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.

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  1. MikeM says:

    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.

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  2. Grant says:

    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.

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  3. davidd says:

    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..

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  4. notmelbrooks says:

    low pay. aggressive drivers. obnoxious passengers.

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  5. anth says:

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

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  6. Dan says:

    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.

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  7. Vin says:

    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.

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  8. KL in DC says:

    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.

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