Tag Archive | New York City

Taxi scams are born anew

Technology continues to advance and change our world, human nature does not change. Technological advancement does not mean moral advancement. While we can summon a wealth of information in less than a second, the human race isn’t applying this knowledge in a way that makes our world any more just and fair.

And so it is with our taxi cabs. While technology enables us to hail cabs, it has not improved the ethical standards of drivers or riders. I have seen this illustrated across our city in several ways, but most vividly this past week.

It was after 6 p.m. and since I was out of work late I wanted to waste no time in getting home. I was in downtown Manhattan and the traffic looked painfully slow. I positioned myself near a street corner so a car could make a quick exit off of a bumper-to-bumper Broadway. I requested a ride from Lyft.

I got a call from the first Lyft driver.

“Hi this is your driver from Lyft, can I confirm where you are?”

“Yes. I am at Broadway and Worth Street. I’m a bit before Worth Street so you can make a left and get out of this terrible traffic.”

“And can I confirm where you are going?”

“Flushing, Queens,” I said truthfully.

A few seconds after our call ended. I saw that the driver had canceled my ride and the mobile app was searching for a new driver for me.

I also realized how I had made a terrible mistake. One of the features that is supposed to make ride hailing services better than hailing cabs on the street is that the application does not tell the driver where you are going until they confirm on their device that you are in their vehicle. This stops them from cherry picking rides the way yellow cab drivers do, asking passengers where they are going before they get in the cab, so they can avoid taking fares to destinations they don’t like.

Ride hailing drivers subvert this system in two ways: they will pull over and confirm on their device that you are in the cab when you are not, and then canceling the ride before you get to them. And, like they did with me, they call you and ask where you are going and then cancel the ride if they don’t like what you tell them.

The second Lyft driver called a few minutes later, doing the same thing. I didn’t tell them, but it didn’t help anyway.

“Can you confirm where you are going?”

“I’m on Broadway and Worth. I’ll see you soon. Are you nearby?”

“Yes. I am at Broadway and White Street. I will be there soon. … Can you confirm where you are going?”

“That’s a great question. I’ll confirm when I see you. And I’ll see you soon,” I said with the friendliest confidence I could muster.

My phone soon indicated that this driver had canceled as well, and now I had to start the request for a driver all over again. And guess what? The price for a ride was now about $20 more than when I was first looking for a ride. This made me livid but I was too tired to get worked up about it, and besides, I would have been mistaken for a crazy person, shouting at my smartphone in the middle of Broadway as downtown traffic slowly crawled by.

The third driver arrived and completed the trip. With all the shady driver shenanigans, I probably saved no time in getting home and would have been better off taking a subway or express bus.

A friend who is a yellow cab driver broke down the one issue he may have with taking fares to the outer boroughs: if it’s towards the end of his shift, he faces late fees if he brings his cab back to the garage late. That’s the only time he picks and chooses his fares, and he recommends reporting those drivers that won’t take customers where they want to go. My friend is exceptionally good at what he does, and even lets passengers know when they can get somewhere faster using public transit. I had one Lyft driver tell me that in Maryland recently, and I much appreciated it.

In a few short years, the drivers at ride-share services like Uber and Lyft have perfected many of the repugnant practices that sent riders away from yellow cabs to begin with. Ride-hailing service drivers are known to cancel rides in time to take advantage of surge pricing times. No-show cab drivers can still saddle would-be riders with $5 cancelation charges which are difficult (though not impossible) to fight through the companies’ Web sites. And yellow cab drivers are left in the lurch, many of them deeply in debt with loans for medallions that they may never be able to pay back, a situation regulators ignored.

At the same time, ride sharing services are in greater demand, since our public transit system is so rotten to the core the subways lines can be delayed even by an overflowing toilet.

As with yellow cabs, remain vigilant when you are taking one of the raid hailing services. What looks like a minor inconvenience could be another scam.

Congestion pricing will not fix our subways

New York is a city of many firsts. It was the first capital city of the United States; it had the first hot dog, first American public brewery, ATM, mobile phone call, and children’s museum.

It also promises to be the first American city to institute congestion pricing on cars driving into its busiest areas. Although these fees are not expected to take effect until 2021, it could cost motorists up to $10 to drive into Manhattan below 60th Street according to a plan expected to be passed April 1 as part of the New York State budget.

It could mean as much as $14 for a car and more than $20 for a truck going into Manhattan. That’s likely going to be on top of heavy tolls already paid to take the bridges and tunnels needed to get into Manhattan in the first place. Cities such as London and Stockholm have instituted congestion pricing and it’s considered a success there, but those cities have more viable public transportation.

New York City has one of the most comprehensive public transit systems in the country, and that’s more of a statement on how sorry the U.S.’s transit system is than a compliment to New York.

