPS-enabled map. But Uber ran into resistance in New York City, where the Taxi and Limousine Commission put the kibosh on the company’s effort to apply its service to traditional “yellow” taxi-cabs.

That’s changing now. Uber’s New York City yellow-cab service aims to extend its existing black-car model. Cab drivers download the Uber app on their smartphone, and users can request a car from their own device. Using GPS technology, the nearest taxi driver to the rider is alerted, notifying the user that the cab is en route.

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Thursday’s TLC vote augurs a potentially massive shift in the way New Yorkers get around the city. For the first time, the prospect of hailing a yellow taxi cab using your phone is in sight. This could be a huge boon to New Yorkers in the outer boroughs of the city. Instead of searching in vain on foot for a yellow-cab, the user could simply order a taxi using the Uber app on their smartphone, and the nearest driver would be in a position to respond.

“The Bloomberg administration has spent much of the last decade building New York City into one of the great tech centers of the country and the world,” said Kalanick. “And because of the shared vision of the Mayor and Commissioner Yassky, the efforts to use data and technology to improve transportation on the most crowded streets in the country took a huge step forward today. The core of the Big Apple’s government responded.”

Travis is right. New York City is the world’s most important city for a reason. In a city of eight million people, with over 10,000 yellow cabs, changing city government policy is a Herculean task. But Uber appears to have done it. There is intense bureaucratic inertia in New York City, not to mention the interests of entrenched market actors who have grown accustomed to their stranglehold of the taxi industry. As Mayor Mike Bloomberg prepares to leave office, he’s trying to cement his legacy as a tech-savvy, forward-thinking executive. This move is  an admirable step in the right direction toward better transportation in the Big Apple.

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