Brooklyn Boro

Digital ad ban on for-hire vehicles sparks outrage among app drivers

August 28, 2019 Meaghan McGoldrick
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After months of legal proceedings, a ban on display advertising both inside and outside for-hire vehicles is back in effect starting Saturday, Aug. 31.

Drivers of ride-share services, such as Uber and Lyft, were notified by the Taxi and Limousine Commission on Aug. 9 that they must get rid of any digital ads on their vehicles. The announcement has triggered backlash among drivers and advocates, who say the financial loss will hurt those who are already struggling.

The switch-up comes just months after the TLC permitted Firefly — a San Francisco-based startup that allows drivers to make money off digital advertising — to canvass for New York City participants. The company, which launched a pilot program on the West Coast late last year, offers drivers roughly $300 a month to affix a digital screen to the roof of their car, which then displays ads from paying clients.

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Drivers who partner with Firefly can end up taking home close to $4,000 extra a year for little to no extra effort. According to Brendan Sexton, executive director of the Independent Drivers Guild, that’s 10 percent of some drivers’ annual pay.

“I know the city tries to make it out like it’s not that much money, but I’ll challenge anyone to take a 10 percent pay cut,” Sexton told the Brooklyn Eagle, denouncing the swift change in directive so soon after the program’s expansion to the East Coast.

“Drivers are struggling to get by and they’re still making less than minimum wage,” he said. “The fact that the city is taking these extra steps to block these drivers from a revenue source to supplement their earnings when people all across the country are trying to figure out how to help — to me, that’s punitive.”

The advertising landscape

TLC spokesperson Rebecca Harshbarger contends that the rule isn’t a new one.

“The TLC had always prohibited advertising in for-hire vehicles, and this was upheld in a federal court decision last month. We’ve seen no evidence of drivers benefiting from advertising, and only 70 out of 120,000 for-hire vehicles have permits for exterior ads (which they received while our rule was temporarily enjoined in February),” Harshbarger told the Eagle via email.

She compared the ads to those displayed on the floating billboards recently banned from city waters. “Both the city and state have also taken steps recently to rein advertising in the public sphere … to protect our city landscape.” she said. “Billboards on the roofs of 120,000 for-hire vehicles would negatively impact the city landscape in a dramatic way.”

Vehicle owners would face a $50 summons for each instance of prohibited advertising.

Paul Klimas, a driver for apps like Uber and Lyft, is still ticked.

“I honestly feel like I’m being wronged,” he told the Eagle. “I feel like it’s unfair treatment. Advertising is everywhere, especially in New York City. One of the TLC’s excuses is that it’s ruining city landscape but how is it ruining city landscape when every other city bus or car has a sign?”

The rule — which goes into effect Aug. 31 — applies only to non-medallion vehicles, meaning the city’s yellow and green cabs are not impacted and may continue to display digital advertising.

Harshbarger said that’s to balance out the cost of those cars’ evolving tech.

“Yellow cabs are permitted to have advertising because of the technology that taxis are required to have,” she explained, noting that taxis themselves currently facilitate credit card payments and collect data on each trip to help with enforcement, finding lost property and studying traffic patterns. “Advertising helps to defray the cost of the technology system in taxis. For-hire vehicles, such as black cars and livery cars, are not required to have this technology.”

Demands for equal treatment

Medallion drivers make a profit from those ads, Harshbarger confirmed, leaving for-hire drivers like Klimas wondering why they aren’t afforded the same opportunity.

“I feel like we’re being singled out when we didn’t do anything to deserve it,” he said.

For Klimas, who was one of the first drivers to sign up for Firefly in April, the decision was a no-brainer — even after ride-share drivers got a new minimum wage earlier this year.

“Back in February, some laws changed that were supposed to help us but really made earning harder,” he told the Eagle. “I find myself working longer hours to pay the same bills.”

It also helped Klimas — a Queens resident who makes the bulk of his trips in Brooklyn and Manhattan — score some of his free time back.

“As someone who’s working an average of 50-plus hours a week, [working with Firefly] not only helped me monetarily but it also allowed me to take some more time for myself,” he said.

Now, less than five months after he first had the advertising screen installed, Klimas has to take his car back to Firefly’s Williamsburg shop and have it removed. “It’s like the TLC came in and suddenly said, ‘Okay, party’s over.’”

“We as a society should not be figuring out ways to stop low-wage immigrant workers from making money,” Sexton said. “We should be organizing and figuring out ways that these people can be making more money.”

Klimas is also hopeful the commission will change its mind. “I have to be,” he said. “It’s really hurting my pocket.”

Firefly did not respond to a request for comment.

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