Revel Without A Cause

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Revel Scooters – Carroll Gardens

As the Corona virus pandemic slowly receded out of the collective consciousness of Gotham’s citizens, lots of issues that were put on the back burner were starting to rear their ugly heads again. The Presidential race, New York City and States fiscal issues, rising crime, the decrease in the city’s population, and more resignations from Mayor De Blasio’s staff were regular headlines in the paper and one would be hard-pressed to find any good news among the varying topics vying for front-page notoriety. In the midst of all of this was a story that seemingly came out of nowhere but was bubbling under the surface for quite some time, as it was intertwined with the ongoing FHV saga.

On the afternoon of July 18th, WCBS-TV reporter Nina Kapur was riding as a passenger on a Revel scooter that was traveling north on Franklin Ave in Greenpoint. A driver exited a parking space in front of the scooter as it swerved to avoid the car and ended up on it’s side. Both her and the still-unidentified driver were thrown onto the street and although she was taken to Bellevue Hospital, she later died from her injuries.

The level of outpouring was intense as several of her on-air colleagues wrote tearful remembrances on social media, for the 26 year-old that only recently joined the station as a reporter. Longtime Anchor Dana Tyler choked up on that Monday’s evening newscast as she reported of her passing and a memorial quickly sprung up at the site, with pink “N” and “K” balloons marking the intersection’s location. Many were touched at someone who was a rising star at the station and had a tireless work ethic, but it was shocking given how quite the city still was overall during the second half of this year. Although traffic counts in the city have been lower due to the pandemic, CitiBike and Revel usage had still been robust as the systems were still expanding outwards across the Boroughs.

From here on out, that probably won’t be true for the latter as the motorized service was temporarily banned by the city not too long after Kapur’s passing. There were other notable accidents around the time of it and videos were popping up on social media showing drivers joyriding in them and using the service in a reckless manner. Though helmets were in the back of every Revel scooter, neither Kapur nor the person driving it last month were wearing one at the time of the accident.

Ask any cabdriver whether he or she likes the proliferation of two-wheeled transportation as  a way to get around New York and most of the answers will probably involve some grumbling or a four-letter word. Bicycles were around long before horseless carriages were in New York and they will probably be around long after there are flying cars in the air or motorized vehicles are banned outright. In the meantime, the bike lanes will be expanded and various companies will seek to cash in by having their products on the streets of Gotham, or by sponsoring whichever form of transportation is approved for those looking to rent their way from Point A to Point B. Regardless of what wins out, some changes will have to be made in the meantime.

While it’s not agreed upon by everyone, licenses, license plates, and a form of insurance in the user agreement would make for a much more safer, and accountable, bicycle and motorized scooter system. Those would be a big step from what’s currently in place, but having those regulations in place would improve usage, safety, and make collisions and accidents easier to process should a police report be filed. I’ve told my passengers for years that I don’t mind the bikes, skaters, and such as much as I mind the people riding them and some of their blatant disregard for traffic rules. Had a cabdriver been responsible for the death of a passenger, it’s not likely that he or she would be back out on the streets in a matter of days, or would be unidentified in media reports. Yes, driving a bigger vehicle involves more responsibility but passengers in any form of transportation need to be protected as much as possible by ensuring that those at the helm understand that it’s a privilege, and not a right, to be taking others around New York.

The other end of the story is how easily the city lets in a service that puts profits and exposure ahead of the well-being of the users. I don’t need to remind anyone how much Uber has done a number on us but it is worth noting that passengers in the back of their vehicles are much more likely to get in accidents or be assault victims at the hands of the driver, than by someone operating a yellow cab. Exposés done on Revel in the days after Kapur’s death revealed that the scooters were not properly maintained and that their approval process to operate could have been a lot more thorough. Having something that reaches 30 m.p.h. (5 m.p.h. above the citywide speed limit) and could be potentially operated by someone under the influence without a seat belt or helmet on was ultimately going to end up with an accident that was entirely preventable from the get-go.

That’s not to say that collisions don’t happen at all. Yes, the Vision Zero goals are laudable and worth striving for and yes, motorized vehicles kill more people than bikes or scooters but that doesn’t mean that one form of transportation should be held more liable than the other. Revels were not allowed to use bike lanes, highways, or crossings between Boroughs but the result of that was having many on streets without proper separated lanes or commercial traffic that used the same lanes as passenger vehicles. While many streets continued to be reconfigured for bikes, buses, or pedestrians exclusively, recent events such as Nina’s indicate that more work needs to be done if various forms of transportation are going to sharing lessening and reconfigured street space in the coming years.

Recent reports have hinted that the city’s traffic may be back at pre-Covid levels, or even above it, in the very near future. Although tens of thousands have chosen to work at home or have left the city outright, many of those who remain in Gotham have expressed a reluctance to take mass transit out of fear of catching the virus. Should that come to fruition, single-use of automobiles will only add to the gridlock and pollution that characterized traffic in New York at the height of the last bull run. If the streets become close to capacity again, look for more tragic accidents to happen, regardless of the form of transportation chosen, adherence to the rules, or operational reforms by those looking for cheaper and more mobile ways to get around town. After failing to rein in the explosive growth of new services in recent years, it would be the ultimate disservice to Nina to repeat the same mistakes the next time around.

Nina Kapur Memorial – Greenpoint

 

 

Fun City

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Socially distant – Grand Central

It’s hard to imagine that there would be any fun to be had in New York right now, given that much of what makes the place run has been shut down for nearly two months. Without any concerts, Broadway shows, sporting events, tourists in town, and office workers streaming in and out of buildings, much of what makes the city run has ground to a halt with a full opening always being just over the proverbial horizon. This was evident during the last time that yours truly worked back on March 9th, as I came back to my garage after a slow night, slid the key under the slot to the dispatcher’s office, and simply told him that “you’re not going to be seeing me around here for a while”.

There’s no need to rehash what happened in the months leading up to that fateful night. Uber lost $8 billion dollars last year and Lyft was also far away from being profitable as neither stock had rebounded to it’s IPO price as of the time of this writing. Medallion owners were still hurting financially and the number available cabs at my garage continued to slowly dwindle as they kept in step with number of drivers who showed up for a typical shift. As disheartening as the industry was, nothing could have prepared it, or myself, for what happened when the Corona Virus landed on American shores.

