New Order

TaxiRally2

City Hall rally – 4/25

   Over the last three years, much had changed in New York’s taxi industry – most of it, not for the better. The Nissan NV200 (Taxi of tomorrow) became the dominant model of cab, Mayor De Blasio’s vision zero initiative continued to rework the city streets in favor of slower speeds and reconfigured intersections, and even the license changed to a universal one that applied to all yellow, green, and black car drivers. Without a doubt, the biggest difference in recent years was the onslaught of TNC’s (Transportation Network Companies) that flooded the city with thousands of extra vehicles. The end result was nothing short of a 21st century tragedy of the commons, as traffic speeds slowed, driver take-home pay plummeted, and morale hitting a low not seen in generations. All of this came to the head in recent months as 4 drivers in various sectors of the industry committed suicide, citing an inability to compete with the extra cars on the road and earn a living.

The one death that hit everyone the hardest was Douglas Schifter’s. Early in the morning on February 5th, he pulled up his car to the east side of City Hall Park, took out a shotgun, put it up to himself, and pulled the trigger. The suicide note left behind blamed the current and previous mayors as well as the current Governor for allowing too many autos to flood the streets, as well as the TLC for the heavy fines imposed via tickets. Those sediments, and the rest of those that he penned shortly before his demise, echoed the ones that he wrote for a black car publication that had long sounded the alarm of what drivers were forced to endure in recent years. Of course, they had gone unheeded but there was a sense that what happened on that gray, winter morning was a turning point in the long-running saga of New York’s for-hire transportation industry.

TaxiRally1.png

The Rev. (and city councilman) Ruben Diaz – 4/25

Rally’s for him, and subsequent ones, reinforced the notion that something was going to be different from here on out. Drivers of all sorts of vehicles came out, many in opposition to each other, to stand up for their job while at the same time, pressuring the city to tackle the runaway growth of the TNC’s. This brought up a massive conflict of interest issue, as yellow drivers (such as myself) claimed that the medallion taxis were granted an exclusive right to pick up street hails and therefore, needed the TNC’s curtailed and brought up to yellow standards. Fares needed to be leveled across the board, licensing and background checks had to also be made level, and the number of FHV’s (for hire vehicles) needed to be capped at a level that would guarantee enough income for all of those who drove. Drivers of Uber, Lyft, and other companies of the sort wanted their livelihoods kept, even as those services continued to add drivers ad infinitum. The numbers were quite startling with some claiming that there could be up to 100,000 FHV’s on the city’s streets by next year, with still no end in sight to the stratospheric growth. Clearly, something had to be done to stem this runaway expansion.

The first of what was expected to be a series of meetings took place at City Hall on April 30th. Led by Rev. (and city councilman) Ruben Diaz of the Bronx, proposed legislation was put forth that would address many of these issues head-on. Various drivers, former drivers, advocacy groups, and unions testified about the changes they had seen and offered various solutions to the problem. The only point that they could agree on was that there were too many cars on the street, but as to what their limit should be still remained up in the air.

TaxiRally4

Drivers testifying to the city council – 4/30

Yours truly went to the rally on the 25th and the meeting less than a week later. The former was the first time I had ever set foot in City Hall Park and the latter was the first time that I had ever set foot inside of the building itself. Not having a representative on the council (I live in New Jersey) has made it tough to get my voice heard at times but thankfully, there have been a few people in government on our side and plenty of people in the yellow cab industry who have tirelessly work in order to save what’s left of our profession. It has been heartwarming to see constructive steps being taken although many of these issues have been at the forefront for a number of years now. That it took a series of medallion foreclosures, the loss of income on the part of yellow drivers, and a series of suicides to see action on the part of the city council was nothing short of disheartening at best and evidence of a lack of effectiveness on the part of the TLC and New York City government itself, at worst.

Over the coming months, I hope to get this site back up and running again. Much of what I loved about this job has faded away in the 6 1/2 years that I’ve been doing it; nearly in proportion to the income I take home nightly. Many have asked me whether I still love this job and my response is always the same:

Yes.

If I *didn’t* love it, how could I keep doing it?

While I’m ready for whatever vocation lies ahead of me in life, I will keep driving during the overnight hours for as long as I have to, until that last shift finally comes. In spite of the struggles that myself, and everyone else, has faced in this industry, I still believe that it’s not too late to save it from implosion, although our time is rapidly running out.

At this point, the city owes it to all of us who put our heart, soul, blood, sweat, tears, and hours in to get it right this time around.

TaxiRally3

East gate, City Hall Park – 4/25

 

 

 

Advertisements

Taxi of Today

Finally, the Taxi of Tomorrow is my ride tonight - Long Island City

Finally, the Taxi of Tomorrow is my ride tonight – Long Island City

 

“Oh gosh, where’s that button? Sorry about that, this is my first time driving this.”

“This is your first day on the job?”

“No, just in this model.”

