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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Taxi 2.0

   As the calendar turned to 2019, it was apparent that the yellow cab industry in New York City was turning over a new leaf as well. The city council passed a cap on the number of for hire vehicles over the previous summer, temporarily freezing them for a year. Taxi medallion prices, which had been in a precipitous decline for a number of years, were finally bottoming out – although at values as much as 80% off of their peak in 2014. Even the ubiquitous Ford Crown Victoria was nearly gone from the cityscape, as the Taxi of Tomorrow was finally becoming the dominant model of cab that one could hail. For many drivers however, the biggest change that they were up against was one that nobody saw coming, as TLC Commissioner Meera Joshi announced in early January that she would be stepping down sometime in March; claiming that it was a “mutual decision”. Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer even went as far to say that she didn’t know “…if there’s ever been a better commissioner at the TLC or anywhere else”  and thought that de Blasio was making a “big mistake” in letting Joshi step down, while many of the drivers under her watch were finally glad to see her go; even if all the problems that they were confronted with could not be directly blamed on her.

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TLC Commissioner Meera Joshi (far left)

   Regardless of how people felt about yet another sudden change in the de Blasio administration, everyone felt that her time as Commissioner was quite tumultuous.  Having been appointed by the current New York City Mayor  early in his first term , Joshi previously served as Deputy Commissioner for Legal Affairs and General Counsel for the TLC in the latter days of the Bloomberg Administration. During her nearly 5-year tenure as Commissioner, the industry was rocked to it’s core as the meteoric rise of services like Uber and Lyft threatened to put the yellows out of business once and for all. Joshi, in recent speeches, stated that her job was a tough one to navigate because of the challenges that these companies brought to the table, but that the rollout of wheelchair accessible taxis, utilization of data from TLC passengers, and changes in the licensing of drivers were bringing the cabs on New York’s streets into the 21st century.

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Congestion pricing rally – 3 Ave

 

   What may have finally been the impetus that let to her resignation was one of the sticking points that reared it’s head again in recent months, namely the proposed congestion fee that would have been placed on all green and yellow taxis, as well as FHV’s, entering Manhattan south of 60 St. 10 years ago, then-mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed something similar for all vehicles entering that zone of Manhattan but that was shot down the New York State Legislature. The current plan would not have placed the fee on private vehicles, but instead on those taking people around the most densely populated part of the city, with the irony that many of those passengers having elected to leave their cars home in the first place. Joshi was stated on the record saying that the current plan would be devastating to drivers that were still struggling to make ends meet, while the mayor was in favor of the fee as a means to ease gridlock in New York.

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New York Taxi Workers Alliance Executive Director Bhairavi Desai

   Lost in the middle of all of this were the challenges facing the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. With bus ridership down and subway ridership leveling off after years of steady growth, many in the Big Apple were turning to other means of transportation to get around town. While the recent additions of NYC Ferry and Citi Bike were filling in some of the mobility gaps for New Yorkers, others were turning to FHV’s and rideshare services to get around parts of the city that were transit deserts. In addition, the MTA was desperate for additional revenue to handle maintenance and capital improvements that were desperately needed to keep the system in good repair and ensure that gains in additional ridership could be handled. It was bad enough that every Uber and Lyft fare wasn’t contributing 50 cents for the MTA surcharge (unlike the taxis) but that their stratospheric growth was siphoning ridership from trains and keeping the buses from sticking to their schedules.

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FHV Drivers – 3 Ave

   All of this came to a head last month as the proposed congestion fee was weeks away from taking effect right after the first of the new year. A rally in front of New York Governor Cuomo’s Midtown office on 3 Ave drew drivers who were tired of the proposals to tax and surcharge their fares even further. One driver had even left the industry after being in for 40 years, citing the inability to make a living under the current conditions. As sparse as the turnout was, it had a hand in temporarily stopping the surcharge’s implementation with a Judge blocking it’s implementation via a restraining order. As of this writing, it was unsure if or when it would ever become law, as officials were considering taking a closer look at the proposal and who would pay under an revised plan.

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Drivers – 3 Ave

      As lawmakers squabbled with more meetings, rallies, and protests against the surcharges yet to come, the new year was not much different than those of the recent past for those who worked behind the wheel. Further redesign of accident-prone intersections, continued additions of bicycle lanes and pedestrian plazas, and the restriping and redesign of 14 St for buses in anticipation of the now-cancelled L train shutdown in April were further proof that both the Mayor’s Vision Zero initiative and emphasis on dedicated right-of-ways were working and would be further expanded in the coming years. A record-low number of pedestrian fatalities, along with record-low speeds recorded in Midtown, combined to only exacerbate the reality that drivers of all types were facing in New York – namely that it was becoming even more difficult to get around, let alone earn a living, on the streets of the greatest city in the world. In spite of that, some people, including an economist and a former city transportation commissioner were among the many that were seeing the problem for what it was, and putting the blame on the right sources. For all of the mistakes made in the past, there were hints of positive changes in the industry for the first time in quite a few years.

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Upgraded Passenger Information Monitor – Greenpoint

   A tiny evidence of that showed up in the cab of yours truly last week. For the first time, one of thew new Passenger Information Monitors awaited me as I got inside of my Camry for a weekend night’s shift. Thin, sleek, and user-friendly, it was a vast improvement of the duller and less-informative ones that had graced taxi interiors over the last 5 or so years. Rollouts in anything government-operated tend to be slow and sometimes clumsy but in this instance, it was smooth as I quickly adjusted to the new interface once I was out on the streets and taking fares. If there was a possibility that this minute aspect of my cabdriving experience could be improved upon, then maybe there was some hope that everything else work-related would change for the better as well. As usual, everything had to just be taken one fare a time…