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#NewYorkTough – Rockefeller Center

For the first few weeks, I didn’t mind the time off. There were periods in recent years where I got into the Toyota in my garage, instead of the yellow one with a roof light and meter, and headed out west to get away from it all. As much as I forgot about the nightly grind of being on the streets, it was comforting to know that there were fares to be had whenever I returned home as I was usually back on duty within two days after pulling home after weeks on the road across America.

Now the tables had been completely turned. Most of the workers at my garage, many of whom had been there much longer than my time on the streets, had been laid off with only a skeleton crew remaining. Some nights saw nearly zero cabs going out as accompanying airport traffic was off by more than 90%. Never before had it looked to bleak for yellow cabs but this time around, those in the service, hospitality, tourism, and restaurant industries were in the same situation – although those workers had watched their incomes plummet overnight instead of gradually over recent years.

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Embrace the Absurd – Times Square

With the onset of warmer weather, the urge to get out and about only increased until I decided that I had enough with being cooped up, catching up on books, and calling friends that had fallen out of my life long ago. No, it wasn’t time to take the cab back out to search for signs of life but to do something a bit more drastic while crossing something off of my bucket list at the same time.

I took a CitiBike for the first time.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking and it’s probably the same thing that crossed my mind:

Why on Earth?

Glad you asked!

If you know me well enough or have read enough past posts, it should be apparent that cabs and bikes get along as well as the Hatfields and the McCoys. Throngs of bike lanes, pedestrian plazas, and signal re-timings over the years, as well as complete street redesigns, have favored vehicles on two wheels at the expense of those on four as our efforts to influence the flow of traffic a bit more in our favor have fallen on deaf ears. With the rare sunny day and a sunnier disposition on my behalf, I figured it was time to give it a go for a bunch of reasons.

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Crystal Clear – Times Square

First of all was to get some more exercise than just my daily errand-running on foot around town. Walking is my favorite way of clearing my mind here in suburbia and long, long before I drove for a living, it was my preferred way of getting around Manhattan. This was back in the time when Tompkins Square was full of homeless and runaways, the village had record and book shops, and the far West Side was truly an overlooked wonderland. I wasn’t in the city a whole lot either as it was a chance to get away from the closed-minded and conformist town that I grew up in and go run around Oz for an afternoon. Those days were probably my favorite in New York as the city was still varied, affordable, and not an overt foothold for the world’s excess wealth. Without even trying, I learned the streets below 14th Street, which gave me a leg up when learning the Manhattan street grid during my brief stint in Taxi School.

Secondly, I wanted to be out and about again but not in the way that I was accustomed to. With traffic counts being so light and knowing where the protected bike lanes were like the back of my hand, it wouldn’t be like the barrage of messengers and food deliverers that I had to dodge three or four nights a week. I wasn’t in a rush to get anywhere and thankfully, my legs would keep me from going *too* fast – unlike just about everyone else that passed me on their way to whatever could be important in the middle of a pandemic.

Finally, I had to know whether the system of protected bike lanes, unprotected bike lanes, street re-stripings, directional bike signs, and all the other infrastructure that the city installed in recent years was about to ensure a smoother ride from Midtown Manhattan to Brooklyn and around Kings County once I made my first stop. I’d seen a bunch of maps on Streetsblog and other sites that showed the progression of cycling enhancements and there were quite a few CitiBike racks near my garage that were installed in recent years but for a novice like me, were they enough to win me over and have me ride one the next time I needed to get around town above ground?

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2-wheeling it – Penn Station

There’s an old saying that once you learn how to ride a bike, that you never forget how to and that was the case for me, as much as I had to shake the proverbial rust off of myself first. I came prepared – with the right clothing, a helmet, and facial mask in tow as I wasn’t in any rush to head downtown from Times Square. The first portion of 7 Ave that I rode down was lacking for a bike lane but one was put in through Chelsea and the West Village recently and that was more than enough to get me most of the way to the Brooklyn Bridge. By the time I made my first stop near the Gowanus Canal, I could feel my quads thumping and they’d only be put to the test again as I crept my way toward the Navy Yard, around it, and up to my familiar stomping grounds by my garage.

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Pulled over – West Village

Did I enjoy the exercise? Sure, even though my legs felt like tree trunks for the next day or so after I docked the bike at the end of my ride. There was no doubt to me that the system works and even on two wheels, I was still passed by a ton of messengers and 10-speed pros as I even had to weave my way around several double-parked Uber vehicles. It helped that I had a sunny, mellow day outside and plenty of other riders who were patient with me as I navigated barricades, waterfront enclaves, and intersections that were just a bit different than what I was accustomed to breezing through with passengers in tow.

What went through my mind during my mind was how much has been written about the long-term effects that the virus will have on society once it’s run it’s course and becomes a footnote in history. Will people be kinder and more patient with each other? Are schools and offices as we know it doomed, as people choose to work and teach from home while cherishing precious family time together? Can people take mass transit and still be comfortable and socially distant, while patronizing subways and buses to keep them afloat? Most importantly to me, will the taxi industry survive with so many New Yorkers choosing to work from home, walk, bike, drive to stay socially distant, or just forgoing the city and it’s pitfalls altogether as they move on to greener, and less stressful, pastures?

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Sunset – Williamsburg

These trying times were not the first instance that bikes gained a foothold in the transportation network as the Lindsay administration closed Central Park to automobiles during certain days and even proposed to make Madison Ave. into a car-free mall. A  little over a decade later, a bike lane was instituted on 6 Ave during the 1980 transit strike by the Koch administration to handle midtown commuters. Both instances happened during times of upheaval, which resulted in some thinking outside of the proverbial box. Although those measures turned out to be temporary, the lack of leadership by the current administration has many clamoring for closed or narrowed streets to allow for more room for those wishing to walk or bike while practicing social distancing at the same time. What the results are is anyone’s guess but it’s likely that the transportation system that we’re familiar with, as well as the livelihoods of Gotham’s citizens, will not revert back to what they were before the Corona Virus came to America.

In the meantime, all of that was a distant thought as I paid a visit to the garage to see what was (or more importantly, wasn’t) going on before hoofing it by foot to the subway for the return trip home. With the world seemingly spiraling out of control with no end in sight, it was nice to slow things down for an afternoon and take things at my own pace. After all of these years and repeated disruptions, I was grateful to still have a chance to see the city anew and prepare for whatever tomorrow brought.