It was not the best of times in New York over the last few weeks. Winter refused to fully make its exit, even though the vernal equinox had come and gone in a flash. WABC news anchor and reporter Lisa Colagrassi suffered a brain aneurysm and died a day later from it after coming back from an assignment in Woodhaven, the demolition of the former 5 Pointz site was finally completed after a long post-whitewashing hiatus, and a large explosion and subsequent fire in the East Village ground much of the neighborhood to a halt as questions arose about the nature of utility work and Gotham’s crumbling infrastructure. Even the subway fare went up again last week, as the two year hikes implemented by the MTA took effect. It was with this backdrop that a bit of good news finally came my way.

After 650+ shifts over the last 3 1/2 years, the first one behind the wheel of the much-heralded “Taxi of Tomorrow” finally took place last Monday. I didn’t ask for it at my garage and when  the key and my license were pushed through the slot from my dispatcher, I knew that in all likelihood that it would be the last time I’d drive a new vehicle as a hack driver in the Big Apple. It was only recently that the ruling was handed down that the Nissan NV200 would indeed become the exclusive model of yellow cab starting next month, finally bringing the winner of former Mayor Bloomberg’s plan and ensuing competition into fruition.

I get asked all the time if the vehicle that I’m driving during a particular night was given to me or if I had a choice when I showed up to work. Most often, it’s the former although any good dispatcher will know what preferences a driver has when his or her license is handed over upon walking through the door of the waiting room. When I first started, I loved the Crown Victoria because it was the dominant model of Taxi at the time and they ran like charms. It was only when other options became more prevalent that I preferred them instead, along with their better fuel economy.

In that span, I drove the Crown Vic, the Toyota Highlander, the Toyota Camry, the Ford SUV, both models of the Ford Transit Connect, and the Toyota Van. The only difficultly was having to adjust to the controls being in a different place, and where the blind spots were. Some drivers thought that certain models were cramped, broke down too much, or had their sentimental favorites but in my case, I just wanted to get out onto the street and start taking fares. What changed more than anything else was not just the standardization of the ride, but the relationship between the drivers and the garages themselves.

Skylight and partition - Greenpoint

Skylight and partition – Greenpoint

Last summer, my garage was giving a discount for those who had come into work in the form of a smaller lease fee. Think of it as a rental – the lower it is, the more likely someone is likely to pay it to use the space or in this case, vehicle. As of last week, the lease fees where I work out of were dropped on Sunday through Wednesday in the non-summer months for the first time ever. No one ever gets sent home anymore (it used to happen all the time on weekends) and there’s even incentives to get drivers to bring in others who are new to the game. As one fellow hack put it the other morning, “They treated us like crap for so long and now they’re paying for it.”

It’s no secret that this is all because of Uber. In an economy that has ZipCar, Tinder, and Angie’s List revolutionizing how we travel, date, and hire contractors, Uber is redefining what it means to get from A to B on a whim wherever, whenever. Reports estimate that where are more Uber cars than yellow cabs on the streets of New York during a typical day and soon, it won’t even be in doubt which service is more numerous in major U.S. cities. The “million dollar babies” are no longer that expensive either as the price of a medallion has fallen by over 20% in the last two years. As I’ve said to those that ask, the only way that affects me is if I can’t get a reliable vehicle to drive for 12 hours at a time and whether my take justifies the effort that I put in on a particular night. So far, both of those are still working out in my favor.

Clean seats - Long Island City

Clean seats – Long Island City

I have no idea if the new Taxi will still be reliable after taking a pounding on the city’s streets for the 5 years that they’ll be in service for. Every new model was great to drive when it was clean and still had that new car smell but the Ford Transit Connect turned out to be the poster child for how *not* to adapt a van for the purpose of short hauls on bumpy streets. The door sensor went off too much, the blind spots were in odd places, and the suspension was a total failure as I had numerous complaints about my driving and inability to avoid bumps and potholes. The new Nissan was tested quite extensively as I saw a few gallivanting around empty during their test phase every so often before they were put into service but now that there are several hundred heading out every night, the real test results by means of passenger feedback have yet to fully come in.

The ride in them was fine for this driver, however. Clean, quiet, roomy, and easy to maneuver, it ran well and didn’t cost me a ton to fill up at the end of the night. My only complaint with it was that there was no way to open up the partition, as the clear divider was firmly bolted into place and didn’t have any opening that I could slide back and forth. I never had to turn the intercom on however (since I have a distinctly low and somewhat annoying voice) but given the historic drop in crime in New York over the last 20 or 30 years, was it really necessary to have this as a feature? The skylight and USB ports were a nice touch but it’s the 21st Century and with tourism booming, why not have us get as close to our passengers as possible, with the option to close the window as needed?

Even though the Camry is still my favorite model of Taxi to drive, I don’t have a problem when I’m given a Nissan during a particular shift, however. My last fare the first night I had the NV200 decided to bail out on me up in the Bronx at 4:45 in the morning, figuring that I wouldn’t dare follow him and run the risk of being the next crime statistic. As pissed as I was, I took solace in the fact that I I had my life intact and made it through my first shift in the “Taxi of Tomorrow” as if I drove it every day since I began the job. Whether that’s my ease of adjusting or result of the overall design and functionality of the vehicle is up for debate but with so many other issues facing the city and my industry, it was comforting to know that the new ride that were imposed upon us was not something that I’d ever have to worry about again.

