Pulse

Racing Taxis - Meatpacking District

Whizzing Taxis – Meatpacking District

“Sorry for the delay, “I’m going to turn off of 7 Ave. South and get away from this Holland Tunnel traffic.”

“It’s all good. I still don’t know what we’d do without you guys. You’re the lifeblood of the City.”

“I know most of us don’t see it that way, but thank you for the kind words.”

Ever take your own pulse? I mean, *really* take it? It’s not that easy for someone who hasn’t been trained. Yeah, I suppose I could check my wrist, count the number of beats in 15 seconds and multiply it by 4. Heck, I don’t even know if it’s the right way to do it but it makes sense to me and should give me an approximation of where I stand. Thankfully, I give blood every 3 months or so and I get a reading of that, my iron, and my cholesterol thrown in for good measure before they stick me and draw some red stuff out for the bank. It’s more than a donation for me, it’s a way to get a small physical of sorts and to figure out where I stand, and what I may need to work on.

Now take 8 million blood-carriers and throw in some tourists, visitors, and undocumenteds for good measure and it’s a much bigger trick. Some people would go straight to the census data from 2010, others would read Crain’s or the New York Times for a week and maybe the superficial would check out the number of derricks in the sky and empty storefronts on the major avenues. The neat thing about my job is that I get to do all of those in a given day for one of the inevitable questions that I’ll get while out at night:

“So how’s business?”

Every winter, there’s a slowdown. How do I know? Because I’ve worked in retail, restaurants, offices, sporting facilities, and the occasional odd job and yes, each one of them saw a downturn after the holidays were over and the champagne bottles were put away. On the street, there are two dead giveaways that you’re in a slow period as a cabdriver, without even having to look at the receipt that I print out at the end of the night:

1) Over night = night’s over

2) Plastic planet

The reason that all of us love to work the weekends is because of the overnight hours and the difference from the same time period during the week. In the midst of all of the app debates that the TLC is dealing with is whether a city as big, as busy, and as street-hail oriented as New York needs a radical change in the way that people find their next ride across town. Rush hours are easy as the amount of traffic on the street and the mad dash of people heading home lead to a 5 or 6 hour period of near-nonstop hails with ability to flip fares easily, just like my tables back from my waiting days. Every night, there’s the time that I call “the wall” where I drop someone off, round a corner, and take a good look up or down one of the major avenues…

…and can see the street again.

The later that point, the better the night for us. Weekends are a different beast, however. There’s a slight lull around 8 or so as New Yorkers are busy home getting ready for the night’s adventures that lie ahead. After that – all bets are off. Last Friday was a perfect example as usual madness was amplified by the first warm day in this area this calendar year. It made for a faster shift since I had everything from interior designers to a bagpiper (yes, he played for me) keep me company and the extra vehicles kept me on my toes as well, filling in nicely for a 3 A.M. snack break.

Going back to the apps, the rationale for their existence is that they would help during slow times, when many of us are cruising the same streets in the same bar districts looking for the same 5 fares. Once in a while, I will turn down a street that looks dead as a doornail, only to find someone standing all by his or herself waiting for a knight in yellow armor to take him or her home safely. While those moments are full of joy and some of my best stories, they’re few and far between.

With an app, that all changes. It becomes much easier to see who’s out there and there they are and would even save us the trouble of waiting in line for people to leave popular establishments and firms that work them to the bone. Most drivers during the week make the exodus out of Manhattan around 1 or so but since I can’t get back to Jersey via mass transit overnight, that’s never an option for me. Knowing where to find people becomes a reality once the City that never sleeps proves that axiom to be partially wrong.

Then there are the payments. Aside from the plethora of late-night holiday parties, the month before Christmas is so beloved by us because people are in a giving mood and aren’t afraid to share the wealth. Of course, they show it to us in the best way possible:

By paying in cash.

I understand that so much has changed when it comes to money in the last few years but one thing that hasn’t is how we wish to receive our fares. Cash is, cold, hard, and instantly usable. If I didn’t have to pay for my own gas and could charge all my expenses and tips on a credit card, I certainly would. After the last fare hike 7 months ago, the percentage of fares that were paid on credit shot up from 50% to well over 60% on most nights, as people couldn’t quite stomach the first across-the-board raise for us in well over 5 years. Once the new year began, that ratio went even higher.

The hangover that many of my passengers had immediately after New Year’s was nothing like the one that they endured in the following months. Some nights, I was lucky to receive 6 or 7 fares in cash out of 25 or 30 total, which barely was enough to pay for my gas and any other expenses. While I always bring change, I never plan on depleting it at the end of the night but I came close a few times. It was obvious that even in a city as affluent as New York, that many locals had stretched their budgets thin and were working hard to cover the difference in their personal finances.

Thankfully, that’s over with now. The ratio has evened out a bit and the amount of vitality in the City late at night has started to pick up again. Even the vital signs are good, as construction, air traffic, Broadway attendance, and hotel occupancy are all healthy levels right now. While there isn’t a direct correlation between those and how much I take home in a given week, any upbeat sign is sure to trickle down to us to some extent.

One way that my health and the health of the City are not inversely related however is something that I’ve mused about time and time again, however:

Clogged arteries.

