By Sydney H. Schanberg
New York Newsday, June 3, 1986
Everyone has horror stories about New York cabbies. He refused to stop smoking. His radio was ear-shattering. He refused to let me smoke. He was a recent arrival from Algeria, spoke English poorly and didn’t know where Zabar’s was. The springs on the back seat were broken. The floor was littered with trash paper and soft-drink cans.
All of these things do happen, of course. But in fairness, though knowledge of English and geography may be limited in many, I have found only a minor portion of cab drivers who are deliberately or consciously abusive or who choose to drive with piggish back seats (We must remember it was a passenger, not the driver, who behaved piggishly).
Yet the exaggerated image of the deficient cab driver has taken hold. And in the current controversy over whether the fare should go up — after remaining unchanged for six years — little attention is paid to the cabbie as working man or the cabbie as small businessman (if he owns his own medallion).
The editorials wax indignant about a fouled-up taxi industry and about the corrupt agency, the Taxi and Limousine Commission, that was supposed to regulate it fairly and sensibly. Rarely do the critics bring themselves to talk about the rather fundamental issue that drivers face earning a living and supporting their families.
To use corruption at the top as the reason for denying a fair wage to those at the bottom is clearly not rational. Is there some editorial writer who has gone without a wage increase for six years?
The problems of taxi service in New York are complex and tangled. Should we increase the number of yellow cab medallions, which for 50 years has been fixed at 11,787? Or do we need instead a more limited solution — to deal only with those rush-hour periods when the city is short of these licensed cabs?
The growth in limousine fleets and in the number of non-medallion, unregulated livery and radio-car vehicles further complicates the picture. And then there is the vast difference between what is needed for high-intensity Manhattan and what is needed for the other boroughs.
This web of problems is what faces the city’s new taxi commissioner, Gorman Gilbert, a professor-engineer who has studied the taxi industry. But the magnitude of his challenge should not be used as an argument for not quickly addressing the basic issue of a work force of men and women who have not gotten a raise in six years.
At the very least, these drivers should be told now that a raise is coming. They can also be told that more stringent rules about safety, courtesy, English proficiency and geographic familiarity will be applied at the same time — to convince customers that they’ll be getting better service for the increased fare.
And fare hikes aren’t the only way to increase driver income. Group riding is an idea that has long since come. It works in other cities, such as Washington, D.C., and it worked here on a totally ad hoc basis during the 1980 subway strike.
It could be introduced here on a selective, experimental approach and then, if it works, expanded. There are meters already developed that can handle multiple fares. Riders can be educated to share their space just as drivers can be educated to provide improved service.
Critics of the taxi industry seem to suggest that drivers already make enough money. What do they make? Though it is hard to generalize — since owner-operators with medallions have an expense structure difference from those who lease medallion cabs from big fleets and others — the available figures indicate earnings, for those on the high end, of $20,000-$25,000 a year, after expenses. But that level of income can be achieved only by drivers willing to work in wearying shifts of 12 to 13 hours day, six days a week.
The critics also contend that since the value of a medallion has soared to more than $100,000, this has given the medallion owners a windfall that obviates the need for a fare increase.
This is what’s known as mixing apples and pomegranates. Individuals who buy medallions regard them as an investment for a secure retirement, just as someone else would buy a piece of real estate in the belief that its value will grow over time. The investment provides an expectation of income in the future; it does not pay any of the grocery bills now. Driving the cab for long hours on city streets does that.
Some people discuss the industry as if it were still dominated by huge fleets owned by big business. On the contrary, most of the fleets have been sold off, and the bulk of the 11,787 medallions are now owned either by individuals or by small corporations that form mini fleets of two or three cabs.
Those who drive for the big fleets receive some modest employee benefits. Those who drive for themselves have to provide their own.
Neither group should be asked to forgo a reasonable income, for — whoever is doing the driving — pushing a cab around New York is not easy work.
Yes, there are rotten apples. And yes, the taxi industry badly needs better regulation. But that regulation should not carry a message of second-class status for the drivers.