Livery cabs squeezed in ride-hail app boom

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The New York Taxi Workers Alliance is asking officials for new regulation of the number of ride-share services, which are hurting New York City’s cab drivers. (AFP)
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Fidel Farrell in his office at Super Class Radio Dispatch in the Bronx borough of New York. In low-income neighborhoods with no yellow cabs and sparse public transportation, residents who lack smart phones or credit cards have relied on livery cab companies, but the business is rapidly dwindling. (AP)
Updated 30 November 2019

Livery cabs squeezed in ride-hail app boom

  • Businesses are struggling as Uber and Lyft cut into their earnings

NEW YORK: As a livery cab driver in the Bronx for more than a decade, Orlando Lantigua knows some of his customers well. If they don’t have money to pay today, they can pay him later. He often gets dispatched by his base station to pick up children and take them to school, without their parents in the car.

“That’s how much parents trust the base. We are part of the community,” says Lantigua, a 58-year-old Dominican immigrant who lives in the Bronx.

In the outer boroughs and low-income New York neighborhoods — where yellow cabs rarely go and public transportation is sometimes sparse — residents who lack smart phones or credit cards have relied on livery cabs for generations.

But the businesses, many times owned by Latino immigrants, are dwindling rapidly: There were nearly 22,000 livery cabs in New York in 2015, and there are about 9,600 now, according to the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission.

More than 100 livery cab bases have closed their doors since 2015, when ride-hailing apps such as Uber and Lyft began to provide a large number of trips, cutting into their business. This year alone, 46 have shut down. 

By law, livery cabs, which are also often used for airport trips, cannot be hailed in the street but are authorized to pick up paying passengers when booked by phone.

“We are in a serious crisis,” says Cira Angeles, spokeswoman for the Livery Base Owners Association.

Lantigua said that he earns less each year and spends more on complying with fees and rules.

In 2018, the City Council agreed to cap the number of vehicle licenses for ride-hailing services to reduce traffic congestion and increase drivers’ salary in the wake of the explosive growth of for-hire vehicles.

But that measure, aimed at giants such as Uber, has inadvertently pummeled livery cab companies, which are now asking to be exempt from the cap and be given their own specialized license, claiming that the city needs to look at them individually instead of coming up with a one-size-fits-all solution that is putting them on the path to extinction.

Because of the cap, they say, they cannot replace drivers who retire or who cannot renew their licenses due to pending tickets. Super Class Radio Dispatch, which Lantigua drives for, had more than 250 drivers about five years ago, according to Fidel Farrell, one of the base’s owners. Now it has about 175.

“Our communities are suffering, we are losing our livelihoods because of blanket approach policies,” said Angeles. Some residents in places such as Washington Heights, a heavily Latino neighborhood in upper Manhattan, prefer to be transported by “the guy in the corner they have known for years,” she said.

Customers of livery cabs are also used to calling a number and speaking with a dispatcher — often a multilingual one.

“For me, they are important,” said Silvia Mat, a 71-year-old Dominican immigrant and Bronx resident while walking her dog recently. “It would be a sad thing to see them go and a sad thing to see drivers without jobs.”

Allan Fromberg, the Taxi and Limousine Commission’s deputy commissioner for public affairs, said discussion of a new livery license class “has only just begun”.

William Heinzen, TLC’s acting commissioner, acknowledged recently during a hearing in City Hall that livery cabs are in a tight spot but explained that they are exempt from some of the new regulations that affect ride-hailing apps, like a cap on how long they can cruise without a fare in Manhattan’s congested areas and requirements for collecting data on their rides. 

Heinzen said that he supports the concept of a Livery Task Force, which would analyze the issue, and said the TLC has reduced many penalties for drivers.

Ydanis Rodríguez, chairman of the City Council’s Transportation Committee and a former livery cab driver, is asking the city, among other things, to eliminate driver’s debt associated with penalties.

“We have to treat this industry with respect and dignity because it is key for the immigrants who live here,” he said.

Alix Anfang, a spokeswoman for Uber, said the company does not favor a special license for community cabs.

