Life Underground

A typical week on the Subway in New York

“Hey there, where to?”

“Orchard and Rivington, on the Lower East Side.”

“It might take a while, there’s quite a bit of traffic. Someone got pushed onto the L train tracks.”

“Well, that’s not going to mess things up on a Saturday night, is it?”

“Nope, it’s just you and half the city trying to get across the Willy B. at this hour.”

You might find it unusual that a Taxi driver would want to think about, let alone write, an entry about an alternative form of transportation in New York. I find it odd that I’ve gone this long and haven’t elaborated on the real lifeblood of the Big Apple. For all the ranting and raving that I do about my job, there’s no doubt that the trains that run under (and over) the streets of the city are just worthy of my attention. The two forms of transit have an intertwined existence that most people don’t know about up front, but becomes more readily apparent when looked at underneath the surface.

First off, there’s the state surcharge that gets tacked onto every fare. Heading anywhere in the 5 Boroughs or surrounding New York Counties? You’re paying 5o cents extra to the MTA. It’s a subsidy that the (mostly) richer Taxi passengers pay to help those who have to take public transportation and it continues the tradition set up in 1968 when the Triborough Bridge Authority was absorbed into the region’s crumbling mass transit system. It marked the end of Robert Moses’s rule as head of various city and state transportation, housing, and parks agencies but more importantly, it set the stage for the rebuilding of the region’s infrastructure and the return of its economic competitiveness. Even though most cabdrivers prefer to take free crossings over those with a toll, there’s no doubt that the MTA Bridges and Tunnels today are the ones that are maintained the best in New York. Many older drivers will probably wince in pain at the thought of the lower East River crossings being completely shut down for emergency repairs but such was the case in the late 1980’s when there were proposals to tear down the Williamsburg Bridge in favor of a more modern cable-stayed span. Fortunately, the turn-of-the-century crossings were kept at the expense of years of repairs and closed lanes. Yes, the MTA crossings are newer but the work has been kept up on them over the years and there’s never been any talk of a new span replacing the Triborough or Verrazano Bridges.

Then there’s the hole in the ground on the Upper East Side and by that, I’m referring to the Second Ave. Subway. It’s the most ambitious public works project in New York in generations and promises to revolutionize transportation and Real Estate values across large swaths of Manhattan. Whether it will or not remains to be seen but as in so many other instances, the project is behind schedule and over budget. Even if I didn’t know or care a damn about the tubes being bored up to 96 St., it would be impossible to dismiss since the chaos that it has caused on the neighborhood is unavoidable. I’ve had enough fares specifically request not to cross or go down 2 Ave. in spots and there have been countless stories written about the disruptions to residents along the future route and the businesses that have barely made ends meet due to the decreased foot traffic. Yes, a completed transit line would result in less Taxi fares in the area and better air quality but the inconveniences in the meantime have made many feel that the construction is not worth the long-term benefits to the neighborhood and City at large.

No discussion of the Subway would be complete without mentioning the Transport Workers Union. Arguably the most powerful in the city, they brought the region to its knees twice – once in 1966, again in 1980, and 25 years later in a strike that defied legalistic orders. In every case, the finger-pointing got nasty as both sides accused the other of not acting in good faith. The labor dispute in the Lindsay Administration has been cited as the cause of Union President Mike Quill’s untimely demise but it was enough to push a City that had a skyrocketing crime rate and lowering quality-of-life over the edge. Yes, there were not blackouts or garbage strikes in the later labor impasse’s but when the trains and buses weren’t running, it reflected poorly on all levels of Government to properly serve the people of New York.

Time and time again in recent months, I have been asked about the proposed fare hikes and rate increases for the yellow cabs of New York. Many people are shocked to find out that drivers such as myself are not part of a union, do not receive overtime when we surpass 40 hours in a week, and do not pay into a 401(k) or health insurance program. For the majority of us, we do this job for the money and the chance of steady work and if we love what we do, that’s just an intangible bonus. It is so difficult to feel sympathy for bus and train operators that can retire with a full pension and are nearly untouchable when it comes to passenger complaints and grievances. I am NOT talking about those who have been assaulted but rather, those who have had valid complaints brought against them by a riding public tired of fare hikes, service cuts, and rude employees. When it comes to our job, we do not have the luxury of a Union to protect us and a pension system to help us out of problems that may arise. Should we have to go to Taxi court down on Beaver Street, odds are we will lose, even if the problem brought into question is not our fault. To be a cabdriver in New York is to truly stake out on your own, in a legal as well as an occupational sense.

When I drive passengers around the City, I admit that I do not know all the streets, restaurants, and landmarks. I do my best to learn them all as well as the fastest way to get around. Much of what I accumulated in knowledge over the years was not because I was a local, as I have never truly called any neighborhood in the Big Apple home. Rather, it was because I took the Subway to as many places as I humanly could. Because New York’s system is so extensive and transfer-friendly, it was relatively easy to plunk down change for a token and take off for a neighborhood that was begging to be explored. I even went so far as to ride the entire system on one fare when the original Contract 1 Line turned 100 back in 2004. For someone in their late teens exploring a place that was just pulling out of the dark days of the 70’s and 80’s, the Subway was an outlet to much of the city that was otherwise inaccessible on the cheap.

So as the price of a typical Taxi fare appears to be on the rise for the first time in years, I tell many of my passengers that the rise in price of a ride on a MTA Bus or Subway has gone up numerous times in the last decade. The next hike appears to be in January followed by one two years after that, since it’s now pegged to the inflation rate. That too will affect us, as future operating deficits many have to be partially covered by increased revenue from the Taxi industry; which will include every driver in the City. It’s a shell game that will eventually screw someone in the end, since there are so many laborers in the transportation field and so much revenue for the pigs to raid in the trough of revenue via future fares.

In the poster above, a typical week’s worth of service diversions are shown in all their complicated glory. I make it a point to remember the ones that will affect me – in both my commute to and from work and the neighborhoods that I most frequent during a typical shift. There’s been plenty of times where I’ve found people who needed to go home late at night but the train that would normally take them there was either not running or rerouted. Whether drivers will ever admit it or not, all forms of transportation in New York are affected by how the others are running, if they’re even operating at all. For those of us that realize that and keep up with the changes, it’s more money in our pockets at the end of the night. More importantly, it’s a realization that so many people in the Big Apple are depending upon the riding public for their livelihoods, in a time where not many other fields are guaranteed steady demand for their services. All of us who drive are in this together, whether we’d like to admit it or not.

Colored bullets over Broadway

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