It’s all about respect.
Well, okay, respect and supply and demand. And New York City’s new fleet of apple green taxis is a bold attempt to try to create a balance between the taxi owners’ business needs and the needs of tens of thousands of New Yorkers who live and work outside of Manhattan to hail a cab.
New York City’s fleet of yellow cabs wasn’t cutting it. Demand for taxis outstrips supply for hours every day, mostly in Manhattan. If you’re a cab driver, it makes simple sense to work the areas that are the densest, where the most need is. Instead of ten minutes between fares, maybe you’d have one.
With the exception of the city’s two airports and a handful of outer borough locations near transit hubs (Astoria Blvd. and 31st St. in Astoria, for example, or Atlantic Ave. in Brooklyn), it’s incredibly difficult to step out into the street that’s not in Manhattan and hail a taxi. Even if you do – if you’re not heading someplace where the driver is likely to pick up another fare immediately, chances are you’ll have a hard time convincing him to take you – though he’s required to by law.
It’s hard to blame drivers for trying to survive under what are essentially inadequate market conditions. New York’s Taxi and Limousine Commission only issues 13,000 licenses, or medallions, for yellow cabs within the city. That’s not nearly enough for the amount of people who would hail cabs at the city’s peak traffic hours, but if medallions were easy to come by, the streets of New York would be an impassable sea of yellow.
Though owning a medallion was once a reliable path toward middle class stability, those days are long gone. Most yellow taxi medallions today are owned by large companies that maintain fleets of vehicles which they then rent out to drivers who have to hustle to make back their costs. Very few drivers can afford to purchase their own medallions, which can sell for more than $1 million each.
There are many more non-yellow livery cabs in New York, but these had been prohibited by law from picking up street hails. These cabs must be dispatched, according to the rules, although a visit to any outer borough subway station with regular traffic will show how frequently this rule is flaunted. Livery cabs generally charge flat rates according to distance, but yellow taxis and green taxis are required to have meters and roof signage.
With the rollout of the city’s fleet of bright green taxis, the TLC is making an effort to standardize street hails outside of NYC’s more heavily trafficked areas, and to provide people in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Upper Manhattan more access to metered taxis, which are usually less expensive than livery cars.
The rules for the owners of the new “Boro Taxis,” as the green ones are dubbed, are simple: they are not allowed to pick up street hails on the home turf, as it were, of the yellow taxi – Manhattan below 110th St. on the West Side, and below 96th St. on the East Side, or at either LaGuardia or JFK airports. Otherwise, they can ply the streets anywhere else in the city, and can also be on call through a dispatcher.
If you’re new to the city, all you really need to know is that the green taxis aren’t allowed to stop for you anywhere south of the Upper West and Upper East sides – although in reality, they probably will anyway.
Owners of yellow cab medallions have fought against the new taxi plan for years, arguing that their substantial investments in million-dollar permits would be gutted by an influx of competition, which explains in part why the rules for the new green fleet are somewhat odd; Midtown and Lower Manhattan, along with the airports, are prime yellow cab hunting grounds. Many of these owners have substantial investments in their fleets, and it remains to be seen what effect, if any, the new Boro Taxis will have on their earnings.
Drivers of the new green taxis also can’t bring a fare to the airport and pick one up while there – a two-tiered system that will no doubt make some drivers reluctant to drive all the way down to, say, J.F.K., in the southeastern corner of Queens. The upside is that the permits for a green cab are much less expensive and easier to acquire, and even with the required paint job and equipment additions and upgrades, a green cab license can be within reach of the person who drives the car.
The system also creates tension for passengers who want to catch a ride into Manhattan from the outer boroughs. On my second hail of a green taxi, I hopped in the backseat in Astoria, Queens, and told the driver to take me to Union Square in lower Manhattan. He gave me a sob story about why he couldn’t drive all the way downtown which basically boiled down to: it’s not worth it for me if I can’t pick up a fare on the way back out of Manhattan.
As a lifelong New Yorker and proud outer-borough denizen, this was a new one: a taxi driver who didn’t want to drive into Manhattan? It was usually the other way around, with me hailing a cab in the city late one night after a few beers and making sure I got in the taxi before telling him that he was driving me to Queens. Depending on the night, the driver would balk between ten and twenty percent of the time, usually accompanied by some nonsense about the end of his shift.
As most New Yorkers know, you don’t tell a driver where you’re going until you’re in the cab. If he breaks the law by refusing to drive you to your destination, a complaint to the TLC can often result in a steep fine. This doesn’t stop them; taxi drivers still “destination shop” all the time, but more often than not a firm but polite recitation of the rules can do wonders.