Trunk space - Long Island City

Trunk space – Long Island City

Zero Tolerance

Safe Driver Pledge

Safe Driver Pledge

 

Vision Zero came a bit closer to reality this week when the City Council passed 11 bills and resolutions aimed at forwarding the Mayor’s ambitious traffic-calming agenda. No longer will it be an idea aimed at lowering traffic accident and fatalities, but it will actually be taking root in the physical design of roads, plazas, and enforcement, with the intent on lowering the amount of deaths on New York’s streets down to a goal of none.

While this is quite an ambitious goal, much of it’s implementation remains to be seen. So far, there has been a crackdown on speeding in the Five Boroughs, a re-timing of the traffic lights on Atlantic Ave. to coincide with the lowering of its speed limit to 25 M.P.H., and the retooling of accident-prone intersections like Broadway and 96 St. in Manhattan. While this is good news, much of the agenda is unfairly targeting those in the business that I currently earn my vocation in.

I won’t lie – we are to blame for some of the discontent that people feel towards motorized vehicles in New York. I don’t think that any cabdriver that strikes and maims a pedestrian should be allowed to drive for a living again and that a fair number of us give everyone in my profession a bad name. With that being said, I do think that we are still be unfairly targeted. Jaywalkers? They don’t get tickets. MTA Buses? I see them blow lights all the time. Sanitation trucks? Ditto for them as well and while emergency vehicles need to speed to get to where they’re going, some of their tactics are a lot more dangerous that I would have been led to believe before I worked into the wee hours 4 nights a week.

My point? If this is going to be shared sacrifice, then let’s see everyone chip in together. Bikers are still getting away with riding against the flow of traffic, as many of the offenders don’t have the right head or body gear on in case of accidental contact with a larger vehicle. Bus lanes are fine as long as the public at large realizes that Taxis are being told to stay out of them at nearly all costs (which is fine until someone wants to get off on the right side of 1 or Madison Ave’s), and no one gets a free pass to recklessly speed as they please; whether that would be the Mayor’s entourage or the juvenile whizzing up the FDR at 4 in the morning on a Saturday night before shattering his ride into a thousand pieces.

There are so many issues in New York of greater importance right now and like the proposed ban on carriage horses, this one is easy to rally around since opposing it makes a person seem in favor of the old and reckless streets of yesteryear. Once the schools perform up to par, housing is accessible to all classes, transit fares are held in check, taxes and utility rates increase slower than the rate of inflation, and people are coming off of the public-assistance rolls instead of onto them, then quality-of-life issues can more up to the front burner.

One death on the streets of New York is too many but so is one at the hands of gangs, cops, unsafe buildings, guns, and other factors that are magnified in a place of 8 million people. If the people truly want streets to be completely safe at any cost, they then should be prepared to realize that the price may be just a bit too high to bear. Zero tolerance of any evil, wrongdoing, or negative externality may look great on paper but so did communism and socialism. Utopia’s never work out as planned but *someone* has to pay the price to an ever-increasing cost of achieving perfection while the attempt to reach that status is in progress.

Even with a 2/3 reduction in murders since the height of the crack epidemic in the late ’80’s and early ’90’s, some people feel that there are still too many citizens who die at the hands of violence every year. It’s been so long that many have forgotten how things used to be and only remember the last 5 or so years. Ditto for fuel efficiency of cars and industrial buildings, urban blight, and maintenance on parks, bridges, and subways. There will always be room for improvement and even in my line of work, I always push myself to learn something new every day about the city and ways to get around it. What I need to remember is that most of us have come a long way in our respective fields and lives and though perfection is worth striving for, it will always remain elusive and just beyond reach.

Bill of Rights (for cabbies)

Bill of Rights (for cabbies)

Speed Limits

City Limit - Greenpoint

City Speed Limit – Greenpoint

 

It was with great fanfare recently that Mayor De Blasio announced his “Vision Zero” initiative. Given the rash of pedestrian fatalities in the 5 Boroughs so far this year, it was only a matter of time before Hizzoner found a cause that everyone could rally around. With his popularity taking a hit after the Charter Schools, nepotism, and snow removal controversies this past winter, continuing the trend of pedestrian safety that was started by his predecessor was certainly a smart thing to do. Whether it’s a policy that’s actually worthy following is another matter altogether.

For the record, I have stated online and to my passengers that 30 is where the speed limit should be.

No higher, and certainly no lower.

No one would argue for the former but plenty of people can’t wait to put the proverbial (and literal) brakes on motorized vehicles in New York and lower it as fast as possible. How many deaths is too many? One is, and we certainly have more than that annually. While I don’t feel that blood should be spilled due the raging nature of those who treat thoroughfares as urban highways, the issues is much deeper than just slowing everyone down for the sake of it.

The other day, a bunch of guys in my garage were talking about this. They felt that all bets would be off once it’s down to 25 M.P.H.,. Why not 20? 15? Heck, let’s just go along with the plan and shut the meter off when the Taxi goes over the speed limit. If we ever get to that point, I can guarantee you that a lot of us would get up and call it quits before proceeding to look for work in other fields.

