A checkered past

Checker Cab – Greenpoint

The fare hike that went into effect last week came and went without a lot of fanfare. Much was written about it over the summer when it was debated at a series of TLC meetings but many New Yorkers thought that those in my profession were due for a raise that was a long time coming. The big debate was not how much to raise the fare but what percentage of it would ultimately end up in the driver’s pockets and not in the hands of the medallion owners and garage operators. Lost amidst the hubbub of the hike and the throngs of groggy commuters returning to work this week was the other change that coincided with the new rates – that being the new logo on the side of the Taxicabs themselves.

The old Taxi look

For the last few years, all of the Taxis in New York had the look seen above, with the “NYC” in the official font next to the Taxi logo on the front door and the rate chart on the back door. On the back of cab was the strip as I call it – the checkerboard pattern that was found on cabs back when an actual company called Checker supplied the cars that roamed the city streets. As the models where replaced and the company went out of business, the pattern became smaller and smaller over the years, until it was finally relegated to just a tiny reminder of the way things used to be.

Until the fare went up last week.

The new Taxi look

This is how your ride in a yellow cab will now look on the outside. The “NYC” that was so prominent has been shrunken down, the fare chart has been simplified to two symbols, and the work “Taxi” has been replaced by a big, black “T”. The thinking behind it is that New Yorkers, and visitors, should know what a yellow vehicle that doesn’t carry kids around all day should function as, so why bother labeling it as such? All of the marketing wizards could do was come up with this but I guarantee that a bunch of us who actually drive the vehicles all day could design something just as informative and not charge the city an arm and a leg for it in the process.

What bothers me the most is what’s on the back and that would be nothing. Like the automat , the subway token, and the old “Walk/Don’t Walk” signs, the checker pattern on a Taxi has now been relegated to the dustbin of Gotham’s past. In order for the Taxis to charge the higher rates, the exterior had to be changed along with the upgrades to the meters. A few of the cabs this past week still sported the old design, which only had one advantage: Smart New Yorkers knew that they were charging the old rates and would hail them instead of a upgraded Taxi. This won’t go on for long but given how expensive everything is today, I had a few people tell me that they were attempting to do that when looking for a ride.

Economics aside, the new design marked another indication of the homogenization and globalization of New York. Pictures and symbols continue to expand as more people from around the World continue to visit the Big Apple. The less English they have to come across, the easier they can get around. Soon, the subway will be fully automated, Street signs will get bigger than they are now, and smartphone apps will ensure that no one will ever get lost again when navigating the city. It’s bad enough that the cabs have maps, GPS’s, and endless commercials on the backseat screen, all in the name of progress. If nothing else, a Taxi should say what it is, let anyone think that a black car has the same role that a yellow one does on the city streets.

Soon, the Crown Victorias, SUV’s, and Prius’s will all be scrapped in favor of the NV200, a.k.a. the Taxi of the Future. What seemed so common today will be old hat in the coming decades as change will inevitably take hold and thrust all of us into the future. These “upgrades” will be fully present in a new fleet that will be more environmentally friendly, accessible, and better designed, but the real shame in it will be in the scrapping of what made Taxis so beloved in the past. As all of this takes hold in the next few years, one question never seemed to cross the minds of the designers:

Would it have hurt to keep the checkerboard pattern as it was?

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Take a Hike

Soon to be a bit more likely

Well, it’s official: I’m getting a raise.

I shouldn’t put it in a traditional sense, since all of us who drive a yellow cab in New York are getting one too. The vote passed yesterday and once the end of September comes, it will take effect across the board.

Lots of people have asked me about it and had I not had previous commitments the last two days, I would have gone to the rally and meeting down in Lower Manhattan to watch the process continue to unfold but regardless of time constraints, it’s been an issue I’ve kept up with over the last few months.

Personally, I’m completely in favor of this. A lot of the comments on various publications covering this story were from irate people who were tired of the garbage that they put up with in Taxis – rude drivers, talking on the phone, aggressiveness on the streets, a lack of knowledge of city landmarks and geography, and an unwillingness to take anyone who required a crossing over or under a body of water. While this is true to some extent, I’ve said time and time again that not all of us are like that and a great deal of drivers take care of their passengers and only want the best for them, even if it’s easier said than done during the peak periods of traffic.

For all the legitimate gripes about the lack of raises over the years and silent erosion of our pay via inflation, it’s ultimately about the passenger; as it should be with any business. No one has to take a Taxi in a place that’s so well-covered by mass transit as New York but tens of thousands still do every day, even with all of the other options out there competing for their money. To drive a cab in New York is to run your own business in a sense. No, there aren’t any employees under my watch and I don’t have to pay for land and raw materials but in theory, how well I run it should determine how well I do and how long I can keep my head above water for. Because of the medallion system and the limited barriers of entry for owners, it’s a lot more complicated than it sounds and the high turnover rate among drivers is proof that it takes a bit more than elbow grease and an understanding of the city to make it in the long-term.

Will it help that my average fare will go up by $2 and the ride to JFK will increase by $7? Sure. I have no idea whether Taxi plan for the outer Boroughs will go through or if the extra medallions will be sold and on the streets, nor what the price of gas will be in two years. In spite of the (amazingly) good intentions of the TLC and the Mayor, there’s only so much that is in our control when it comes to this profession. So many have fought hard for our rights and a fair share of the revenue that flows into the coffers of the owners and operators. Now that we have a victory under our belts, we still need to remember that the fight for fair treatment and respect from all parties is still far from over.

