12d. TRANSPORTATION--TAXI CABS
It might seem that taxis would be faster than waiting for trains, but this is completely true only at night. During the day, for all the same reasons that most New Yorkers don't own cars, it can actually be a huge waste of time and money. The one thing they do offer is privacy and comfort compared to the trains. Late at night, the one time I might certainly recommend taking a cab, you can get from just about any destination to another in the central part of Manhattan in less than fifteen minutes and for under fifteen dollars including the tip. Often it's much less.
During the daytime, cabs are only worth taking for distances between around fifteen and forty blocks (street blocks, that is, not avenue blocks). Less than that and, considering the cost and slowness, you may as well just walk it. Much more than that and you'd likely get there much faster and for much less money by taking the subway. One exception is if you have luggage or other heavy items on you, especially trips to and from the airport.
There are fifteen different vehicles authorized by the Taxi & Limousine Commission, the most recent of which, the Nissan NV200 shown here, was introduced as the "Taxi of Tomorrow" at this year's auto show. A few of them, namely the Mercedes E350, Volkswagen Golf, and AM General MV-1, I have never once seen on the street. For those who may be environmentally conscious, eight of the fifteen have hybrid models available. The NV200 will soon be available as an electric vehicle, as will the Volkswagen Jetta. The Jetta is also available in a version which burns biofuel. I have every confidence the city chose these particular models for that very reason. The number of hybrid taxis continues to rise, and customers appear to prefer them. Although they certainly produce less pollution as well, resources must also be tapped for maintenance and repair, which produce different kinds of pollutants, and have been so costly as to call into question the benefit of savings on fuel usage. In fact, a plan to replace every New York City taxi in use to hybrid models by a certain year had to be scrapped for this reason.
The next thing to discuss is hailing. I'm always shocked by how often I see people who appear comfortable in the city who don't seem to understand how the fare lights work. They stand there waving their hand in the air becoming increasingly agitated and insulted as taxi after taxi passes by them. There has been discussion about changing the fare lights to make them more intuitive and easier to understand, but until that happens, here it is.
When I say fare lights, I refer to the little light box on the roof right above the windshield, facing front. It has three settings. All the lights off means the cab has a fare on board and is unavailable. The taxi's ID number lit alone means the cab is available to accept a fare. If this cab passes you by, you have right to be insulted unless the driver is unable to merge lanes or some other issue. On both sides of the ID number are two more lights that read "off duty." This is fairly self-explanatory unless you're too far away or didn't think to read what it says. If all the lights are lit, the cab is unavailable. Yes, I know, that's stupid. But that's how it works.
There is a provision on off-duty cabs, however. Since the driver is obviously traveling somewhere, what this usually means is that he or she is changing shifts. Most cabs are shared between two drivers, one taking the day shift, the other taking the night shift. The bizarre thing about the shift change is that it happens when you'd least expect it, between 4:00 and 5:00PM. It has to do with ensuring that both shifts include a rush hour, and avoiding the day shift starting at, say, 2AM. But it means that when you'd most want to have a cab take you somewhere, there aren't any.
In any case, you may occasionally see an off-duty driver stopping for a potential fare, but rolling down the window first to ask where the person needs to go. If the driver is going generally in the same direction as the potential customer, he or she will usually be happy to pick up one last customer before quitting time. Don't be insulted if the driver simply says "sorry, no," and speeds off. This just means your destination is too far out of the way. The taxi stations are mostly out in Queens somewhere and the driver will be fined for getting the car back late.
It's possible that if you have an emergency, you could offer an off-duty driver more money to take you, for instance, double what the meter says. I've never seen anyone try this to know if it would work. Likely more money wouldn't make a difference unless you're willing to cover the driver's potential thirty-dollar late fee.
Typically the most people a single taxi will agree to take is four,
unless you get one of the minivan ones with more seats. If you're
overflowing the back, some drivers prefer you ask first before taking
the front seat. If you have more people than the vehicle is supposed to
hold, you'll need to ask the driver if he or she is willing to
accommodate you, and it's probably not a bad idea to offer some extra
money for he or she taking the risk. Most of the time you'll need to split your group between two cabs.