Like virtually every other aspect of civic life, there are already too many laws on the books. That’s not enough for everyone who comes into office looking to make his or her mark, however. Existing laws only serve to move the equilibrium. Crime’s too high? Make them stricter. Once the crime rate goes down, the noose has to tighten a bit more, and the cycle continues. The only question is where does it stop, since common sense never plays into whether the existing rules and regulations are readily enforceable.

Take a good look at the cars on the FDR during the overnight hours, the Mayor’s cavalcade burning rubber through Queens, or any New Yorker in a rush to get to Penn or Grand Central right after work. All of them are in a big hurry to get to where they’re going, limits be damned. Of course, none of them will be targeted under a crackdown in the name of pushing the fatality rate even lower. If not them, then who?

I don’t think I even have to say it.

We’ve endured roller-coaster gas prices, higher lease fees, a six-cent health surcharge, the dispatchers at JFK treating us like the shit that we endure from them, and more aggressive “enforcement” on account of the NYPD in recent years. Although we have so much to give to New York, in terms of value, revenue, and positive impressions, we are not a golden goose that can be raided over and over again at will. If the Mayor wants to cut the number of deaths on the street to zero, everyone’s going to have to contribute. That includes the jaywalkers, livery cabs, buses, speeders, bicyclists, drunk drivers, the MTA, and motorists with suspended licenses. As a group, the Taxi drivers have the best record of any subset of drivers in Gotham but none of the others pull in the bucks where we do and if you’re going to figure out what’s first in the line of fire, the old adage applies here once again:

Follow the money.

For now, we still go. Any change in the speed limit would have to go through the State Legislature and that doesn’t look like it’s happening anytime soon. After that, the traffic lights would have to be re-timed and hordes of signs such as the one pictured above would have to be taken down and replaced as well. While I think that improvements could be further made to the flow of vehicles and certain intersections in the city, a goal of zero deaths by collisions is impossible to achieve. The day that getting into an accident becomes illegal by penalty under law is the day I take my hack license out of the holder at the end of my shift for the last time.

And that’s when we’ve truly hit absolute zero.

 

We Exist

“Walking around
Head full of sound
Acting like
We don’t exist”

                                                                                                                                                                                -Arcade Fire

One out of many - Greenpoint

E Plurubus Unum – Greenpoint

“Hey there, where to?”

“We’re going t- hey, wait a second. You’re a native American!”

“If you’re suggesting that I was here before the white man arrived from Europe, you’d be sorely mistaken.”

“No, not *that* kind. You’re a native American, like…you’re from here.”

“Well, if you consider New Jersey via Wisconsin as being from here, then you’d be correct.”

“And your English is really good!”

“Well, I’d like to think it is. I’ve been speaking it for long enough.”

“Honey, can you believe this? We have a real American taking us home tonight.”

“Yup, we exist. Mind telling me where you’re going so I can drive ya there?”

This conversation (or something closely resembling it) goes on at least half a dozen times a week, every week since I started driving well over 2 years ago. I had a feeling when I first walked into the Taxi School and noticed that I was the lightest-skinned person in the room who wasn’t an instructor that I was in for a demographic wake-up call. Even after all of this time, I’m still amazed at how few native-born cabdrivers there are roaming the streets in yellow vehicles every night.

When I was growing up, the popular view of cabdrivers in New York held that they were old men, smoking stogies, and saying “Where to?” as someone in a fedora or some God-awful polyester and plaid ensemble hopped in and blurted out the destination in hurried tones. Old film noir movies would seemingly have a gangster or cop hurrying into a Checker Cab and ordering the driver to “Follow that cab!” as the vehicle sped away in hot pursuit of the bad guys. As I got older, my solo jaunts into the city quickly taught me not to jaywalk and to look both ways before crossing the street. Now that I’ve been behind the wheel, I realize that everything isn’t as black and white as those old films, or who’s right and wrong when it comes to who dominates the streets in the big city.

That would also include the drivers themselves. For generations, it was the Irish, Italians, and Jews that drove the Taxis of New York. As waves of immigrants from Far Western, Southern, and Eastern Europe came through Ellis Island, many of them chose to remain in the vicinity. Scores of tenements on the West and Lower East Sides of Manhattan and the Outer Boroughs were soon a patchwork of neighborhoods, each one defined by the group(s) that chose to settle there and become a part of the American melting pot.

Eventually, these groups did assimilate and later generations of them moved into the Postwar autoburbs of Long Island, new Jersey, Upstate, and elsewhere. Hours of pounding the pavement looking for fares gave way to white collar jobs, home ownership, extended native-born families, and cashing out the equity that could be built up through a Taxi medallion. As the number of Caucasian immigrants dwindled, those looking to make a better life in the New World came from new lands. Africans, Indians, Hispanics, and East Asians were coming to America in larger droves and like their predecessors inspired by The New Colossus at the base of Lady Liberty, they took up jobs that would allow them to partake in all that America had to offer.

Naturally, cabdriving was among those.