The politicians that are advocating for congestion pricing are doing so because they don’t want to do the hard work it would take to fully fund the M.T.A. It means possibly raising taxes and definitely raising fares. It means significantly reforming construction policies to reduce exorbitant costs. Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, who despise one another, agree 100% that this is a good idea, which is as good a reason as any to oppose it.

People are turning more to cars because public transit is so unreliable and unpleasant. I once worked with a man who had health issues and had to go to the Bronx every other day from work in order to have kidney dialysis done. He took a cab there because he couldn’t be late and his health issues meant he couldn’t be wedged into a subway car with a few hundred of his closes friends. He was able to get some of his cab fare subsidized, but that’s money that could have been spent elsewhere if we had a reliable transit system, and it’s on the backs of people like my former coworker that this new tax is going to be balanced.

I would rather not spend about three times the regular fare to get to work, but I know I need to be on time to work and not on the cattle car that passes for the 7 train these days, so I splurge for an express bus. It’s still a lot less than a cab but more expensive than a regular subway or bus fare.

Congestion pricing is going to cost the people who can afford it the least: cab drivers or people who have their spouses or friends drive them to work or who are carpooling like good citizens. There will be a significant portion of people who will avoid paying it using the same schemes that work with the now toll-booth-free tolls and red light cameras.

We will fight this out in the press and in the courts until congestion pricing becomes the law of the land or not. But all that will be time wasted building the political capital, civic will, and thoughtful plans needed to truly fix our transit system.

The mystery commuter on the QM20 bus

For about a year and a half, I have commuted to and from my job in Manhattan using an express bus, a more expensive but comfortable coach bus run by the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

Most of the bus drivers who drive these buses hustle to get us through traffic and make good time getting into Manhattan from the Eastern reaches of Queens. A meek or extremely defensive driver is going to fail at driving and express bus, and fail hard.

And that’s been happening recently in the early morning on the QM20 line. One driver I have not seen but only heard about, an older gentlemen, is a slow-paced driver that is content to hang in the slow lane of early rush-hour traffic while his passengers fret about reaching work on time. I have spoken with people who have stopped riding the 6:45 bus because they cannot get to work on time if they ride it. In fact, the 7 a.m. bus routinely reaches Manhattan sooner.

Because the driver of the 6:45 a.m. bus is such a pathetic slowpoke, passengers that used to take that bus now flood to the 6:30 bus. There are now at least three times as many passengers waiting at the bus stop for the bus I take, which means the other stops are all more crowded as well. I used to be able to find a seat all to myself with regularity, now it’s nearly impossible.

Yet still people insist on putting their bags on seats, even knowing that they’ll have to move them at some point. It’s a gamble on their part, they’ll possibly get the seats to themselves if enough passengers decide not to ask them to move. I usually make it a point to make these rude people move their bags, though if they are an exceedingly large person then I will often pass them by because I’m a large person also and then we’re both crammed into our seats seething and miserable. There is one rude fat bastard on my bus line who does this without fail and sits in corpulent luxury every day.

Sometimes I’ll choose people who are polite and thin because I’ll have more room. There’s a man who uses his time on the bus to sketch drawings and I feel camaraderie sitting next to someone interested in the arts, even if I never talk to him.

This past Monday however, there was a mystery man and I felt I had to sit next to him. By mystery man I mean someone who had a black wool hat pulled down all the way over his face. This was not a ski mask (aka balaclava), but just a hat that normally sits on top of the head and over the ears. He had it pulled down all the way over his face, so that his head was just one monolithic orb of woolen darkness.

I was appreciative of the aesthetic and felt a kinship to it. I often wear a ski mask when I perform in bands, and have enough ski masks at home to clothe a paramilitary battalion for a decade. So I sat next to this man. He was a bit spread out but I managed to get comfortable enough and read the news on my work phone. I didn’t want to see the man’s face, wanting his mystery to be kept for all eternity or at least until the weather was warmer and one would have to be psychotic to wear a winter cap. But no, soon after we rolled into Manhattan the man woke up and pulled up his hat revealing the countenance of a middle-aged commuter.

I don’t know where the man departed the bus. I got off at my usual stop at Herald’s Square and made my way downtown, hoping to engage with more of life’s mysteries as the day wore on.

The gritty oasis of Liberty Place

The Financial District in New York is known for large office towers of glass and marble facades of old buildings. It is considered the epicenter of the financial world.

Many of the large banking institutions that comprise the symbolic “Wall Street” are located in midtown now. And very little actual stock trading happens on Wall Street itself. Most actual stock trading happens on giant data servers in New Jersey. But the name is going to stay and new banks will move in to replace the old ones.