The last few times I donated blood, my “bad” cholesterol was over 200. Numerous attempts to change my diet, walk more, and get off my butt on off days haven’t made a difference and while it’s not enough to cause me problems, it bears watching as I get older and am more likely to be affected by the buildup. For the City though, clogged arteries are a good sign, as odd as that may sound.

While sitting in traffic may not be fun, seeing it is firsthand proof that things are looking up. Proof that people are out. Proof that people have somewhere to go, Proof that people have money to spend.

And most importantly, proof that New York is moving in the right direction.

Ask anyone in Detroit or Providence how traffic is there and they’ll probably laugh. They’d sign up for New York’s problems in a heartbeat. Traffic, infrastructure that’s bursting at the seams, and high apartment prices are not fun problems to be solved but they’re problems that are the result of a tragedy of the commons, on a different scale. Too many people want to be in New York but there’s not enough room for everyone. Who stays? Who goes? Who gets help from the City?

The next Mayor will have to tackle all of that while not undoing the progress that’s been made since the end of the crack wars and graffiti crises of the 1980’s. While the usual ebb and flow of seasonal volume will continue unabated for time immortal, the body poetic of New York will need plenty of TLC by those entrusted to ethically and honestly watch over the people and finances that they pay into the system. Given recent events that indicate that the opposite has taken place far too often lately, I still believe that the Big Apple is poised for a prosperous and healthy future, bearing that the mistakes of the recent past are not repeated by a new administration next year.

Most people don’t see it this way, but it’s obvious that the vehicle that I drive to earn my living is the lifeblood of Gotham itself. One could argue for the Subway as well but with more lines suffering through shutdowns because of maintenance issues and lack of service in several neighborhoods, the yellow cabs are increasingly the 24-hour option for those who work a nontraditional schedule and are relegated to living far from where they earn their paycheck. Anyone who doesn’t believe me can observe the vehicles making their way across the Queensboro and Williamsburg Bridges every day around 4:30, as the old, tired blood makes its way back to the heart, in exchange for some “oxygen-rich” blood that’s ready to serve the masses until the next changeover.

As odd as it sounds, those yellow cars seem to be in my blood as well, even if it wasn’t what I set out for when I went back to school.

Waiting for the changeover - Greenpont

Waiting for the changeover – Greenpoint

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The Big App

Spotted on a phone left in my cab

It was reported last week that a new app is now out that helps passengers find empty cabs that are nearby and traveling under 10 MPH. Of course, it’s free for them download but a monthly fee for us and I’m taking a wild guess in saying that the developers expect us to recoup the cost by having enough extra fares. While this seems like a good idea, I’m not so sure if this is going to work as envisioned.

For starters, this wouldn’t ever be used by us at rush hour. Ever. Rush hour tends to be one big long fare broken up among many passengers. To be sure, I will get pulled out to the outer Boroughs now and then during peak periods but if I’m in Manhattan, it’s just one nonstop whirlwind. I have my spots where I know people are streaming out of work and eventually, that mass will work their way home or to where the social hotspots of the night happen to be. Scanning the paper and listening to my passengers is how I take the pulse of the city and once in a while, the other drivers I keep in touch with will inform me of any particular clubs or parties that are letting out and in short supply of Taxis.

Then there’s the issue of when to check our phones. Commissioner Yassky kindly reminded us in the article linked above to pull over when needing to do that but let’s face it, how many times have you seen one of us pull over, throw the flashers on, and check our text messages?

Exactly.

Hands-free devices are great for calls but there’s too many times where I have to actually pull up the screen on my phone to find out what I’m looking for. Thankfully, I have plenty of red lights to help me out with that but when cruising along, my focus is totally on what’s ahead of me and where my next fare is, since so many of them are so poor at getting noticed (hint: wave your phone when you hail – we can see them real easily!).

My bigger concern is the pace of life and how this would speed it up even more. The idea of using an app to find out where we are is great but if there’s one thing us cabdrivers know, it’s that the rules don’t apply during the lean periods. When the streets are bare, drivers will do *anything* to get a fare, and that sure includes breaking traffic laws and rules of common courtesy. The fare that’s half a block ahead at two in the morning might be someone else’s when he cuts across five lanes of traffic to claim it for himself and there’s no doubt that another cab could easily steal a fare that has already “claimed” you via the app. Eventually, someone will come up with a better mousetrap and the app in its planned form will become outdated like a Motorola phone. What would that make us?

A for-hire-vehicle, which wouldn’t be that much different than a black car…and you know how much us and them get along.

No, yellow cabs will never become black cars in a literal sense but there’s something to be said for having the exclusive right to take street hails. It’s the essence of who we are and what we do and like so many other jobs in the 21st Century, the definition of that line of work if being radically altered by mobile technology. Yes, I am guilty of that in a small way, not only because I love my iPhone but because I was actually interviewed by a company that’s currently developing something similar. It’s called Hailo and so far, it’s been a success in London. There isn’t a date yet for the Big Apple rollout will be but before that happens, yours truly will probably be involved in a test run on some way, shape, or form.

Given what I’ve said, that probably sounds hypocritical but I’m willing to give it a shot and put my own personal preferences aside. My opinions are strong but I refuse to pull a Quinn and force someone or something from being in New York without letting the people of the city decide for themselves if they want it. Ideas deserve a shot in the marketplace that is New York and even though the Taxi industry has been too slow to embrace change and technology, hopefully these new apps will make life easier for us and the riding public that we depend on every time we hit the streets.