“While we agree that Mayor (Bill) de Blasio’s regulations are hurting drivers across the city, this proposal would limit drivers’ choice by ending their ability to partner with various bases and companies,” she said. Many livery cab drivers also work for ride-hailing apps.

Antonio Rosario, who has been driving livery cabs for more than 20 years, wishes the city would allow drivers like him to offer rides to people who hail them on the street because calls to livery bases are dwindling.

“There is too much competition,” he said.

But the TLC says street hails pose a public safety problem. Right now, only yellow taxis can be hailed in Manhattan. A special class of green taxis can take street hails in the city’s other boroughs — and they are often affiliated with livery cab bases so do not cut into their business.

Despite their struggles, livery cabs remain an integral part of Latino neighborhoods, said Angeles, of the Livery Base Owners Association.

“This is how the Latino community works. We go to the bodega store, we go to the restaurant in the neighborhood, and we also go to the livery base because it is open 24 hours,” she said. “It protects the community.”


INTERVIEW: Cambridge Medical focuses on post-pandemic rehabilitation

Updated 01 November 2020

INTERVIEW: Cambridge Medical focuses on post-pandemic rehabilitation

  • CEO of UAE-based clinics group explains why Saudi Arabia is the next stop in Middle East expansion strategy

At one point towards the end of my Zoom conversation with Howard Podolsky, chief executive officer of the Abu Dhabi-based Cambridge Medical and Rehabilitation Center, I suggested that he sounded a lot more like Dr Anthony Fauci, the American public health advisor, than he did President Trump.

“I’m a doctor at heart. It’s all about being smart and following the science,” Podolsky said, leaving little doubt as to how he views the big debate going on about how to react to the COVID-19 pandemic. “From a political and a pandemic standpoint, it breaks my heart to see all the craziness in the USA,” he added.

Podolsky, who has worked in the medical sector in the Middle East since 2012, has watched the progress of the pandemic in the region and the world with an expert’s eye since the beginning of the year, all the while running the business that has played a big role in alleviating pressure on the public health sector in the UAE as it battled the infection.

Cambridge is a specialist operator in the post-acute medical field, providing care and rehabilitation treatment for long-term ailments to patients from all age groups with different clinical needs.

That function was of crucial importance when cases were rising and hospitals were under threat of being overwhelmed in the early spring. Many COVID patients were in urgent need of intensive care treatment, often involving ventilation, and hospital capacity was under strain.

“The authorities saw a serious and significant need, and we had the flexibility to take non-COVID patients to free up acute care capacity, giving them the capacity to surge up if needed,” Podolsky said.

That co-operation between Cambridge and the UAE medical authorities has continued since the first wave of the virus. Podolsky’s two centers in Abu Dhabi and in Al-Ain have been taking post-COVID patients who are no longer infectious but may still need ventilator treatment, or are in therapy to wean them off ventilators, which is one of Cambridge’s specialties.

“Many patients no longer need to be in intensive care but still need treatment. All our staff are educated and trained in the science and technology of transitional ventilator weaning. It can take months or even years. We can incorporate them into our long-term rehabilitation services,” he said.

Cambridge is the only provider of long-term, post acute care in the UAE, offering facilities for in-patients through its 106 beds in the capital, 90 in Al-Ain, as well as out-patient and homecare facilities.

Last year, it saw a gap in the market in Saudi Arabia, and opened up in Dhahran, the home of Saudi Aramco, where it already had a relationship with the oil company’s long-term medical partner, Johns Hopkins.

“Saudi Arabia was a logical place for us,” Podolsky said. Not only did the much bigger population than the UAE make it a market rich in potential, but it was also relatively underserved in terms of post-acute care and rehabilitation facilities. “It made sense for us to explore the opportunity to develop a platform for long-term care in the Kingdom,” he added.


BIO

BORN: Toronto, Canada 1965

EDUCATION

  • Graduate from Buffalo School of Medical Science
  • Graduate from St Louis University School of Law
  • MBA from Washington University School of St Louis

CAREER

  • Various senior executive positions in US healthcare organizations
  • Group chief of staff, SEHA Abu Dhabi
  • Executive in residence, TVM Operations
  • Group chief executive officer, Cambridge Medical and Rehabilitation Centre.