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The once and future city – Williamsburg

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rhobe

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Rhoda’s Market – Hell’s Kitchen

Up until two months ago, if you asked anyone in New York was the biggest story of 2020 was, most would have answered that it was the untimely death of the soon-to-be NBA  Hall of Famer Kobe Bryant. Bryant, 41, his teenage daughter, and 7 others (including the pilot) were killed when the helicopter they were traveling in crashed into a mountainside northwest of Los Angeles on January 26th. Within a matter of hours, mourners flocked to the Staples Center (which is where Bryant’s Lakers called home) as makeshift memorials quickly popped up around Southern California and around the world.

The recent passing of actress Valerie Harper was world’s apart in quite a number of ways. Diagnosed with lung cancer in 2009 as it later spread to her brain, she remained resilient during her ordeal as she continued to act as she appeared on Dancing With The Stars as well as penning an autobiographical book entitled I, Rhoda. Although she had acted on stage, screen, and Broadway and was an Oscar away from being an exclusive member of the EGOT club, Rhoda remained Harper’s most memorable role up until her death a week after her 80th birthday last August.

Spun off from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda was possibly the quintessential New York Sitcom of the 70’s, with the exception of All in the Family or maybe even The Odd Couple. Like the latter of it’s contemporaries, it was set on the Upper East Side of Manhattan as Rhoda Morganstern moved back east and attempted to settle down in the city of her upbringing. During it’s run of four years and change on CBS, it only cracked the top ten in ratings it’s first two seasons and seemed to have lost it’s way after that. Most people would remember it today for it’s easily-hummed theme and the episode that aired on October 28th, 1974.

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Rhoda’s Subway Platform – Upper East Side

That hour-long episode, titled Rhoda’s Wedding, was the most-watched sitcom episode of the 70’s and drew such national media attention that even Howard Cosell brought it up during that night’s Monday Night Football telecast. Although the marriage didn’t last, several memorable scenes show Rhoda scrambling into a subway station, waiting for a train on a subway platform with famed writer James L. Brooks (in a cameo appearance), traversing a Cross Bronx Expressway overpass, and crossing the Grand Concourse on her way to the wedding at her parent’s apartment.

It made for great television and just as importantly, an even better time capsule of what life in New York was like when the city’s northernmost Borough had Jewish enclaves and as society was reluctantly moving on from a blue-collar past to a white collar future. Rhoda’s outfits and demeanor were the epitome of the free-spirited 60’s that lasted into the decade of bell-bottoms and Halston but the transition become more evident as the series aged as Rhoda settled in, got divorced, and became the poster girl for  feminism. Even the theme and accompanying montage changed every year as the ever-popular Broadway font turned out to be the only constant in the show’s opening and closing credits, with the skyline depicted and music used changing with the times.

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Rhoda’s Manhole – Verdi Square

Kobe Bryant also went from being second-fiddle to having the town to himself in the later stages of his duration in the limelight. Selected by the Charlotte Hornets with the 13th pick in the 1996 draft, an agreement was made beforehand that resulted in the Los Angeles Lakers trading for him in exchange for aging veteran Vlade Divac. Although he attended Lower Merion High School outside of Philadelphia, it was hard to imagine Bryant being anywhere but in Hollywood once his career took off. His work ethic, love of the game, natural style of play, and ability to step up in the spotlight quickly endeared him to the fans in Tinseltown, as well as around the rest of the league. Although teammate Shaquille O’Neal was the centerpiece of the Lakers dynasty that won the Larry O’Brien trophy from 2000-02, Kobe was integral to the success of the team during that span.

That became more evident once O’Neal was traded to the Miami Heat following the Lakers loss to the Pistons in the 2004 Finals. There was much speculated about the relationship between the two and whether one team was able to handle the both of them and their egos. After a few tumultuous seasons, that was put to rest when he lead them back to the Finals from 2008-2010, winning the title during his final two appearances in the championship round.

What was just as amazing during this run was what he did away from his home confines. On February 2nd, 2009, Bryant set the record (which still stands today) of scoring 61 points at Madison Square Garden. Much like Michael Jordon and LeBron James, Bryant rose to the occasion when the attention was on him, under the brightest of lights and on the biggest of stages. The feat was so revered and remembered that on the night of his passing, the lights outside of the World’s Most Famous Arena were tinged purple and yellow in honor of the team he played for during his entire 20 year-career.

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Mamba Forever – Garment District

Over the last two months, several notable New Yorkers like Anthony Causi of the New York Post and author William Helmreich have succumbed to the COVID-19 virus and it’s likely that more people of note will pass away from it before it runs it’s course in Gotham. The loss of those who left their mark on the Big Apple happens on a near-daily basis, with detailed biographical and anecdotal obituaries appearing in the local newspapers, just like in the months after 9/11. Some of the thousands of people who have been in my cab over the years might not even be here anymore, as their fares fade away into a memory that ends up becoming another New York story that I’ll take with me until my dying day.

Thankfully, we have lots of video footage, books, and firsthand accounts of what Harper and Bryant meant to the Big Apple. Neither of them grew up here (Harper was born in upstate Suffern) but like so many adopted New Yorkers, they came here from a different place and painted the town red – and purple, and pink, and gold, and lavender, and whatever other colors they donned in the prime of their careers. As with so many other people who have shaped my world, made me laugh, caused me to cry, and given me something to aspire to, I never met them but I felt lucky to be alive when they were at the peak of their talent and popularity. Like other transplants and visitors who have called The Big Apple home for a night, a career, or a lifetime, New York just wouldn’t be the same had it not crossed paths with either of them.

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Tossing the hat – Times Square

 

The Standstill

Over the last year and change, it was quite apparent that the taxi industry in the Big Apple had undergone a lot of changes. For starters, Meera Joshi had left her post in March of 2019 after being the TLC Commissioner for 5 years. Bill Heinzen took over for the rest of the year as the descent that all drivers felt continued unabated through the end of the first decade of the 21st century.

That could also be true for the writer of this blog as the good times that were prevalent throughout his first 4 years on the job were becoming a distant memory as more and more shifts were worth writing off due to a lack of business. Sure, yours truly was fortunate enough to give Oscar-winning actress Diane Keaton a ride from the Upper East Side down to her hotel in SoHo  last April, but besides that, the memories and notable passengers were becoming few and far between.

