Revel Seeks to Create All-Electric Taxi Fleet — But City Says ‘Not So Fast’

A Revel Tesla — is this really happening? Photo: Revel
A Revel Tesla — is this really happening? Photo: Revel

Revel wants to go to the next level — but it still needs a lot more TLC.

The Brooklyn-based electric moped rental company will announce today that it will buy a fleet of 50 Teslas and start hiring drivers for an all-electric cab fleet that will launch in Manhattan below 42nd Street by the end of next month — but the Taxi and Limousine Commission doesn’t yet think the scheme is legal.

The agency, which regulates for-hire vehicles, told Streetsblog that Revel is “not licensed to operate for-hire transportation vehicles in NYC.” Yet the company is holding a press conference at 11 a.m. today to announce its plans anyway.

What’s going on? An unconcerned Revel co-founder Paul Suhey had told Streetsblog on Monday that Revel had cleared an initial hurdle with TLC earlier this month.

“We’ve been working closely with TLC over the past few months submitting the application,” Suhey said. “We need to get the word out to hire drivers and talk open and honestly about training. That is the big driver for announcing now ahead of a later date launch.”

But by Tuesday, the company was sounding more like rebels than Revel. In a follow-up statement to Streetsblog, company co-founder and CEO Frank Reig slammed the TLC — the very agency he needs a green light from — boldly accusing agency Commissioner Heredia Jarmoszuk of having a personal vendetta against Revel and arbitrarily preventing it from operating in the city.

“Revel is launching electric rideshare because we want to create good jobs for New Yorkers and reduce the number of pollution-spewing cars on the road,” Reig told Streetsblog. “Our drivers are going to be employees — not gig workers — with healthcare and paid time off. These are all things the de Blasio Administration has long said they want. However, after the TLC approved Revel’s application for a base license at the beginning of this month, Commissioner Heredia Jarmoszuk is now threatening to prevent us from moving forward.

“Revel sees no legal basis for this, as our ability to operate doesn’t depend on the Commissioner’s opinion,” Reig added. “It depends on us taking the steps laid out by law to complete the administrative licensing process, which we’ve done since the start and will continue to do. We want to give 150 TLC drivers jobs with benefits in May alone, plus many more down the road. The TLC should be supporting this, not trying to stop it.”

It’s unclear what Jarmoszuk did or did not do. In a statement to Streetsblog, Jarmoszuk did not directly address Reig’s comments, but said: “TLC capped for-hire vehicles because supply already exceeds demand. The electric battery exemption exists to encourage already-licensed cars to go green, not to flood an already saturated market or to disenfranchise the yellow taxi sector in Manhattan.”

But Jarmoszuk added a sentence that suggests the door to further negotiation is open: “This ride-share scheme deviates from the spirit of those rules, and TLC will not cut corners in doing its full diligence.”

The squabble likely dates back to 2018, when Mayor de Blasio announced a cap on new licenses for for-hire vehicles like Uber and Lyft in an attempt ease the devastating financial burden on yellow taxi drivers who were being displacing. A year later, the mayor indefinitely extended that cap.

But that cap exempted electric vehicles — the loophole through which Revel planned to drive its current business model.

A spokeswoman for Revel,  Jennifer Blatus, added that TLC’s hinderance to its application appears to be a “personal optics concern.”

Still, Reig and Suhey are forging ahead with their plans, saying that their expansion into electric ride-share with a fleet of Tesla Model Ys is making good on a promise other companies have so far failed to do. The first Tesla Model 3s joined the citywide yellow taxi fleet in 2020, according to reports. And the cost to hail one of Revel’s Teslas through its app, just like users do to hop on a moped, will be similar to other car-share services, Reig said.

“Cities like New York don’t need another company promising electric fleets in 2030 — they need companies delivering now,” said Reig, who founded the company three years ago as a pilot program to connect residents to public transit. “Revel is building a platform to electrify cities, and rideshare is a key part of it.”

All Revel drivers will be company employees who have first undergone training — they will have guaranteed wages with full benefits and paid time off, Reig said. Revel does not support a gig economy, according to the company’s spokeswoman.

Advocates for drivers for both other app-taxi companies and yellow taxis had mixed reviews about Revel’s new venture into the cab industry.

The Independent Drivers Guild, which advocates for more than 250,000 Uber- and Lyft-type drivers, said it’s looking forward to seeing Revel’s Teslas cruising city streets.

“We are always interested to see additional options for the hardworking for-hire vehicle drivers who keep our city moving,” said Brendan Sexton, the executive director of the Independent Drivers Guild. “We have been trying to engage with partners to help current drivers switch to electric vehicles, but the city infrastructure cannot meet that demand.”

But the head of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, which represents its 21,000 yellow and green cab drivers, was less eager to see Revel expand its footprint into the app-based taxi industry, even further displacing the yellow cab sector.

“It’s deja-vu all over again and it’s exhausting. There is an oversaturation of cars, not enough work, drivers are barely surviving, and all while there is still a pandemic,” said Bhairavi Desai, the executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. “All drivers are going through a never-ending crisis of poverty and debt. The fact they want to concentrate in Manhattan speaks to further concentrated attacks especially on the yellow cab sector, which, along with liveries and corporate black cars, is trying to get it’s footing back while paying off millions in medallion loans and vehicles. We’ve seen this playbook before and it unleashed a race to the bottom still in motion. These companies can’t just displace existing workforces and industries and face no consequences.”

But Reig says his competition are the big app-based cab giants, not struggling drivers of their own yellow cabs.

“Our competition is Uber and Lyft and the hundreds of thousands of gas-guzzling cars they have in this city,” said Reig. “This fleet is owned and operated by our employees, we are able to deliver a level of safety that is highly differentiated in terms of any other incumbent access.”

It’s the latest expansion for Revel, which in February created an e-bike subscription service. At the same time, Revel also announced plans to build the largest fast-charging hub for electric vehicles at the former Pfizer building in Bedford-Stuyesant, where 30 chargers will some time this year be open to the public on a 24/7 basis.