Taxing Taxiing

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I recently got back from New York, and along with a trip to the Guggenheim and a stroll through Central Park, I naturally had to take in the city’s transportation sights. First was the new-look pedestrian-only section of Times Square, which, in a triumph for truth in advertising, now actually features a square. I don’t yet know what the traffic diversion has done as far as auto congestion (Broadway has been closed to vehicular traffic between 42nd and 47th streets).

But the closure scores an A+ for making the Square a better place to be, as New Yorkers would be happy to tell you if they could fight through the hordes of European tourists and actually visit it.

Second, I took a ride in one of the city’s famous (or infamous) cabs. My experience was perfectly adequate, if not quite a trip on the QEII. But to many, New York cabs are synonymous with poor upkeep, dismal service, fraud, and reckless driving.

And that’s when you’re lucky enough to find one.

Those who bewail the state of New York City taxi service should know that the problem is not due to cabbies being bad or dim-witted people; in fact, a 1991 survey showed 39 percent were college graduates. Nor is the problem some defect in the culture of their home countries. In many ways, cabbies’ oft-poor behavior is simply a response to the structure of the rules by which their profession is governed. Given the incentives, you or I would largely behave the same way.

Driving a cab is one of the most difficult and frustrating jobs that our society has to offer. Two pieces of evidence: first, 94 percent of taxi drivers responding to a 2003 New York survey were foreign born (this will not surprise New Yorkers). Clearly, native-born Americans with relatively less constrained employment opportunities avoid this very onerous and low-paying line of work, leaving it to immigrants whose options are, sadly, more limited.

More evidence of the woes of the cabbie: few drivers stick with their profession for long. The 1991 survey found that those climbing behind the wheel for the first time professed considerable enthusiasm; 49 percent said they planned to drive for “many years.” But only one in nine of those new cabbies was still driving full-time by the third year. That’s a pretty spectacular attrition rate. (Much of the info in these posts comes from a nice series of articles by Bruce Schaller and Gorman Gilbert. The pieces were published in 1995, but the fundamental story has changed little since that time.)

Hence, many cabbies are relative rookies, and this is a direct cause of the poor service cabs sometimes offer. Full-time drivers are much less likely than part-timers to receive summonses for bad behavior, and complaints drop dramatically for cabbies with more years on the job. In short, if the job were better, retention would be higher, drivers would be more experienced, and service would be better.

Why is cab driving so taxing a profession that it drives so many out of the business? What other factors lead to the poor outcomes we sometimes experience when we step off the curb and stick our hands in the air? And how are we the public in large part responsible for this state of affairs? More next time.


I lived in Manhattan for five years and took taxis at what I will guess to be a pretty normal frequency. This is my experience:

I was injured or nearly injured 0 times.

I had a monetary dispute with the driver 0 times (once with a limo driver).

The vehicle had a disagreeable substance/smell/other 2 times. (several additional occurrences of body odor that most might find disagreeable, but I didn't mind)

The driver refused to follow a reasonable request when asked 1 time (wouldn't get off the phone).

I was unhappy with the choice of route ~5 times.

I suspected I was being tricked/defrauded into a longer ride/higher fare 2 times.

If I had bags, I was assisted with them by the driver ~65% of the time.

If I engaged the driver in small talk, I was able to start a friendly conversation ~80% of the time. (Where are you from? How long have you been on shift?)

When I think about it now, and compare it to my experiences with airlines, city buses, regional buses, Amtrak, riding with coworkers, etc. I'd say on the whole it stacks up quite well.

I think the supposed belief that NYC cabs are "synonymous with poor upkeep, dismal service, fraud, and reckless driving" is in large part urban legend, or outdated.



It can be even worse in the outer boroughs. Yellow cab drivers use the opportunity to pretend they don't know where they are and drive the long way, increasing the fare (fraud). And, of course, they'll often refuse to go to some neighborhoods.

I actually prefer the livery/gypsy cabs in the outer boroughs. At least those guys know where they are going and will quote you a price before you get in the car.