As the end of 2019 drew near, it was obvious that the escapades and adventures of yours truly were about to draw to a permanent close with a whimper that no would one have heard. The fares had dropped off so much to the point that most other drivers in the Big Apple were barely able to cover their lease fees via the fares collected, as it was becoming obvious that our days roaming the streets of Gotham were dwindling to a whimper.

No one seemed to notice and even fewer seemed to care. After years of fighting the city, the tech companies, and conventional wisdom, it looked like our days were few and that we had lost the battle of the streets to a bunch of upstarts from Silicon Valley that were destined to rule the lives of those living by their phones from the cradle to the grave.

 

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7 Ave looking south – Garment District

Then a funny thing happened. In the middle of the slow season, the abnormally warm winter, and the appointment of the third TLC chair in the last 12 months, a little known virus from overseas started to become the dominant story on the news…

…and then it took over.

By the time Saint Patrick’s Day came, it was impossible to ignore the COVID-19 virus or it’s impact on the most advanced economy in the western world.

Parades.

Cancelled.

The Knicks, Rangers, Nets, and Islanders chases for the playoffs (or draft lottery).

Cancelled.

The upcoming seasons at Lincoln Center, Radio City Music Hall, and everything else on stage in The Big Apple.

Cancelled.

Ditto for the flights at the airports, as they were reduced to less than 10 every hour.

The same could be said for every concert venue, jazz club, social gathering, and performances at Lincoln Center.

All were cancelled until further notice – whatever that meant…

For those of us who drove these concertgoers and patrons around, it was a death knell worse than anything thrown at us after the onset of Uber and Lyft’s debut on the streets of New York.

And there was nothing we could do about it.

Calls to the dispatchers at my garage ended in the same way, as lots of sighing, blaming, and depressive language ended with the usual wishes for a speedy recovery and reminiscing of the good old days that seemed to get farther away by the week. Overnight, drivers were put out of business as the city was ill-equipped to handle the shutdown that paralyzed commerce and life, at the expense of the people who made the place run.

And nowhere did it hurt more than those who transported the citizens of Gotham around at the wave of an arm.

Essential business were easy to discern – those who worked in hospitals, mass transit, police, fire, and maintenance were allowed to go to work but those were drove people around one or two at a time were not deemed essential and as always, were left in the dust in favor of those who were employed by the MTA or one of the myriad of unions that protected the livelihoods of the working class.

It should have come as no surprise that the chair of the MTA ended up catching the COVID-19 virus as Pat Foye joined Madison Square Garden CEO James Dolan, New Orleans Saints Coach Sean Payton, and thousands of others across America who were infected by this bug. Even Uber drivers who were forced to remain on the job in order to earn a living were catching this and adding to the rising toll.

As for yours truly, that was never a problem when it came to being forced to work but the instantaneous drop of income and a livelihood were just as bad as any physical setbacks that the virus could have inflicted on myself, or anyone else in the industry. Long after the mental shock of a shutdown set in, the physical shock took much longer to be absorbed as it was obvious that the old normal was giving way to a new normal that was much quieter, and detrimental to working-class New Yorkers.

It was only a new era in history because of how unprepared the city was for a pathogen of this sort. In the 20th century, two world wars, several recessions and depressions, and 9/11 were what ultimately threatened to do The Big Apple in. In each instance, the preparation wasn’t thorough but the response was, as the attacks were short and contained in nature and nowhere near as bad as the worst case scenario could have been for a disease such as this.

That’s completely opposite of what happened when the Corona Virus crossed the Pacific Ocean and made itself known in the 5 Boroughs. It had been over a century since the Spanish Influenza brought an untimely end to many during the waning days of WWI and the city was ill-equipped to handle a pandemic that would even come close to the havoc wrecked in the early 20th century. Both New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill De Blasio were not up to the task of handling what reached the shores of America from Wuhan in a matter of days, although the former was much better at putting Gotham’s residents at ease, unlike the latter who continued his tendency to blame others while leading from behind.

Whether New York would come out ahead, behind, or somewhere in the middle when the pandemic was over remained to be seen. The Dow Jones had dropped 30% and easily into bear market territory as of this writing as both the budget of the city and state were blown to bits overnight. While the fundamentals of the economies of Gotham and the Empire State were fundamentally sound, a lack of liquidity and cash flow threatened to bring both to a screeching halt and throw millions of low-wage and service-sector workers out of work instantaneously; as the lack of a social safety net guaranteed that heavy government intervention would be needed to keep millions afloat.

Regardless of whether a new economic, social, and political system would come about as a result of these job losses and accompanying quarantining, it was obvious that the good times of the Teens had come to an abrupt and shocking end. What lie on the other side remained to be seen but it was apparent that the drivers, and vehicles, that were the lifeblood of New York, were destined to be an afterthought as a new order was set to take shape. As always, the question was whether they’d get a voice at the table as the rules were rewritten for a new and different age, remained to be seen…

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COVID-19 warnings – New Jersey

 

 

 

No Easy Way Out

Les Malles – Murray Hill

The city, as well as the nation, was stunned recently when two of it’s proverbial children were both found dead of suicides. Handbag designer Kate Spade, who claimed humble Midwest roots, was found hanged in her Upper East Side apartment while noted chef and author Anthony Bourdain was on vacation in France when he was discovered the same way in his hotel room. New Yorkers were shocked and saddened to hear of both of their passings, as evidenced by the amount of times they came up in conversations in the back of my cab over the following days and by the memorials left around town, including the one at Bourdain’s first restaurant on Park Ave South in Murray Hill.

Like many people who commit suicide, there weren’t any outward warning sides that were readily apparent. Spade was born in the Midwest and represented the All-American success story as she started her business with her husband in her apartment, taking it global within a matter of years. Bourdain overcame drug use in his reckles youth but the release of his book Kitchen Confidential made him a household name and millions tuned in to his show on CNN to see where he would travel to next, and what foods he would introduce to Americans who may not have been so lucky to easily go abroad. While their stories were quite different from each other, they seemed to “have it all” in an age where many could not make that claim.

