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Thinking Outside the Box: Could We See the End to Taxis in this Country?

This blog post is part 1 of 2. Watch for part 2 on Monday, August 6, 2012.

David M. Chapinski

Pedestrian safety is an emerging concept in our modern cities. Washington, D.C. has attempted to include the pedestrian, and two years ago, formed the Pedestrian Advisory Council, which meets regularly on these issues of walking and safety and testifies before the D.C. Council and engages the community on how to make the District a more walkable place. As a city, D.C. has hundreds upon hundreds of pedestrian crashes a year, with several deaths, and they’re still sorting out all the causes and solutions. We need to remember, in some parts of D.C., about half of all households lack any personal automobiles and instead rely on alternative modes–first and foremost each member’s own two feet. And yet people often emphasize the importance of “livable, walkable” cities but I still ask, to what extent would you say D.C. fits the bill?

I think the word bill is no longer a piece of paper we receive at your typical car service.  Now you can skip the hassles of waiting for a cab or conventional car rental with advanced transport technology like car2go. There is only a one-time membership fee and you are on your merry way from the start. You can reserve a car ahead of time, or simply pick one up automatically and spontaneously all over D.C. which would appeal to a New Yorker. When you are done, simply park the car back within the Home Area of where you initiated the coverage and the car2go D.C. service team takes care of the rest.  Parking, refueling, cleaning, and all other services are all included.

I believe that technologies like car2go would definitely have their challenges because in a city like New York City, dismantling a ‘way of life’ for over a century is an arduous task indeed.  Who would want the burden of that?  Not any mayor I can find. However, we must realize that the numbers do not lie. By the end of the summer, it will cost more to take a taxi in New York.  After all, if you are close to New York’s recent policies, the Taxi and Limousine Commission says it’s considering a fare hike on cabs later this month. It’s been 8 years since the last overall fare hike. The TLC held a public hearing on the rate hikes on May 31. The Taxi Workers Alliance submitted a proposal for an increase a year ago. The group is asking for an increase between 20-25 percent.  Official sources say that number would likely be closer to 16-20 percent but that drivers have made a good case for an increase. That raises the average fare to $14 from about $12.  We hear from Taxi Workers Alliance saying “It’s about time, the last overall raise was in 2004, and we’ve seen drivers really struggling out there to make ends meet.”  We hear TLC Commissioner David Yassky on “WNYC News” saying “it’s reasonable for taxi drivers and fleet owners to lay this out on the table. Their petitions will be considered over the next couple of months.” The TLC will also look at maximum lease rates, known as “lease caps,” which have been requested by fleet owners. If a fare increase is approved by the summer–it will coincide with the sale of the new outer borough livery permits and 2000 yellow medallions. New York Taxi Drivers are not even sure that they will see benefits of a fare Increase. I believe that this uncertainty is truly a mockery of a labor force. Cabbies do not make a lot of money in New York. The Taxi and Limousine Commission estimates that drivers earn an average of $130 a day, down from $150 in 2006. Adjust those figures for inflation, and the pay cut comes out to nearly 25 percent over six years. And even as the city prepares to raise taxi fares by as much as 20 percent, many drivers are skeptical that they will see any benefits. Every time they raise it, it’s for the garage, as the employee heads off to collect his day’s pay from the dispatcher. This frustration is what we do not see as person looking into the business. Everything goes to the garage. Skepticism, reverberated by several drivers interviewed earlier in 2012, is understandable. Almost every time the city raises fares, it also raises the so-called “lease caps,” the maximum amount that a fleet can charge a driver to rent a car for a 12-hour shift. I do not think this inability to earn an honest pay bodes well for the taxi business.

For the driver, higher fares and higher rents can result in little or no net gain. Securing a taxi for the most lucrative time slots, evenings, from Thursday to Saturday, can leave a cabby in a $133.77 void, according to May 22, 2012 issue of The New York Times, before a single fare has been collected. That pattern could change this time around, if the Bloomberg administration finds a way around the red tape. But, officials at the Taxi and Limousine Commission still are reluctant to discuss their strategy publicly since raising lease rates shows the industry has not presented a strong case for a change. I believe that taxi cab companies are realizing that they must do more to keep other commuting options at bay with their roll-out of a new payment platform in New York particularly.  The city is also looking at ways to eliminate part or all of a fee on credit card transactions, widely hated by drivers, that allows taxi fleets to collect 5 percent of any fare paid on a card which is a start. Some of that money is used to pay credit card companies and vendors; the rest tends to be pocketed by the garage. Also, history does not lie.

Although before my time, in 1899, 90 percent of New York City’s taxi cabs were electric vehicles. This fleet of electric cars was built by the Electric Carriage and Wagon Company of Philadelphia. Not only that, but in 1899 and 1900, electric cars outsold all other types of cars, such as gas and steam powered vehicles. In 1902 an electric car, the Baker Torpedo, became the first car to have an aerodynamic body that enclosed both the driver and the platform. This car at one point reached 80 mph in a speed test before crashing and killing two spectators. It was later clocked as high as 120 mph, but with spectators not invited this time. Another promising up and comer is the Mini-E that has about 120 mile range but no set price yet on how much it will cost. This one also has the additional downside of taking 3 hours to charge with their quick charge and 20 hours plugged into a normal power outlet. Both of these have a ways to go to catch up to Tesla, but it’s all a very good start to revitalizing an industry that has been seemingly nonexistant for 100 years. My point is that even when we look back over a hundred years, we worked on improving our commute and that coordinated effort should not stop now.  We cannot stop now.

Watch for part 2 of this blog next Monday, August 6, 2012.

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