It was only in the last 20 or 30 years that the racial make-up of the drivers of New York City’s taxis really began to change. Even while watching reruns of Taxi or the bits and pieces of Taxi Driver that I’ve caught over the years (I still have yet to see it all the way through), it was apparent that in the 1970’s, Hollywood depicted cabdrivers as either being black or white. The former being the token minority of the day and the latter being the old-style persona that most people pictured behind the wheel in Gotham.

Today, they’re both minorities. Dana Rubinstein summed up the current demographics of Taxi drivers and passengers recently, and indeed it turns out that over 35% of drivers today are either from Pakistan or Bangladesh. India also turns out to have been a sizable origin country for many drivers and coming in at just under 6% is…

…the United States.

A deeper look into the 2014 Taxicab Fact Book reveals that 6% of the drivers who work a typical week driving a New York City Taxi reside in a place west of the Hudson River.

So to sum it up, having a native-born cabbie who calls New Jersey home isn’t so far-fetched.

Yes indeed, we do exist.

I never expected to be part of any majority when I decided to take this job on and it’s good preparation for what’s coming ahead in America. Already, there are 18 states that have a non-white race that leads that state in births and that number will rise in the coming years as the birthrate among whites continues slowly decrease. Sometime in the middle of this century, whites will cease to be a majority in this country and will a plurality instead. The number of blacks as a percentage of the U.S. population has also been decreasing and has shown sharp declines in many northern states as many of them return to their American roots in the south. The “browning” of America will continue as Asians and Hispanics continue their strong immigration here and racial barriers in leadership, corporations, governmental positions, and even in sports will continue to fall as demographic changes become fully apparent.

Even cabdrivers may become antiquated in the not-so-distant future, as Google is leading the way toward driverless vehicles that are on pace to debut by the end of the decade. It was conventional wisdom that drivers were one of the few jobs in America that couldn’t be outsourced or automated but what was a blue-collar bastion here for so long may go the way of stenographers, teletype operators, and money order agents as positions relegated to the history books and webpages of yesteryear. Driving has always been in my blood and one of the rites of passage for me that I’ll always remember was the first time I was able to go behind the wheel by myself and see as much of the World out there as a tank or two or twelve of gas would allow me to.

One of the big problems facing our nation today is what to do with the unskilled who are coming to our shores, willing to work but not finding enough jobs and tasks to perform for a living wage. The irony is that many of the positions that were available to recent arrivals may no longer exist within the lifespan of the current adult generation, as the drivers of yellow cabs may follow those of so many in the Big Apple. Blue collar and manufacturing work continues to dwindle in New York as newer low-wage positions now require more technical and trained proficiency, and offer less of a chance to move up the socioeconomic ladder. Having all 13,000+ yellow cabs (and thousands more livery and green cabs) become automated would be a blow to those who would have used those vehicles as a stepping-stone to a better life for themselves and their families, even though the price of a medallion today has rendered ownership nearly impossible for those not willing to put in the diligence and 20+ years required to full pay off the purchase of one.

The joke that I mentioned at the beginning of this entry is one that I hear all the time, but it may soon be replaced by someone getting into a cab and punching in their destination into their phone or on-board computer. When the vehicle goes the wrong way, reads it incorrectly, or freezes up like a Windows computer, the person in the back seat would probably curse at the heavens and wish for a real driver, regardless of where he or she is from or how proficient the English spoken would be.

Hopefully, that day will never come to pass in the Big Apple.

Cliff - Greenpoint

Cliff – Greenpoint

Reflector

“I thought I found the connector – it’s just a reflektor”

-Arcade Fire

Reflection - Bryant Park

Reflection – Bryant Park

“Hey there, where to?”

“505 W. 37.”

“How’d your you day go?”

“Long.”

“Sorry to hear that. At least it’s over now.”

“Thank God!”

I have something closely resembling this conversation 5 times every week, for nearly every week since I started my current occupation. It’s never enjoyable to feel like that life has been reduced to a routine straight out of Groundhog Day but for the late-night cabbie, that turns out the be the case more often than not. *Twice* on Monday alone did I have someone come into my cab and utter nearly the same words:

“Didn’t I have you before?”

Sure enough, both of those people did.

One of them was a restaurant owner that I had to take to his establishment in the West Village. A month or two ago, I took him and his S.O. home to Jackson Heights in Queens, right over the Willy B. and onto the BQE before briefly becoming reacquainted with Northern Boulevard. The other fare was one of my many late-night wait-in-line types, which happens outside of a Midtown box housing professional office drones or a club housing those fortunate enough to have money and time to blow on bottles service on a weeknight. Cruising the streets has its advantages since many of my most interesting fares were found in the middle of nothing during a time where nothing seemed possible. It can also be extremely hypnotic once the familiar pattern of hitting the proverbial and actual cruise control kick in and the City become reduced to a museum best viewed at 30 M.P.H.