Kate Spade store – Flatiron

Of course, the tale doesn’t end there. In the midst of the mourning of their lives, Yu Mein “Kenny” Chow became the sixth professional driver in New York to take his own life, due to the pressure caused by the proliferation of For Hire Vehicle companies. Chow, missing since May 11, left his cab on E 86 St and East End Ave in Manhattan’s Yorkville neighborhood (within a stone’s throw from Gracie Mansion) and was found a few weeks later floating in the East River in close proximity to the Brooklyn Bridge. As was the case with many of the other drivers who took their own lives, a rally was staged in front of City Hall with the Taxi Worker’s Alliance and fellow drivers calling on the City Council to do something to stem the tide of driver suicides.

While Chow was not a celebrity, his story tied in closer to Spade’s and Bourdain’s than most people realize. He did what he loved, he was an example of an American success story (for a time being), and he saw the walls closing in on him. While we may never know the demons his contemporaries faced, Chow’s was well-known once he went missing. He owed over half a million dollars on his medallion, his wife was recently diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer, and he was unable to pay the tuition for his daughter’s college education. That’s not to minimize the problems that plagued the famous who ended their lives, but Chow’s ordeal put a human face on an issues that has been so inhuman to the majority of New Yorkers unfamiliar with the plight of the modern cabdriver.

E 86 and East End Ave – Yorkville

But what to make of it? Suicide is not a new issue nor is it one that discriminates. Since the great recession 10 years ago, it has become more hot-button as many working-class Americans are finding it more difficult to make ends meet. Throw in a celebrity-and-image obsessed society where outward appearances and social status count for far more than they should and the end result is a cycle where one attempts to keep up with the Joneses, as they attempt to keep up with everyone else around them at the same time. It should come as no surprise that many are afraid to admit defeat, even when offered help from friends and family. The inability to “make it” stands in polar opposite to what New York, as well as the rest of America” stand for as the self-made person who pulls the bootstraps up and trudges on ultimately stood in stark contrast to the constraints faced in modern reality.

For years, those from everyone immigrated to America with the chance to better their lives, move on up, and achieve the American Dream. As study after study has shown, that is no longer possible for a majority of people. Stagnant wages and the rapidly increasing cost of living have eroded not only people’s purchasing power, but their faith in the institutions that were created to serve them. While everyone feels the pain of those have ended their own lives, true action to prevent such further tragedies is rarely taken. Time and time again, people go back to their lives, glued to their phones and the ever-quickening pace of life while leaving those close to them behind in the dust. Seeing how many of my passengers have ignored yours truly during his shift, as well as the decline in voting, civic participation, and in activities such as clubs, leagues, and groups has resulted in a society where we are truly “bowling alone”, as everyone else does their things on their own timetable.

If there’s a bright spot in all of this, it’s that it’s not too late – for those who are teetering on the edge of their lives and to turn around larger circumstances. Should one person pick up the phone to check on a friend, or retweet a suicide prevention hotline, or call 311 and demand the city to protect those who are it’s ambassadors on wheels, then the lives of those who have killed themselves will not have been in vain. Everyone wishes they could go back and prevent their untimely demises, but while that’s not possible, there is hope that tomorrow’s headlines will be about the course that was taken to prevent these tragedies from ever happening again.

Brooklyn Bridge – Brooklyn Heights

 

 

And Not To Yield

Looking Back

Looking Back

It was hard to imagine that 5 years had passed since the graduation of yours truly from an undergraduate institution of higher learning. The road to a Bachelors Degree was filled with many twists and turns – from a failed stint at another institution far from home to housing woes to legal trouble and everything else in between, from the end of the last millennium to the 16th of May of the first year of this decade. Once the rain finished falling that fateful day and the paper was firmly in my hand, it was onto the real world and to my first real job.

Anyone who’s read this blog already knows how the latter turned out. If the road to Morningside Heights was paved with good intentions, the road from there was paved every which way and then some. Many a time, I would come home from work with another student loan bill due, messages on my phone from the University seeking donations, and a degree in my room that was quickly gathering dust. What was the point of all this, besides a change in status in the job market? Why did people earn History degrees if they did not want to teach, lead a library, host a museum tour, or enter Law School? Could it possibly be to do what a liberal arts degree aims for, which is the mastery of reading, writing, and critical thinking that was missing so dearly from the republic in the early days of the 21st Century?

Waiting for the Procession

Waiting for the Procession

All of this crossed my mind during my myriad of shifts on the thoroughfares of Gotham – throughout epic traffic jams, crawls to the airport in the pouring rain, and in the wee hours of the night when the streets doubled as airplane runways.

“Columbia?”

“Yeah.”

“And you’re doing this?”

“Yeah.”

“Are you all right?”

“If I wasn’t, you’d have another driver right now.”

And so it went…

And it went, all the way until earlier this week. After turning in the taxi at the end of Monday’s surprisingly busy shift, a few days off awaited me. Off not just as in off of work, but off-kilter. My sleep cycle had to invert, last minute invitations went out, and I had to have everything ready for the big anniversary march.

Class of '65

Class of ’65

It’s a tradition at the school formerly known as King’s College that those who graduated in increments of 5 years into the past have the privilege of marching with the deans and faculty out of Low Library and onto the steps to start the commencement procedures for that year’s graduation ceremony. 5 years ago, I was up in the corner with the other students who had attended the school of General Studies but this time around, it was front and (nearly) center for this marcher. My cap and gown was waiting for me at the University so it was regular garb through the city until I made my way to Amsterdam and 117.

“Oh, it’s beautiful.”

“Indeed but you’ll be colder inside and warmer outside with it on.”

“I don’t care. It looks great and the sun’s out today. Who could ask for more?”

Turns out that no one did. For many of us, it was our first time going through this process and I was the only student from the class of ’10 to be in the procession. Only two rows were given to us, which wasn’t a lot less than what was allotted for the Deans, Professors, and academic recipients. To be seated near those who ran and led the school was an honor, even if many of those that helped me reach this point were seated in the stands up in the sky and not in front of Butler Library.

Front and nearly center

Front and nearly center

Even with a smile, sunglasses, and the occasional cheer through the gaze out into the crowd, the tears were the only hallmark of the event that completely conveyed my true emotions from the ceremony’s start to finish. It was wrong of me to put off going to school, to deride the process and the economics that nearly drove me broke, and to express discomfort at the J-O-B that I had upon graduating as opposed to the career trajectory that I thought I would be embarking on. Just as there is no crying in baseball, there should not be any griping once one walks through the gates of academia for the last time as a student.