Once you've gotten into the cab there is one crucial thing you need to have for where you want to go: the street and avenue intersection ("61st & Lex") or mid-block location between two others ("39th between 2nd & 3rd Avenue"). The numbered street address of the specific building is great to have, but unless it's on a major artery, the driver is likely to just guesstimate into what block that building address falls. Certainly smart phones are quickly making this kind of advice obsolete, but I still think it's wise to do your own homework.
I used to know a person with whom it was so embarrassing to take cabs because he would get in and order the driver to take us to "Such-and-Such Obscure Expensive French Restaurant, please," as if the driver should have any clue where that is. Then he would proceed to complain loudly enough for the driver to hear him how New York City cab drivers don't know where anything is. In a way, it was extra rude because we'd be going someplace this unfortunate cab driver probably couldn't even afford to go.
In some cities like London, taxi drivers must pass an extensive exam and know exactly how to get to just about every last random address in the city. Unlike the potentially confusing city of London, likely because of the numbered grid, New York cab drivers don't have to memorize every street to get the job. Whatever you think about that, it's just how it is. Central Manhattan, where most people are going, is easy enough. But the city as a whole is a big place. There are enormous stretches of eastern Brookyn where I have never even set foot, and in a car, would be hopelessly lost in five minutes.
Most drivers know the location of major sites in Manhattan, especially things like train stations and larger cultural venues, because these are the places where they're guaranteed to find fares. But some random little hotel? Forget it. Know where you're going. In the outer boroughs, it can often be necessary to have a vague idea of what route you need to take, as well.
There's another unfortunate reason why it's so important to know exactly where you're going. I'm sorry to have to say this, but the driver will probably try to rip you off. The good news is that there's nothing that can be done to mess with the meter. The meter is automatic, must be used for every ride, and it's calculated pretty well to benefit both the driver and the passenger fairly, regardless of whether you're speeding along fast or stopped in horrible traffic. But I cannot tell you how many times I've been in a cab with someone who the driver only suspects is from out of town and suddenly I find we're going around and around in circles, or taking the, ahem, "scenic route" to our destination.
Usually they won't screw around if you're going to the airport. They know you'll lose your marbles if you think you're going to miss your plane. But if you're headed to a hotel, the driver will probably assume you have no idea where you are and won't notice an extra trip around the block. A lot of the new cabs have a screen in the back which includes GPS mapping of your route, but if you don't know the city geography and aren't watching the screen extremely closely the entire time, this might not help all that much--and give you motion sickness in the process.
A friend who worked in hospitality recently made me aware of a really smart move in this situation: telling the driver he or she missed your turn and asking that the meter please be stopped. Give him or her the benefit of the doubt that it may have been an honest mistake. Insinuating that the person is a crook won't do anything but make the scene needlessly ugly. Remember that a lot of the streets do go only one way, and that the driver may have had no choice but to circle around. Getting out on the nearest corner and walking an extra fifty yards to your destination rather than being taken right up to its front door can help to avoid this question, also. If the driver refuses to turn off the meter and you are certain you were being taken on the long route, don't tip. Making a mental note of the driver's ID number is never a bad idea--it's only four digits, easy to memorize--especially if you later discover your cell phone fell out of your pocket in the cab.
And please do tip otherwise, especially if you got there faster than you thought you would or the driver helped with your lead-bullion-filled luggage. Driving a cab is a thankless job with obnoxious passengers, traffic accidents, nutjobs, and muggers. Cab drivers aren't living in twelve-bedroom mansions as it is. A lot of them are honest folks working their way through college, hardworking parents just trying to feed their kids, or retirees for whom social security isn't enough. Lastly, do not ever assume, just because your driver doesn't speak flawless English and is likely newly immigrated to the United States, that he or she doesn't have two doctorates in neurobiology from the best university back home. Trust me, a lot of them do, but those jobs aren't so easy to find here, at least not immediately upon arriving.
©2012, Ryan Witte
12e. Livery Cabs