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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Here in Los Angeles, plus San Francisco, Washington, D.C. and dozens of other cities, there's a new way to hail a cab, using a smartphone app to track down a ride. In New York, hailing one of those iconic yellow cabs still requires raising an arm to flag one down.

The city wants to change that but as WNYC's Alex Goldmark reports, that has prompted a lawsuit.

ALEX GOLDMARK, BYLINE: Since Mayor La Guardia established the modern taxi fleet here in 1937, there haven't been many innovations in cab hailing. The whistle...

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLE)

GOLDMARK: And my favorite, the red light bulb on top of apartment building awnings.

JOHN VELL: Light goes on. It's on top of the canopy. Cabs see it. They stop.

GOLDMARK: How often to they actually stop?

VELL: They don't. They really don't. They don't acknowledge it at all.

GOLDMARK: John Vell is as close to a professional cab hailer as you'll find. He's a doorman on tony Park Avenue, with a river of yellow cabs out front most of the day.

If I told you that you could hail a cab with your smartphone app, would you use it?

VELL: Wouldn't work. It's faster just going out there and hailing a cab.

GOLDMARK: But it may not be faster everywhere, and not all the time. New York taxis spend about 40 percent of their day empty, looking for fares, especially in off-peak hours and outside Manhattan. New York Taxi and Limousine Commissioner David Yassky says apps are the latest innovation in hailing.

DAVID YASSKY: I think it will help passengers find a cab a little bit faster. For drivers, every extra trip they do during that shift is a material amount of dollars for them.

GOLDMARK: But that's what's worrying other hired car drivers. New York also has private car services. These livery cabs are more expensive and can only take passengers who call ahead first. Thousands of people already use apps with these cabs.

Avik Kabessa is the head of Carmel Car Service, one of the largest in the city. He's joined other companies to sue to block yellow cab drivers from using apps.

AVIK KABESSA: You just don't go and reshuffle the rights that have been in existence 40 years just in the name of technology.

GOLDMARK: Yellow taxis are a $2.5 billion industry here. So, the stakes are high all around. Every edge helps. So lawsuit or not, yellow cab drivers are signing up for apps in anticipation.

Hi Abdul, can I in your cab here?

Abdul Munir is testing out one of the apps, Hailo. The company has been recruiting drivers for about a year now at taxi stands and airports. They say they've already enlisted 5,000 of them.

Melissa Plaut is a taxi driver who is paid by Hailo to recruit other drivers to use the app. She shows me how it works in Munir's cab.

MELISSA PLAUT: So a driver would have their phone mounted in a cradle near the meter and a passenger would have this ideally on their phone.

GOLDMARK: It's a map. And right where we are, there's a cute little blue man with his hand in the air hailing a cab. I can move the blue man around, see nearby cabs, and with two taps, put out the signal that I'm looking.

It doesn't really make any sound. It's not very satisfying on the radio.

PLAUT: It will.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELLS RINGING)

PLAUT: That' is what the driver will hear.

GOLDMARK: The driver's screen flashes a big green button and an address. If he hits the button to stop the beeping like I did, the fare is his. The passenger sees which cab is coming and knows how far away it is.

And that thing at the bottom?

PLAUT: It says $1.50 off-peak Hailo fee applies.

GOLDMARK: With half a million passengers a day, it's a big business opportunity. And cabbies like ours, Abdul Munir, are ready.

ABDUL MUNIR: When this start. We rock and roll. That's it.

(LAUGHTER)

GOLDMARK: The lawsuit goes to court at the end of the month. Unless they're blocked, yellow cab apps could show up a few days later.

For NPR News, I'm Alex Goldmark in New York City.

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