Speakers reminded us of the issues and points that needed to be at the forefront of our minds in the upcoming years. The world is getting smaller as millions join the global digital community and are lifted out of poverty. All of the learning at the University is not the end but rather, the beginning of what we will take in and process in life. Students are temporary but alums are lifelong and finally, carrying the name of the institution bears a certain responsibility as those in the past have given the school a good name no matter where they went in life.

Facing towards G.S.

Facing towards G.S.

These are the tenets that I held near and dear after my graduation the first time around, even if I didn’t realize it then. Having it codified in a stately manner off of the even statelier McKim, Meade, and White Buildings only allowed the words to ring truer to someone who needed to be reminded of them once again. My view from the steps overseeing the campus filled with graduates and family members was not the same as it was 5 years ago but that was more the case in terms of my mental perspective and not my physical point of view.

John Stuart Mill once said that a man needed to be made sensible and then he would be sensible at whatever profession he went into later on in life. I’d like to think that my education inside the classroom and outside it of it as well will combine to prepare me for whatever challenges await during my next job, or my next foray into academic pursuits. It was hard not to hear the cheers from the Law School, B-School, and J-School and not want to be a part of a future class that was ready and eager to change the world in a chosen field. By now, I had hoped that more would be in focus and that my time in undergraduate studies would be a springboard for whatever was in store for me.

Deans and Anniversary Marchers

Deans and Anniversary Marchers

Perhaps that still is the case. Rome was not built in a day and neither was the story of my journey to this point. I have to constantly remind myself that for all the blood, sweat, and tears that went into making this day possible, that the end still hasn’t been reached yet. If my time at school has allowed me to overcome any obstacle that I have yet to face, then all the costs that went into it will have been well worth the time and investment that I’ve had to recoup in the intervening 5 years.

Which leads me to my writing. Most of the people reading this were nowhere to be found when I pushed the first domino by starting this page and as much as I enjoyed having my family in the stands to witness the pomp and circumstance earlier this week, I have also delighted in getting to know so many interesting and eccentric people that have entered and left my office on wheels and out there in cyberspace throughout this big wide world. I couldn’t have seen this coming when I was handed my diploma and who knows where everyone will be 5 years from now when I march again?

PresBo!

PresBo!

I thought all of that to myself as we sang the Alma Mater to end the ceremony, right before the graduates let out giant cheers to Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York and Jay-Z’s Empire State of Mind. With a slight bop on my way back up the Low Library steps and a few moments of downtime before taking my garb off, I sat with my cup of decaf and reflected on everything and everyone that made this moment possible.

And then it was off to start writing the next chapter of my life – one friend, one fare, and one day at a time; ready for all challenges and learning experiences yet to come.

Alma Mater

Alma Mater

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Face of New York

Going up - TriBeCa

Going up – TriBeCa

 

“I mean, look at Madonna. She moves here from Michigan in 1983 with nothing. Sleeping on couches in Alphabet City when it wasn’t such a great part of town. Playing clubs every night. Demo tapes. And then a few years later, boom! She hits it big. It’s a great story but something like that wouldn’t be possible these days.”

“I don’t think so.”

“So what do you think of Taylor Swift? Does she have a long career ahead of her?”

“Oh, I think so. She has star power and just like Madonna, she’s smart too. Knows how to change her look every so often to keep it fresh. Gonna be around a long time.”

“I had a feeling you’d say something like that.”

It’s nearly impossible to avoid the 25 year-old that took New York’s priciest neighborhood by storm last year. Magazine covers. TV appearances. Jet-setting with the best of ’em. Oh yeah – she’s an ambassador too.

But not just one of any sorts.

Right before Halloween, the city announced that none other than number 13 herself (sorry A-Rod) would be the face of the new tourism campaign in the Big Apple. As if we hadn’t seen her enough, there was going to be a lot more sightings of the pop princess around town now that she was chosen as a “global welcome ambassador”. Timing with the release of her album “1989”, the track “Welcome to New York” doubled as the theme for those trekking to one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. Swift launched the campaign with an appearance on the 102nd floor of the building where Fay Wray was help captive by King Kong over 80 years ago but this time around, the siren had the upper hand on the people down below. Any proof of that was quickly verified when I took my yellow abode out for a shift and heard (the first of many, many playings of) “Welcome to New York”…

“The lights are so bright
But they never blind me, me
Welcome to New York
It’s been waiting for you”

 -Taylor Swift

Billy Joel, this was not.

It was estimated that nearly 56 million people from all corners of America and the globe came to New York last year. With employment in the “alpha” industries (Law, Finance, etc) having yet to return to their pre-2008 levels, job growth in the city has increasingly been led by technology, media, information, and fields that cater to those visiting. Broadway theaters, hotels, restaurants, and transportation would all fall under those and since I happen to work in the latter, it’s a blessing that I’m able to stay busy because of visitors who still wish to use a Taxi as their preferred mode of transportation around town. The city was doing just fine after the post-9/11 recovery and I highly doubt that choosing a mediocre songwriter with a $20 million dollar pad in one of the richest ZIP codes in America is going to sway someone in Middle America or two continents away to come here for a vacation but if that’s what NYC and Company is aiming for, then so be it.

What bothers me more is that Swift is certainly *not* the typical emigrant who leaves home to seek a better and more glamorous life in the big city. Her stardom was already established long before her move and like the cast of Girls on HBO, Swift came from an affluent family that could support her artistic endeavors before her career took off. Most people I know who made the move to Gotham had massive student loans to pay off and were crammed with 3 or 4 other people in a shoebox 10 stories up before settling out on their own some years later. Only artistic types such as David Byrne, Susan Sarandon, and Diane Von Furstenburg who have reached the apex of their respective fields or were in a state of semi-retirement could afford to live in Manhattan and TriBeCa was not the first neighborhood they moved into when establishing themselves in their lines of work. Past spokespeople for the city’s tourism bureau, such as Robert De Niro and Whoopi Goldberg worked for years in New York before being selected and were seen as those who were a part of the city’s social fabric. Swift lived in Pennsylvania for most of her life until touring nearly full-time and was seen by many as the epitome of the rural or suburban type who moved to New York because the city had become so sanitized and full of the chain stores and restaurants that could be found back at home. Adding insult to injury is that in Swift’s case, her downtown pad is not her only residence, which is the case of so many who are buying expensive places in New York as both a vacation spot and a place to park their income as a form of investment. Swift is like many of the towers and condos that are increasingly housing these types – whitewashed, banal, unmemorable, disposable, and lacking in local vernacular but regardless of this sterility, the paparazzi knows when she’s there and ready to head out for her next photo op as her image and celebrity is ultimately what matters in the end.

