A serious shift in the market, partly due to increasingly popular ride-sharing services, is having a significant effect on a valuable asset for taxi companies: the medallions that give them the right to operate. In New York City, an industry group is raising alarms, accusing the city’s taxi commission of making the problem worse by covering it up.
If you’re looking for a sign that the taxi industry is feeling long-term effects from the rise of Uber and Lyft, you can find it in a new fight over the metal medallions that adorn official, city-licensed cabs.
For decades, taxi medallions—permits issued in large cities and designed to regulate and control the size of the market—have been hugely expensive because of their limited supply. They were once “the best investment in America,” according to The Washington Post.
At one point, a New York City taxi medallion cost more than $1 million, and they have regularly sold for six figures elsewhere. But now that almost anyone can operate a vehicle-for-hire thanks to Uber and Lyft, taxi medallions are losing their value.
In New York City, that dynamic has led to a battle between the association representing Big Apple taxi operators and the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) over just how much medallion prices have dropped. According to the Greater New York Taxi Association, citing a report by The New York Times, the true picture is far worse than the commission has disclosed.
In October, the average price of a medallion was $871,667, down 17 percent from its peak last year. (On Tuesday, the Times reported that the November numbers dipped even further, to around $840,000.) But according to the Times‘ analysis, the official numbers reported by the taxi commission told a different story, its numbers skewed by the way it calculated prices in prior months—leaving out medallions that were sold for more than $10,000 below the previous month’s average price. The result was that official reports showed steady prices, but in reality, the market for medallions was in free fall.
The logic behind the commission’s calculations, which were removed from its website after the Times took notice of them, is generally sound—but only during a time of growth or stability.
“The commission does so in the name of excluding sales that do not occur at an arm’s length—say, between two relatives,” according to the Times. “When prices are flat or rising, as they generally have been for decades, the methodology can produce a reasonably accurate result. But when prices are falling, the commission’s method is guaranteed to mischaracterize the market.”
The city’s taxi industry, already dealing with competition from ride-sharing apps, isn’t happy about those findings.
A Recipe for Disaster?
In a letter sent after the Times article appeared, the Greater New York Taxi Association (GNYTA) accused TLC of wreaking havoc in the medallion market.
“The damage from the TLC falsely inflating the value of medallions is enormous and cannot be overstated,” GNYTA Executive Director Ethan Gerber wrote in a letter to the commission. Because medallion sales rely on bank loans, inaccurate pricing data “creates havoc on the owners and entire banking structure. The sudden exposure of the truth, which was hidden for months or longer by the TLC, can create a run on banks and force an immediate crisis.”
The association has called for an independent investigation into the commission’s price calculations. Gerber noted that banks, credit unions, and other financial institutions, along with the medallion owners themselves, rely on TLC’s numbers.
“Moreover, our city budget is now extremely dependent on medallion auctions, and projected revenue relied upon by the mayor and council is now based upon the material misrepresentations posted by the TLC,” Gerber wrote, adding that lenders would likely decline to participate in auctions “as there can be no confidence in any information conveyed by the TLC. This deceitful game may very well have cost the city hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue.”
“The commissioners should demand a full review of how this was allowed to occur, who is responsible, immediate repercussions for those that are and refer this matter for external investigation,” Gerber wrote. “Moreover, rather than falsifying data to hide a problem, the TLC should be working to correct it. Only after these significant steps are taken will confidence be restored.”