Cambridge built a 60-bed “brownfield” centre in Dhahran that takes referrals not just from Johns Hopkins but also from other parts of the Saudi healthcare system. “There is a big ‘bed gap’ in Saudi post-acute care, and we are looking at opportunities elsewhere, around the big population centers in Riyadh and Jeddah,” Podolsky said. Cambridge could look to acquire a potential centre, as well as do a “brownfield” build.

The medical sector in the Kingdom is one of the areas earmarked for big expansion under the Vision 2030 plan to diversify the economy, and hospitals, clinics and medical centers have been discussed as possible subjects for privatization under the Vision.

Podolsky was a medical doctor before he studied law and business in the USA and then joined SEHA, the Abu Dhabi health services authority.

Cambridge launched in the UAE in 2014 with the backing of private equity investors led by TVM Capital Healthcare, the big global healthcare investment group. As with most medical operations in the region, it is run as a commercial operation, and Podolsky said that the COVID crisis has — on balance — been good for business.

“We were busy already, but it has been positive for us. Unlike some medical businesses in the regions, we were never dependent on whether a patient makes a decision on elective health treatment,” he said.

Non-COVID related business — whether in strokes or post-traumatic traffic accident care — has continued during the pandemic. “Life doesn’t stop because there is a pandemic,” he said.

It was recently reported that TVM was looking to exit its investment in Cambridge, most likely via a sale of its stake to another hospital business. Podolsky is guarded on that possibility.

“Shareholders are always looking at opportunities. Our focus is on creating value for all our stakeholders — investors, customers and patients,” he said.

Is it the right time to sell a medical business in the middle of the biggest global health threat experienced for a century?

“It depends what kind of business it is. If it’s a business that depends on elective, discretionary decisions by patients, maybe not. But we are an integral part of the healthcare eco-system in the region, and we have embedded ourselves in it,” Podolsky said.

The other factor that has complicated the medical business scene in the UAE is the scandal that has overtaken NMC Healthcare, the Abu Dhabi-founded company that has gone bust with billions of dollars in debts and allegations of theft, fraud and forgery flying. Is there an “NMC discount” applied to the medical sector in the region?

“Healthcare organizations should not be painted with a broad brush. We are founded on integrity and governance, and TVM is focused on that as ethical and accountable business practice,” Podolsky said.

One of the NMC businesses, ProVita International Medical Centre, was acquired from investors including TVM in 2015, and operates in a similar segment to Cambridge. Many parts of NMC’s business are believed to be up for sale under a strategy to reduce its high levels of debt. “We’ll evaluate opportunities as they may or may not become available,” Podolsky said.

With his doctor’s hat back on, Podolsky talked more about the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the possibility of a vaccine to halt the spread of a virus that is currently in a damaging “second wave” phase in many parts of the world. He is “cautiously optimistic.”

“I hope we could see several safe and successful vaccines by the end of the year, but getting them delivered will be the challenge. Remember we’re talking about a vaccine for more than 7 billion people, maybe with two shots.

“But I don’t think COVID is going away. It will not disappear, it will not be eradicated like polio. I think there will be micro-outbreaks for a considerable time, and it will be part of the public health ecosystem. We will just have to live with it, like we do with flu,” he said.

Part of “living with it” involves more testing, which he said could be an explanation for the big rise in cases in some countries that have ramped up testing efforts.

The UAE is treating front-line health workers with a Chinese-made vaccine, while also co-operating with manufacturers in other countries, but Podolsky has no time for “vaccine nationalism” by which countries try to be first with a cure or reserve treatments for their own populations. “It’s unfortunate that we have political issues around public health and pandemics. We need to follow the science and be transparent, open and honest,” he said.

He also took some comfort from the falling death rates from the disease, which he attributed to better therapeutics and treatment. “We’ve got smarter about how we treat patients to help them overcome the infections and issues with their immune response. As we get better, we will see fewer fatalities,” he said.

On the big debate about whether the world should just get on with its economic life regardless of the health threat to the most vulnerable, he said: “It is not a binary choice. We should protect the most vulnerable — the old, the obese and other high risk people — and take simple measures to target high risk people, like social distancing, wearing masks and washing hands,” he said.