In my case, the Big Apple’s been waiting for me ever since I was a tot in overalls falling over laughing at Crazy Eddie commercials and wondering why Mayor Koch was imploring New York to clean up New York. As I’ve said time and time again, it’s not the same city now as it was then and the fact that a record number of people are flocking here to spend their hard-earned disposable income is a good thing, even if the pitfalls of a whitewashed city become more numerous by the year. Whether I ever call the Big Apple home or take part of it with me when I finally embark on the next stage of my life remains to be seen as changes to my industry and increased financial pressures conspire to make me work that much harder to keep my head above water. In the midst of the squeeze will be even more sightings of Taylor – on numerous magazine covers, Good Morning America, street advertisements, radio spots, stories of her accounts being hacked, retweets and favorites on Twitter, and of course, in the back of my cab every time I start the meter up with my latest fare.

I only wish that the musical drivel that inevitably gnaws at me came from someone who shed their blood, sweat, and tears in New York and helped build the city that they’re selling to those seeking to experience New York for themselves…

 

It's Been Waiting For You - Chinatown

It’s Been Waiting For You – Chinatown

 

 

 

Crossroads

Condolences - Bed-Stuy

Condolences – Bed-Stuy

 

“Patrick!”

“Yo!”

“Come in here.”

“Everything alright?”

“Yo, Patrick. Two cops got shot down in Bed-Stuy today.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, they were ambushed. One of our drivers isn’t back yet either. You guys better watch out tonight – the NYPD ain’t gonna be fucking around with anyone.”

“No shit…”

And so began the last Saturday before Christmas.

It didn’t come as a complete surprise to some that this was the result of the animosity felt towards the Police after the Eric Garner and Michael Brown cases but the manner in which this retaliation against the force in blue occurred was enough to make national headlines on the Monday morning news shows. Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were taken out point-blank by a deranged gunman who had come up from Maryland via bus earlier in the day. The suspect later took his own life in a nearby subway station as the officers were rushed to Woodhull Hospital. Immediately, fingers were pointed as for who was to blame for the execution-style attack, as two of NYPD’s finest became the first officers killed in the line of duty in over three years.

It wasn’t a surprise why this took place, as tensions between the Police and public were at the highest levels in Gotham in recent memory. Even before the Grand Jury decision in the Eric Garner case became public, the Occupy Wall Street movement pitted those committed to protect and serve against those who resisted the control over their right to free speech, petition, and assembly. Riots were common in the city’s history, from those in Union Square against the draft during the Civil War to those that set the inner city of Brooklyn and Bronx on fire in the 1960’s and ’70’s but these were the first that were taking place in the 21st Century and had a much broader undertone to both the message and those doing the protesting.

No one knew who was to blame for the tragedy that took place days before the last major holiday of 2014. Some thought that the Reverend Al Sharpton was the cause as he had relentlessly attacked New York’s finest for months on end, calling out their brutality and callousness. Letters to New York’s daily newspapers and PBA President Pat Lynch put the blame primarily on the Mayor, since he allowed dissenters to march on end through the streets as they disrupted businesses and traffic. Some were even heartless enough to call out the Police, saying that they had it coming and that the payback was inevitable. In the midst of the squabbling, two offices lay dead with it being found out later that Liu was covering another officer’s shift that day.

Officers - Bed-Stuy

Vigilance – Bed-Stuy

 

It’s no secret that those of us driving Taxis around the city are not the best of friends with the NYPD. In the few times I’ve encountered them during traffic stops, they have been quite forceful, blunt, and not the easiest of types to deal with and other drivers in my garage have had more than their fair share of gripes against them as well. While I do not find them to be the easiest of people to deal with, I have tremendous respect for them and what they do, knowing that they have to make split-second decisions on a daily basis in a city of over 8 1/2 million people that hail from nearly every corner of the globe. In addition, the current Police Commissioner (William Bratton) has plenty of experience in his current role as he held the same position under Mayor Giuliani throughout much of the 1990’s, back when the city was still recovering from the Crown Heights riots and the end of the surge in crime resulting from the crack epidemic.

These are different times however and a different response is what will be needed. The Mayor called for a halt in protests until the funeral and burials for the two officers but many felt that these words were too little and too late. For weeks on end, De Blasio gave the green light for those that felt like the Police force had overstepped its bounds, while those concerned with the rise in anger and resentment wondered why dissenters were given a free pass. Anyone who lived in New York long enough could see the writing in the wall as history had started to repeat itself:

24 years ago, a three-term mayor was denied a fourth chance to lead New York.

24 years ago, an outsider arose out of a crowded field to take the title of Hizzoner.

23 years ago, riots took over Brooklyn while the leadership in City Hall was unable to handle the rising tensions, as the thin blue line frayed dangerously close to breaking.

21 years ago, that person ended up becoming a one-term mayor.

With the exception of the latter statement, all of those were becoming true once again in the Big Apple with the link between the two being Sharpton.

Rising to prominence during the Tawana Brawley case in the late 1980’s, Sharpton became the de facto voice of the oppressed in New York and ultimately, America. Many accused of him being a race-baiter but his role took on a whole new meaning earlier this year when he was seated next to Blasio, Bratton, and Cardinal Timothy Dolan at a tension-quelling meeting at City Hall. While few doubted that he needed to attend, many wondered exactly when Sharpton was elected to a municipal office and deserved to be at the same table as officials that were entrusted with leading New York through the tumult. Some even questioned whose side the Mayor was on, feeling that he turned his back on those entrusted with defending citizens against criminals and wrongdoers.

Officers - Bed-Stuy

Officers – Bed-Stuy

Whatever the Mayor’s stance was, he staunchly called out those upset with the NYPD until after the anger and unrest from the force would calm down, giving the slain officers a chance to be memorialized and interred in peace. Liu’s widow was visibly shaken when giving her first public appearance since the slayings, saying that she was a newlywed that had big plans of a family with her husband. Ramos’ son wrote a touching letter saying how his Dad meant everything to him, humanizing the face of a force that many felt was out-of-touch with those they were entrusted to watch over.