The real issue comes in finding people, and I mean people in the sense that they are personalities and not clones of the ones that I picked up earlier in the night, or the week, or even previously past that. I always want to push the edge of what I know, what I learn, what I experience, and what challenges me to the point where I have to re-evaluate my intellectual hierarchy and update it with what I’ve recently taken on. Many of my best fares have been interesting enough to where I completely kept quiet and just let them talk – endlessly, incessantly, and with abandon. One I feel like I’ve already heard what they have to say, they’ve lost me, even if I’m not lost in a physical or metaphorical sense.

Recent census estimates have put the population of the Big Apple at 8.4 million people and according to “The Naked City”, everyone in New York had a story. That quote was famous during a time where New York had not quite yet become the world’s Capital and could actually claim to have grit, toughness, and a setting made for any film noir that wanted to set itself there. This was reflected in the built environment in the cornices, alleys, Belgian block streets, and abodes leftover from pre-consolidation New York could still be found. The world’s tallest building could easily be found in New York but so could Hell’s Kitchen, waterfront piers dominated by Teamsters, and clotheslines behind every tenement that covered the edges of the gilded center of Gotham. There was contrast, clash, and class divides that allowed for anyone and everyone to take part in the land that epitomized the siren emanating from Emma Lazarus’ poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty.

Over the years, that changed. The zoning revisions of 1961 allowed for bonuses for creating plazas and combined with changes in design, resulted in a place that took the best of international style modernism and replicated it for for the masses while simultaneously dumbing it down. When Lever House and the Seagram Building were first erected, they won accolades for their minimalism replicated on such a fine scale. The design may have been elementary but as Daniel Burnham once stated, “God is in the details”.

And were they ever in those buildings.

Bronze-tinted glass, window-washing equipment built into the mullions, public plazas, perfectly proportioned columns, setbacks, and plazas allowed for the City to open up. Not just when it came to space and flow, but in order. Now, there was room to relax, unwind, see the sun…

…and reflect.

Which is exactly what happened.

Whatever intellectual stimulation was brought upon by the changes in these buildings’ design was outdone by the changes on the physical landscape that resulted from their groundbreaking design. America was triumphant, prosperous, and fully confident in its destiny as much of Europe and Asia lay in ruins but at the same time, it was full of what led to its currently-visible downfall:

Arrogance and hubris.

The atom may have been a proponent for peace but it was the epitome of what the mentality was in the Cold War era – technology over art, rationality over intuition, and economics over aesthetics. We could design whatever we wanted with whatever new materials, style, and engineering would allow but there wasn’t any sense of heart or soul in the end result. Frank Lloyd Wright brought an organic, prairie style of architecture to a nation that had largely found inspiration from the Old Word but at the same time of his death, the country turned to a bunch of modernists from that Old World to produce a language and even a vernacular for the second half of the 20th Century.

What resulted was absolutely devastating.

The 1961 Zoning law allowed for bonuses should a development include space for a public plaza or arcade. More importantly, it allowed for an unlimited rise without setbacks, unlike the Zoning Law of 1916. Buildings erected after that was enacted into law could rise uninterrupted but only after they were reduced to 1/4 of the total base. What was a city of “waterfalls” and “wedding cakes” soon turned into a bunch of shoeboxes with barren, windswept plazas at street level. They may have been great for lunch but they were terrible for street life and amazingly, even worse when it came to to their facade. The reason for this was simple:

Glass.

Masonry was the preferred choice of exterior for so many buildings in Gotham’s history but as technology and design changed, so did the means to express that change. Load-bearing walls were no longer needed as steel became strong enough to fully bear the load of a tower. This was true by the time of the building boom of the 1920’s but it wasn’t after WWII that changes in design and aesthetics caught up with the progress of the underlying engineering.

As copycats proliferated around the City, Seagram and Lever House became less of an anachronistic anomaly and instead, became the standard that no one could possibly measure up to.

But that didn’t stop SOM, Emery Roth and Sons, Yamasaki, and anyone else prominent enough to earn a commission during the Mad Men-era to design their own glass  box on 3, Park, or 6 Ave’s.

By 1970’s, whatever charm lay on the streets of Manhattan’s recently-cleared El’s or grand, landscaped thoroughfare was obliterated in favor of corporate headquarters that were less concerned with civic grandeur and more interested in the bottom line. The people that were housed in these vertical cube farms were increasingly commuting from farther distances and less interested in staying in Manhattan after work. Any proof of this could be seen in their bases, which lacked retail amenities and interaction with the passerby on the street. Worst of all, these skyscrapers ended up turning Manhattan into a fun-house on a scale never seen before.

But there wasn’t anything fun about being trapped in a corporate campus full of mirrored monoliths.

Winston Churchill one said that “We shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us”. It should have come as no surprise that a few generations after we started to mass produce our houses, workspaces, meals, and cartoons (Hanna-Barbera, anyone?), that the offspring in the ensuing generations turned out to be mass-produced as well.

And there’s where my typical night comes in.