If you were to look for the root of cab driving turnover, try looking at the medallion system, medallions cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, but without one you can't run a cab. Therefore mobility is very limited, you can't become an owner operator without a huge outlay of money, so you are stuck with someone else getting the biggest cut of your work..


low pay. aggressive drivers. obnoxious passengers.


Gosh, try taking a cab in DC. There is nothing effective about those cabs.


I agree with MikeM. All New Yorkers know cabbies are hyper-aggressive drivers, but I've literally never heard someone say, "Take a cab? Forget it. They rip you off, and the service is terrible." It just doesn't happen. For that matter, finding a City cab that's in poor condition doesn't happen anymore either. If this analysis were written in 1989, I'd get it. But it's totally irrelevant in 2009.


Yeah, I gotta agree with Mike...given, I ride cabs fairly infrequently as they tend to be something of a luxury for most New Yorkers, and I've lived most of my life in the outer boroughs. But I've had enough cab experience to develop a pretty solid impression. That impression has largely been positive.

It's true that on several occasions I've found it nearly impossible to hail a cab, but these tend to be at around the same times of day, when cabbies are switching shifts.

There was one time - once - when I thought my cabbie was driving recklessly (though I do expect a certain degree of aggressive driving from cabbies, so I may have a fairly narrow definition of 'reckless.')

There was one other time when I thought a cabbie took a sub-optimal route, but it wasn't that much of a difference. That's really been it.

KL in DC

I ditto #5. 90% of my DC cab experiences have been pretty much awful. NYC cabs are more like cushy limo experiences than DC. Heck, even cabs in rural Turkey and rural China are better than DC.

Jonathon K.

We just need more Cash Cabs!


I don't know of an American city with better taxis. Cabbies in New York know a huge area, do an enormous amount of work, have a very stressful job, and I think take most of it in stride. Rarely will they turn down a fare because they don't want to go to Brooklyn, etc. I think you are problemitizing something that isn't a problem.

I assume where this goes is that the medallion system is bad and the reason that it's so hard to find a cab. I'd rather wait for a cab, than have so many I sit around in motionless taxi gridlock--which would happen if running a taxi was as easy as pay the price of a cab (~$30k) and not the medallion as well ($700k). Have you ever been to Bombay? Sure, cabs are cheap and drivers are glad to have your business. But you move at 5miles an hour across a huge city full of empty cabs. That tax is socially efficient.


I will add that there is a reason they are all foreign born. If NYC cabbies had been born in the US they would be engineers and bankers. They are extraordinarily enterprising and hard working.


Agreed with all those saying that NYC cabs are much better than Mr. Morris seems to understand. I moved into NYC in 2004 and overall have had much better experiences than people I know who lived here in the '80s or even the '90s. For the most part, I have found people here, including cab drivers, to be decent, professional and honest. The only people I can recall who haven't met those standards have been a plumber and my wedding photographer (though both of those did rip me off drastically). This city is so much better today; data and anecdotes from 1991 won't help you understand it.


As a New Yorker, I have to say that cabs really don't have a bad reputation amongst the locals. Maybe its different for those visiting, and if so, it probably has a lot to do with old stereotypes about NYC cabs that have died out locally, but persist elsewhere. Whatever the case, I am sure that a major contributing factor in the high rate of turnover is the indentured service-like existence of a cab driver. If you own your own medallion and car, it can be a great business, but if you work for a cab company, its a very different process. I don't know all the details, but from my conversations with cabbies, they have to pay for shifts and earn their money back hustling for customers on the job. There is little job security and if you have an off night, they'll keep you off the job until you can pay what you owe.

They recently installed credit card readers in all cabs and that is causing other problems. My understanding is that cabbies hate the credit card payers because the money doesn't reach them until much later, so they don't have immediate funds to pay for their upcoming shifts.