Fare deal

The current fare structure

Much was written this week about the proposed rate hike that could go into effect over the summer. Most New Yorkers shudder when they see a service that they frequently use go up in price but many have also noted that there hasn’t been a rate increase since ’06 and an across the board hike since ’04. Although I’ve only been driving since late July, this is welcome news. Usually, I like to ask questions of my passengers, learning about what they do for a living and where they’re from. As soon as I stop, it’s their turn and many of the ones they will ask me will deal with what my shift entails and what I take home at the end of it. I’m taking a wild guess that many people reading this are thinking the same thoughts to themselves, so I may as well go through it on here for clarity’s sake.

Your average cabdriver will *not* own his medallion, for starters. As I’ve stated on here before, the cost of one has gone up dramatically in recent years. The typical one will now fetch well over 3/4 a million dollars and even with a down payment and financing backed by the revenue generated during shifts, it’s still out of reach for most drivers. Therefore, a majority of drivers (like myself) lease their cabs. Shifts are simple – 5 ’til 5 and even though we don’t have to keep the cabs for a full 12 hours, lots of us do to maximize our earning potential. As I work my way down 2 Ave. in the later hours, there are hordes of empty Taxis making their way over the Queensboro Bridge to go back to their respective garages, which is my way of getting a handle on how much the activity in Manhattan has tailed off for that particular night.

Leases involve a fee or as so many of my passengers put it, it’s what I pay in rent every night. It averages between $110 and $130 for the night drivers at my garage with the ones who work during the day paying slightly less for the privilege of driving a Taxi. All of the surcharges that go to the State and the MTA are added in automatically to each fare depending on the time and the destination and of course, we never see a dollar of them when the numbers are totaled up. Then there’s a $4.77 tax or as I look at it, another 1/2 fare deducted from my night’s take and finally, there’s the big misconception that so many people have about our industry:

You don’t pay for your own gas, right?

Don’t I wish!

The last thing I do at the end of a shift, right as the sun starts to come up, is top the tank off across the street from the garage. I’ll toss my extra receipts out, take my license out of the holder, and clean up if need be while I’m filling up, and then dig in to my take for the night to shell out the amount that it took to get around the city for 12 hours. If I’m driving a Crown Vic, it averages out to $53. Transit Connect? $35. The Hybrid SUV? Only $22. The vehicle I drive makes a big difference as to how my night goes since it’s found money if I can save on gas or be behind the wheel of something that will help me do the job more cheaply. Along with the Times, AMNY, Metro, and Crain’s, I almost always read the Economist, if for no other reason to see how the oil market is faring. Gas peaked at a notch over $4 a gallon a few weeks back but thankfully, it has slowly retreated as the summer driving season has started to take shape.

Most people have no idea of the little things that we also have to shell out for all the time. Dirty vehicle? Congratulations, a visit to the car wash is in order. I’m reimbursed $4 for each one but some cost more than that and yes, I do tip the workers who dry it off afterwards. Speaking of tipping, dispatchers and gas station attendants get some from us too. I don’t know and I don’t care what they make but handling the game of musical chairs that takes place around changeover time every day is much more stressful than anyone unfamiliar with the industry would ever realize. Taxis break down, need minor repairs and fluid changes, have broken meters, are regularly due for inspection, and the people who drive them are also prone to lateness and calling out. Not all taxis come back in the same order in which they leave so whatever is dispatched out depends on what’s on the lot and what needs to get off of it first. Only steady drivers get the same car every shift, which can be a pain when a certain driver is late getting back to the garage for the switch-off at changeover time.

Sure enough, I’ve had my unexpected surprises in the months that I’ve been behind the wheel. Broken ball joints, flat tires, a dead battery, and a ticket for having a headlight out have all thrown monkey wrenches into various nights that were running smoothly before the incidents took place. There’s no worse feeling than having to head back to the garage for repairs, knowing that the time lost can never be regained back and as the old saying goes, time is indeed money. Everything will average out over the long run but so many of us tend to look at what we make per night and forget that the big picture is what counts when earning a living as a driver.

Going back to the issue at hand, I’m in favor of a hike as long as a few stipulations are met. The first is obvious, and that’s whether the Mayor and TLC Chair are in favor of it. Last I heard, Bloomberg and Yassky were on board with this because of the rising costs of gas and lease fees the last few years that we’ve had to fully eat. Second is whether those lease fees will also concurrently go up as well. If the garage and medallion owners take out too much of a chunk of the increased revenue, then there isn’t a benefit for those who drive at all. Owners were up in arms when the Outer-Borough Taxi’s were formally introduced recently and should the plan go through, they will have the right to take street hails anywhere in the city outside of Manhattan below Central Park North. Since that’s expected to cut into medallion revenue, the owners were bitterly against this plan when it was proposed and now that seems to be coming into fruition, they will need to come up with a way to make up for the lost income…which naturally, would have to come out of our pockets somehow. It’s an endless battle that will only intensify once these apple green-hued cars hit the streets in the not-so-distant future.

Finally, there’s a meeting this week. This bleary-eyed driver will probably drag himself into the city and down to Beaver Street to see what the city, drivers, and any passengers who bother to make it in will have to say about the changes. There’s a chance that I’ll speak, if for no other reason than to toss my two cents in for the drivers who won’t even bother to make it or do anything about their salary. Even though many of my “coworkers” could use a few more lessons in etiquette and civility, I know a ton who work their asses off to earn a living and only want the best for themselves and their families. Hopefully, this hike will be a first step into making it easier for us hacks who provide so much for a city that isn’t always grateful to us in return.

Taxi TV – Lots of revenue but none for the driver