Too many times, the person getting into my cab is a clone of someone I previously had. I can guess their language, destination, thought pattern, or occupation just based on a few cues that don’t even call for an accompanying neon sign. It’s pathetic on so many levels that I hardly know where to begin in explaining it. For starters, New York was always a place where immigrants came to find themselves and enter into America but increasingly, it was a destination for those seeing extreme wealth at all costs. The division of labor espoused by Adam Smith reached it’s zenith in Gotham at one time as nearly every occupation on Earth could be found somewhere within its confines but increasingly, a service sector and knowledge economy came to dominate, headed by a few select fields that weren’t important on the grand scheme of things but had their literal headquarters somewhere on the island of Manhattan. Most of all, New Yorkers was a place where people clashed – not civilizations on Huntington’s scale but classes. Think Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities (yes, I know it took place in the Bronx) or Gangs of New York for the vibrancy that resulted when various groups were thrust into a social setting that could only have taken place in Gotham.

But Churchill’s quip came to be reality and as the buildings became more square and transparent, so did the people that inhabited them and eventually, their offspring. Nothing bothers me more than getting someone in the back seat that either works 90 hours a week in finance, is perpetually glued to the phone in his/her hand, or can’t speak without sounding like he/she came from the San Fernando Valley and wanted to be a mallrat. Those people are a dime a dozen and drain all the life and vitality out of a metropolis that should be home to 8 million stories – unique, wild, zany, fascinating and ultimately, colorful stories.

But that’s not the case.

Instead, what I come across pales in comparison to what used to be. I’ve had at least a dozen passengers tell me that their Dad, Uncle, or Grandfather drove a Taxi in New York in the 60’s or 70’s, to which I always say the same thing:

“I would have killed to have done it back then.”

No, I’m not the next Son of Sam but I do wish for a City with edge, gruff, grit, a bit of danger, and most of all, characters.

Most nights, I’m the biggest one of those in my ride, and that’s not saying a whole lot!

What bothers me the most now is that too many people are plugged into the outside word to think, reflect, and create on their own and I know this firsthand because I’m partially guilty of this too. What separates me from them (aside from the fact that I’m up front and behind the wheel) is that I do my best to listen, react, and ask when I come into contact with someone new.

For jobs that I come across all the time, it’s just this:

“Do you like it?”

To which I hear, “Not really…”

When I get someone that is a professional wardrobe stylist, a music promoter, or a short story writer, that’s when the fun begins and I feel like I’m in school all over again.

But sadly, those instances are too few and far between.

Onward, I go. I know I’ll spend more nights ahead watching the soulless masses enter my cab one fare at time, taking in news and information from others but offering so little original thought in return. Once in a while, I will get proven wrong and find a moment of joy in the midst of a sea of bland mediocrity and regurgitation of someone else’s ideas and commands. The division of labor is still dynamic enough in an economy this trepid that new positions are still being created at the expense of the masses that have been laid off in the name of downsizing, reorganization, and offshoring. Thankfully, those in the transportation field don’t have much to worry about, as our ilk will continue to enliven the City until robots come along and the trains, buses, and taxis, are fully automated.

While our positions many not be paramount in the grand scheme of things, no one will ever accuse us of ever being carbon copies reflections of those who also hold the same position.

Not that I’ve ever had to worry about that during my time in the Big Apple!

New York Central lightshow - Midtown

New York Central lightshow – Midtown

 

 

 

Who’ll kill the electric cab?

Nissan LEAF - West Side

Nissan Leaf – West Side

“Nice Taxi you have here!”

“Thanks, but it’s not mine. I just keep it clean as possible.”

“It runs so quiet, it must be an electric or hybrid vehicle.”

“No it’s not. The engines are nowhere as big as those in the Crown Vic’s, although this does run on gasoline. Some of the SUV’s and the Prius Taxi’s are hybrids but we don’t have anymore of the former at the garage I work out of.”

“What about the Taxi of Tomorrow? Isn’t that supposed to run on electric power?”

“Your guess is as good as mine.”

Now that we’re down to T minus 70 days and counting until the Taxi of Tomorrow hits the streets of the Big Apple, there’s been a lot more talk about it’s rollout, both in the news and by my passengers. As I wrote in an earlier post, many people incorrectly think that the Ford Transit Connect is the Taxi of Tomorrow but even though some of those have been on the streets for nearly two years now, none will be active as a yellow cab at the end of the decade should the full implementation of the Nissan NV-200 take place. It did lose out to it in the competition to be the exclusive yellow cab for the City of New York, but since the Crown Victoria is no longer being made by Ford, other models have taken the place of those that have reached the end of their life cycle, and the Transit Connect happens to be one of the more popular choices to replace the cars that have hit retirement age.

Come October, that all changes as the first of the NV-200’s will roll out. New Yorkers will have a custom-built Taxi designed for comfort, safety, stability, and durability (or so we’ve been told) that has been thoroughly tested and ready for the daily wear and tear that the streets will inevitably put on them. Since no one in the general public had been inside of one and none of the drivers currently employed in New York has driven one, the jury is out on whether the grandiose promises that the TLC and the Mayor have made about this new Taxi will be kept. One aspect about them remains in flux however:

What will they run on?

One of the questions I get the most by my passengers is how the cost of fuel is borne at the end of the shift. Many incorrectly think that the garage pays for whatever we use while we’re on-duty, but if you’ve kept up with my musings on here, you know better than that. Just like a rental car, the Taxis we drive have to be returned in the condition we took them out in – clean, ding-free, and full.