I haven't work in NYC in years. But I take cabs occasionally when I visit. and between the years I worked in the city and the years not I can say most of my most prominent personal memories are funny or sweet. The guy who gave us a glorious ride down 7th when I had out of towners visiting. That was fun. The guy who told me all about the economics of being a cabby in NYC when the vast majority do not own their own cabs. The guy who did a phenomenal job driving me through the Holland tunnel to Hoboken through some really deep snow in his rear wheel drive Caprice with little weight in the trunk to stabilize us. The next day there were earth moving machines in lower Manhatten dumping the snow in the river. The time I shared a ride with a stranger from the upper East to Penn Station at about 12:05am on New Years eve and we were probably the last cab that made it down town before the streets were blocked across town with the pedestrians leaving time square, that guy was great and got a nice Holiday tip. I was taken only once in all those years. But it helps to be from town. I can see how out of towners might have more difficulty specifically from the airport. But that is what I go through when I travel to foreign cities and take their cabs too. I remember many years ago taking a cab in DC and the crazy zone pricing system. Now that is a rip off.



Mike is completely correct. The only 'problem' with NYC cabs is that there aren't enough of them, especially when it's raining!

The 'many' to whom NY cabs are synonymous with poor upkeep, et al. are clearly people who have never set foot in New York - or at least not for a decade or two.


I agree with the above. I have taken literally thousands of cabs in my life and have never had a memorably bad experience. I find the service to be generally excellent. CAbs are also cheaper and more widely available in Manhattan than any major city I have visited. Talking to cabbies is a favorite pastime of mine as well.

It's one of those things people say, much like they say New Yorkers are unfriendly, but it just isn't true.

Allan J. Fromberg

Mr. Morris, my name is Allan Fromberg and I am the deputy commissioner for public affairs at the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission. I must say, in all frankness, that your column today took me very much by surprise. It appears to be largely based on conjecture with a foundation in decade-plus-old studies, and with all due respect, it misses the mark by a New York City mile. Far more recent data suggests that the average taxicab driver has more than nine years under his or her belt, and while Messrs. Schaller and Gilbert are learned individuals, the picture they painted in 1995 has changed dramatically… say that the story has “fundamentally changed very little since that time” gives short or no shrift at all to significant dynamic shifts that have taken place particularly over the last five years. The number of taxicab drivers in the “driver pool” is at historically high levels – above 48,000 – signaling that the fare increases of 2004 and 2006 have completely done away with the previously cyclical economy-driven ebb and flow from the taxi industry to other job options. In other words, more drivers are opting into the industry, a phenomenon that has been written about extensively, and less drivers are leaving it. It is also true that driver income has benefited greatly from the fare increases, which guaranteed a living wage for the first time industry history, and averages a net $17 per hour-plus, and the addition of credit card capabilities to all taxicabs. The latter aspect has resulted in measurably higher tips for drivers, as well as facilitating the taxicab industry's absorption of a certain percentage of business that previously belonged to the providers of more expensive corporate for-hire options. It is possible that those with whom you may have spoken in your research for the piece had singular agenda-fueled reasons for painting so bleak a picture, but I am happy to report that the truth is far rosier. Lastly, "synonymous with poor upkeep, dismal service, fraud, and reckless driving"? I'm also happy to say, yet another anachronism in ths series. Thanks for listening......


David Stern

The worst condition taxis I've ever seen in any country (includes China, Thailand, Tunisia etc. OK I haven't been to any of the poorest countries on Earth) were in upstate New York when I used to live in Troy.


Like David mentioned, the NYC taxi-medallion system creates lots of problems. NYC has restricted the number of medallions (licenses) severely so that the number of NYC cabs today is about the same as the number of cabs in NYC in 1937, when the medallion system took effect. This limits competition, in turn lowering quality and increasing price.

Consider NYC's medallion auction in 2008. The winning bid for a medallion for an independent operator went for $413,000 (, corporate medallions went for $1.2 million and up, and alternative-fuel medallions went for over $500,000. It's hard to get in the business and it's hard for operators to charge low fares with upfront costs like that.


Concur with MikeM@1. NYC taxi's are very cheap, relative to other cities I've been in, and get you where you want, when you want, and do so quickly. You get what you pay for. If you want supreme service, take a private car. But you get a good ride for very cheap, so stop complaining. The problem is out-of-towners, like the writer here, who expect a marvelous ride like they see on 1950's TV shows. Get over yourself.