As the year winds down the holiday decorations are put away, many questions remain unanswered. Most feel like this is not going to be the last incident of backlash and that the protests will inevitably start up again, bearing a dramatic plunge in January’s temperatures. One thing for sure is that for all the blame and vitriol, a man selling loosies on Staten Island and two on-duty officers in Brooklyn were heartlessly taken away from us far too soon. with tragic results.

The city deserves better than to have nothing of good come away from this, as has been the case so many times in the past.

Crossroads - Bed-Stuy

Crossroads – Bed-Stuy

 

 

Choke

March - Flatiron District

March – Flatiron District

“Hands up! Don’t shoot! Hands up! Don’t shoot! Hands up! Don’t shoot! Hands up! Don’t sho…”

“Well, it looks like we’re not gonna make this light either…”

After dodging many of the protests that closed down numerous major arteries and bridges around the city, I finally hit a disruption the other night. I should have known it was coming – neither rain nor snow nor sleet nor hail were able to to deter those upset from the Grand Jury decision in the Eric Garner case from their appointed grievances. In my case, it was about 200 people and nearly as many police that made their way across 5 Ave, and down the side street that I picked up my passenger on. Once they passed, I could hear them for another 5 or so minutes and for the rest of the evening, I stayed as far away as I could from where I thought they were marching to.

That was a temporary inconvenience, however. What mattered in the long run was that another case of a white officer (or group of them) assaulting a citizen of color, and seemingly getting away with it. New York was still reeling from the Grand Jury’s similar ruling in the Ferguson case, as well as the incidents in recent years involving Amadu Diallo, Abner Louima, and Sean Bell. Each time, the Police were under attack. Each time, Al Sharpton was front and center demanding change, and each time, something else ended up coming along that was just as bad. For all the posturing and conferences, change had yet to take hold in the Big Apple.

There’s so much that’s wrong with the untimely death of Eric Garner that I don’t even know where to begin. For starters, he had prior arrests.

A lot of them.

Yes, I know that they were for petty crimes but an arrest is an arrest and I would like to think that if New Yorkers are going to pay out the orifices for good Police protection, that part of it would be for reducing recidivism rates for *all* types of crime. Given the drop in criminal activity over the last 20+ years, I would think that this wouldn’t be too hard to accomplish in this day and age.

I also understand that no one, and I mean *NO ONE*, should be placed into a chokehold if they do not resist arrest. That’s exactly what Garner did and it didn’t help him out one iota. From what everyone could see, he did not fight the handcuffs and clearly stated that he couldn’t breathe. Had he fled, they could have had to subdue him as needed but for selling loosies, was that procedure really necessary? I don’t see others disturbing the peace and causing disorderly conduct going through that either, so why single him out?

Others who have asked that think that the Police would have had a better argument had they been equipped with body cameras (which will be implemented in the near future). Given that the incident was caught on a cell phone camera and failed to stop Garner’s death or assist in any officer’s indictment, I don’t see how one would have prevented this tragedy from happening. Anytime something become law, someone will find a way around it and that will happen here should the cameras become a widespread practice. There are ways to disable them or edit the footage in favor of those who are able to manipulate the recording, in order to result in a more favorable light on law enforcement. Seeing what has taken place with the corruption on Riker’s Island has only shown that videotaping is not a perfect solution to this problem.

Finally, this isn’t just a race issue. No longer are the days where the oppressed are strictly minority and the powers that be are white, as the Police force is slowly becoming less homogenized. Whites are no longer a majority race in New York City and soon, that will be the case in America as well. What people do need to realize is that the law enforcement agencies have more power now than ever, thanks to the Department of Homeland Security and the purchasing of surplus military equipment leftover from overseas conflicts. If we’re currently in peacetime, why is this happening on such a large scale?

These are questions that will have to be answered once the protests settle down and things start to return to normal. Marches on Washington and civil disobedience will also have their moment in the sun but underneath all of this will lie some difficult questions. Among them will be how much power we are willing to cede in order to remain secure, whether the Police force is too big in New York given the historical lows in crime, and whether the cop on the beat is still a thing of the past. All it would take would be for an economic collapse, terrorist attack, or mass killing spree for Gotham’s citizens to find out how much faith they have behind the thin wall of blue. Police popularity was an an all-time high after 9/11 and those days are certainly capable of returning, but only if New Yorkers have full faith in those that they’ve entrusted to protect and serve them.

Protest - Times Square

Protestor – Times Square

25

Handed out at my garage

Handed out at my garage

 

“So how do you feel about the change in the speed limit next week?”

“No comment.”

It was exactly a month and a day ago that the speed limit in New York City was dropped to 25 M.P.H. for the first time in over two generations. For those of of us who were following the proposed change, it came as little surprise as the State Legislature passed the resolution before it broke for the summer and the City Council followed suit shortly afterward. With much fanfare and ballyhoo, there was a massive ad campaign notifying drivers of the drop, as well as signs located at all of the major entrances into Manhattan.

At first, it was something that was at the forefront of my mind. Would there be a ticket blitz? Would the traffic lights be re-timed in accordance with the drop? Would there be an increase in congestion to go along with the slower flow of vehicle speed? So far, there hasn’t been any sign of that as the recent foul weather and Grand Jury protests have done more to slow things down than any change to an existing law could ever do.

That doesn’t mean that the battle is over yet, however. The changing of the default speed limit has come along with the re-configuration of several key intersections, the renewal of the push to ban horse-drawn carriages from city streets, and an expansion of the bike share program that city sponsors. Should all of these proposals come to fruition, they will continue the assault on blue-collar vehicle drivers that was started under the Bloomberg administration, with further changes still likely next year and beyond.

As I’ve stated before, all of this ultimately ties into the Vision Zero initiative, although some changes aren’t directly related to any particular aspect of it. I have to remind my passengers often that the term “traffic-calming” is the buzzworthy term that describes the idea behind the changes is, as many of them are unfamiliar with what the city is accomplishing by remaking the streets and the way people move about them. Much as the circuitry in my brain has been hardwired to think and progress in a certain manner, so is the way I move from Point A to Point B as I take my fares to their particular destinations. A brain is much easier to reset than any street however, no matter how good the intentions by the DOT may be.

Drive 25

Drive 25