Of gas, that is.

Thankfully, my garage has a home station nearby that also serves as a de facto AAA emergency roadside service. The tow trucks that will take us back in case we break down are not based near my garage but in case of a flat tire, a dead battery, or other small problems that arise from time to time, one of the guys who works at the station will take the old taxi that’s been converted to a Saint Bernard on wheels and help us out. It’s a lifesaver since getting towed is time-consuming and as anyone is well aware of, time is money. To take that a step further, time lost during a shift is money lost.

The day drivers have it rough when it comes to getting gas since getting in and out of the Station at rush hour is one knock-’em, sock-’em game of musical chairs with everyone else who is trying to get in and out at the same time. At 4:50 in the morning, the streets are empty and the only thing I can count on is that I’ll see the same 5 or 10 guys out of my garage who are finishing their shift at the same time. We almost always agree on how good or bad it was out on the streets that night and we’ll trade barbs on what we went through during the previous 12 hours. In a field where it’s pretty much every driver for him or herself, it’s the only time where I feel like I can bond with those that put in the same hours and working conditions that I do.

Could all of this change in the near future? A few months back, Nissan helped launch 6 electric LEAF Taxis to join the 13,000+ gasoline and hybrid vehicles that currently make up the fleet in New York. All of them look like the one pictured above and have the same fare structure as the other Taxis. The real reason for their usage however, is to see whether they can pass muster and handle the day-to-day grind that will take its toll on them. Eventually, the city wants 1/3 of the fleet to be electric by the end of the decade.

Of course, that will have to coincide with the NV-200 being the exclusive model of Taxi by that time, even though none of the ones set to hit the street this year are slated to run via a charger and battery.

This brings up a host of problems that will have to be addressed. For starters, there are only a limited number of charging stations currently in the 5 Boroughs. Garages are expected to have the stations first before they become more widely available but for now, an app is needed to locate them.

Then there’s the time factor. Most of the Taxis in the overall fleet are on the road at least 20 hours a day, nearly every day of the week. Steady cars get traded off between partners and the others are dispatched out to the daily or nightly drivers. It’s not uncommon for a Taxi to rack up well over 300,000 miles during its 6-year lifespan on the streets before it hits retirement age and is decommissioned. Charging, for all the advances made in it in the last few years, still takes a while and has to be done on vehicles that are not on the road for two shifts a day. Once the time to fully recharge a battery drops, this can change and then can an electric cab can be on-duty for nearly the entire day (or night).

Last but not least, there’s the issue of the battery. Ask anyone who’s had to pay for a new one in a hybrid vehicle and you’ll probably get sighs and groans as a response. They’re not cheap and their replacement can easily wipe out the savings in gas in a heartbeat. The cars currently on the road haven’t had to go through that yet but eventually, they will and the cost will have to be borne by someone in order to keep them running. Their range between charges isn’t terribly far either and for someone like me who drives nearly the entire time in a 12-hour shift, 140-150 miles will be the minimum needed to ensure a safe and stress-free night at work.

No one ever seems to mention that for all the gas that an electric Taxi will save, it will still need an energy source. A plug may not give off carbon dioxide but the source of the power that feeds into it probably will. Given that Indian Point’s days are numbered and that a majority of the power that New York consumes today is from fossil fuels, how much greenhouse gases are electric vehicles really keeping out of the atmosphere? To me, it’s a shell game that everyone is in favor of without thinking everything through from start to finish.

Ultimately, the big issue that this will come down to is going to be the same one that affects so much of what New York’s future depends on, which is infrastructure. Charging stations will have to be widespread, do the job quickly, and be built to last. If 1/3 of the 13,000+ yellow cabs (which could number nearly 15,000 by decade’s end) are to be electric, they will have to withstand the wear and tear that the job will place on them, as well as repeated charges on a near-daily basis. There’s nothing wrong with pushing the edge of what’s technologically possible as a means of efficiency and to help provide better environment for all but when it comes down to nuts and bolts, what matters is whether the person on the street hailing a cab will get into an electric one over a model that’s more familiar and reliable.

Usage will dictate what ultimately fails and succeeds. The Second Avenue Subway will cost billions to construct but after years of delays, it will be worth it when tens of thousands of passengers patronize the line once it’s finally open for revenue service. Water Tunnel #3 will be in near-constant use when it comes online in the next few years and any of the new parks along the East and Hudson Rivers will be worth the cost once the attendance numbers and rise in surrounding real estate values are taken into consideration. If the new cabs are up and running at decades end and the average passenger can’t discern between those that run via the pump versus those that run via the charge, than the plan will be a success and New York will be looked at as a leader in alternative energy for the vehicles that service the riding public.

Until then, we can only hope that the vast amount of time and money spent on this new technology will not be seen as a wasted opportunity, unlike the ill-fated Chevy Volt. The taxpayers and Taxi riders of Gotham do not deserve a boondoggle, repeated on such a massive scale.

iPhone26 056Charging station – New Jersey