By Therese Whelan
What would New York City look like without it’s 13,000 yellow cabs? It’s hard to imagine because taxis are as common a sight in New York as pigeons. Two hundred million people ride eight hundred million miles every year in New York City cabs. More than 40,000 drivers take part in this billion-dollar industry.
But it wasn’t always this way. Taxis have a very interesting history in New York. They have evolved through the years, from the first cars in the 1900’s to today’s SUVs. Taxi drivers have also had to adapt, surviving the violence of the eighties and adjusting to meet the new rules designed to fit the times. Gone is the day when taxi drivers were a source of wisdom and a few good jokes.Today, many shut themselves off from their occupants with the radio or cell phones.
Before there were thousands of cars giving New York it’s signature sound, people traveled by horse drawn carriage. Today you’ll find a few dozen lining Central Park South beckoning tourists. New York was a walking city. Automobiles came to New York at the end of the 18th century. Soon cars were being rented out as an alternative to horse drawn carriages. In the early 1900’s New York City became home to 600 gasoline-powered cars imported from France. These red and green cars were used as taxis.
The taxicab industry was privately owned. The largest company was the Checkered Cab Company, which was also the first taxi company to paint their cabs yellow. By the 1920’s the city began to see the economic potential of a taxi industry. Taximeters were introduced to avoid fights over fares and there were enforced regulations on prices. In 1937, the taxi medallion system was put in place and drivers were required to get special licenses. By the 1960s there were around 12,000 taxis in New York City, so a limit was set on the number of cabs allowed. And, all official taxis had to be painted yellow.
When asked what a demanding job is in New York, most people might say doctor, lawyer, or stockbroker. Not many realize the challenging life of a taxi cab driver. They sit through 12-hour shifts in some of the worst traffic in the world, and cannot succumb to road rage for even a minute. They face demanding customers who want to travel to the Bronx, drunks, fare-beaters, low-tippers, and annoying tourists. Most taxi drivers are not even acknowledged beyond being told where to drive.
“They think they know the way to go, they say turn here, and when we end up in traffic they get mad at me,” says Khan Khalid, 49, a taxi driver. Khalid has his fair share of difficult customers. “I’ve had people scream at me for going the wrong way. One man got in and said 115 Broadway or something, so I thought he meant 115th street. I got to the nineties before he realized and then I had to turn off the meter and drive him back. It turned out to be a building all the way by the World Trade Center. He gave me no tip.”
But many cab drivers have faced far worse things than no tips. In the 1980s, taxi drivers feared for their lives. Alii Mohammad, 53 began driving a taxi in the late 80s.
“I started out driving because I couldn’t find a good enough job. I figured this would be good money and I would always have a job if I needed one. That was almost 20 years ago. It was much harder then. I heard stories about drivers being robbed; my friend had a knife pulled on him just before he was ending his shift. He gave up his money, his watch, his rings. Never happened to me though. I stuck to good areas then. Upper East Side, Midtown. Sometimes, though the rich ones are the worst tippers. They look down on drivers, and won’t even talk to me,” Mohammad said.
There were more than 3,200 driver robberies a year in the 1980s. It got so bad that cops were posing as drivers to catch criminals. Bulletproof partitions were installed in every cab. Today, New York is the safest big city in the U.S., but taxi drivers still have concerns. Since there is a limit on the number of cabs allowed in New York, the price has the medallion has risen so much than hardly any drivers own their cabs. In 2004, a New York City taxi medallion cost about $293,000. Drivers work separately, hardly any drivers receive health insurance and there is no taxi union in New York. So, it is hard for the thousands of drivers to come together, even in protest.
“Things are different now,” says Mohammad. “It is much safer for the driver. I still drive because I have a son. I don’t want him to be a cab driver. And now it is so expensive and there is no health insurance. I was one of the drivers who striked.”
This year new laws will require every cab to be equipped with a global positioning system (GPS) and credit card machine. These systems also show a live map, news headlines and the keep a running tab of the fare. Drivers claim that this is an invasion of privacy, will increase the price to rent a cab, give away their driving shortcuts and are noisy. However, in late September when there was supposed to be a mass protest, only 25 percent of New York City drivers stayed home.
Revenues for the taxi industry are expected to increase with the new GPS and credit card system in place. Khalid can understand why the customers would like this new system. “The people will like the GPS maps because they think I’m taking them the long way. Now they can see. I’ve been driving for 15 years in New York I know all the shortcuts.” However not every taxi rider supports the new laws.
“I hate taking cabs,” says Christopher Miller, 22. “Not because I don’t like them. It is relaxing to sit back and not worry about missing your stop or transferring, its just so expensive. I can’t afford one unless I split it with a few people. It sucks though when its really late and you want to get back home from downtown, sometimes you have no options and you have to shell out 30 bucks.”
Miller doesn’t think the changes will increase his taxi usage. “I don’t need a to see a TV screen in the back or a map showing me where I am. It’s just gonna raise prices more. However, Miller thinks the credit card machines are a good idea for “when you’re out of cash.”
Change is inevitable for the taxi industry. The old Checkered Cabs of the 1920s look nothing like the hybrids, minivans and SUV’s of today. “Yesterday,” says Mohammad, “I drove a pink flowered van with a GPS in the back.” He says he does not like the GPS machines because everyone pays by credit cards and he cannot hear the radio when the news headlines play on the screen “Over and over, it gives me a headache.”
Recently, the city unveiled the results of a massive volunteer project by elementary school children in New York and New Jersey. Large painted flower decals adorn the hood and trunk of some cabs, and if the city has it’s way, all 13,000 plus NYC taxis will be flowered. This will certainly change the look of New York. But one thing that will never change is the need for taxis in this city. There will always be drivers who put up with the difficulties, hoping to make enough money to support their families, or buy health insurance. Maybe one day, the needs of the drivers will surpass those of the customers.
But for the riders, taxis are fast, fun and safe, salvation from downpours and snowstorms. Twenty-four hours a day in one of the biggest and busiest cities in the world you can find a taxi and get where you need to go.