How the taxi-medallion bubble might burst

By Felix Salmon
January 20, 2012
sharp rise in taxi medallion prices over the past few years?  

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Remember the sharp rise in taxi medallion prices over the past few years? I thought that the price was pretty justifiable back then, in October, although I did have my concerns:

Any time you see a chart like the ones above, you have to worry that there’s a bubble. Plus, there’s political risk: the mayor can print new medallions, making the existing ones worth a little less (but not a lot less, given that the income from medallions is largely fixed).

Since then, however, two things have happened. First, New York City agreed to print 2,000 new medallions — that’s a very large increase. And secondly, Charles Komanoff — you remember him — has done the hard math of what this means for congestion and taxi incomes.

The first thing to understand is that while 2,000 cars might not seem very much in the context of a city which sees 800,000 cars per day, in fact it’s huge. Taxis spend 40 times as much time driving in congested areas as private cars do, so 2,000 medallions is the equivalent of 80,000 private cars. And when you impact the amount of traffic that much in an area which is already highly congested, the effects can be enormous:

traxi.tiff

The bottom line, here, is not just significantly more congestion, with travel speeds dropping on average from 9.5 mph to 8.4 mph. That inconveniences everybody, of course, not least the cab drivers themselves, who will take a whole extra minute, on average, to get to where their passenger wants to go. That decreases the number of fares they can pick up per day, and hurts their income.

And at the same time, the number of people wanting to take a taxi is likely to go down, when traffic speeds fall, rather than up. If you have fewer people hailing a greater number of cabs, then it’s simple math that the number of fares per cab shift is likely to fall. According to Charles’s calculations, it will fall in total a good 19%.

If taxi fares stay constant, that means a 19% drop in taxi-fare income, per cab. Fares won’t rise enough to cover that fall. And of course the income for the driver is going to fall more than 19%, because the medallion owners are going to be very reluctant to drop the amount they charge the drivers per shift.

All of which implies to me that if there’s a medallion-price bubble, then the introduction of 2,000 new medallions is likely to prick that bubble. And conversely, if medallions keep on changing hands for a million dollars a pop even after those 2,000 new cars are on the road, then we can be pretty sure that there’s no bubble here at all.

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