There is a charm to lower Manhattan that is missing from midtown and other parts of the island. The streets retain the narrow dimensions of the early Dutch settlers, and now they are lined with tall buildings instead of brick homes. The chaos of the streets is part of what makes it different. You have to know where you are going, and the logical numerical grid of midtown is choked off for good farther uptown at Houston Street. South of there, you have to know where you are going.

Lower Manhattan retains some of the old world charm of the early settlers, even though Manhattan today looks nothing like it did when it was New Amsterdam. You can still see remnants of Revolutionary War history and the days of our nation’s founding. If you are close enough to Battery Park, you can wander away from some of the tourists to the Korean War Memorial or one of the gardens that are quieter, or see working bee hives.

An additional charm to lower Manhattan generally and the Financial District in particular is the scattered network of small alleyways. When I first started working downtown, I had more time to take walks on my lunch hour and whenever I came across a small alley I had not experienced before, I had to walk down that alley. It still seems a sin not to.

Near where I work now is one such alleyway: Liberty Place. It’s among the alleys that populate lower Manhattan and serve as secluded getaways that are enticing for midday walks.

Forgotten NY points out that Liberty Place used to be called Little Green Street and dates to the era of the early Dutch settlers. People who walk or drive on the extremely narrow, one-way street are traveling where there once was a graveyard and Quaker meeting house.

I make a point to walk down Liberty Place whenever I can. It’s an oasis of old New York City grit in a scrubbed land of tourists and high finances. I often smell skunk weed and see people taking a break from work. The people who linger there are sharing a joint, drinking discreetly, or making a phone call away from the usual noise and bustle of the New York workday.

And even though I don’t drink or smoke weed I walk down this alleyway feeling I am among my people. I also would rather loaf and feel at ease and spend my days enjoying the random beautiful madness of our city streets rather than sit at a desk and answer emails for hours. I too should have stayed a rambling, impoverished poet looking for eternity in the eyes of strangers.

Liberty Place is just that, a place we can seek a breath of liberty even within a shadowy alleyway. I try to make it part of my daily routine, another way to get through the everyday and be a tourist in your own city.

The universal benevolence of a snow day

This winter has been a strange one for the Northeast and New York in particular. We’ve been absent the traditional snowstorms that usually blanket our area a few times each season. We had a slushy sleet in November that snarled traffic and quickly dissipated and a few snowfalls that failed to bring much snow volume.

This past Sunday night we had our most commonplace snowstorm yet, and the predictions were serious enough for New York City to cancel its public school classes that following Monday.

That Monday morning, with the full weight of a snowstorm having made its mark on our city, I decided to not have a snow day and went to work. The snowpocalyspe that had been predicted did not come to pass, at least not on the roads in Flushing. They were clear at 5:30 in the morning and I went through my normal routine and got to work in great time.

So many were taking a snow day, it served as extra motivation to make it into the office. I could have likely remained at home and few would have blamed me. The buses and subways were less crowded than they usually are.

Enjoying the relative quiet of the hushed urban snowscape, broken by the crunching of my office-appropriate rain/snow boots on the un-shoveled sidewalks, it was a harder walk to the bus stop through the crusted sludge.

A few years ago, a snowstorm that was raging through the night and into the commuting time of the morning meant that the office where I worked declared a “work from home” day. It was one of the most productive work days I have ever had. I managed to draft an 800-word op-ed that morning on top of all my usual work, and the lack of commuting hell made everyone generally happier.

The greatest snow day I ever had was in an April of my elementary school years, when there was a spring snow storm in the Northeastern U.S. and I got to take the day off from Catholic School. No more stifling white shirt and blue fake tie with the stenciled sEs (Saint Eugene’s School, Yonkers, New York) for the day. I waged war against my own blood kin and neighbors through snowball fights, barricaded into a snow fortress that numbed my hands and feet, and cherished respite in the warm caverns of our two-bedroom apartment.

Making it into work during a snow day is an easy way to prove dedication to your job without doing any extra work. There’s a saying attributed to Woody Allen that 80 percent of success in life is showing up. On a snow day that jumps to 95 percent. It feels good to be one of the few and the brave at the office when things are quiet. In a city as crowded as New York, you take your quieter times whenever you can.

With today’s technology, the central office as we know it is due for an overhaul. With public transportation unfortunately on the decline, people who live only a few miles from their job commute for more than an hour. That hour can be spent more productively at home, and employees will be happier. We can’t say the same for schools.

What I fear now is that a deep freeze coming later this week will create an icy menace on sidewalks and roads, including black ice that can be harder to see and prepare for.

But no matter what shape our school and office lives take, the allure of the snow day will not be completely gone. Whether you take it at home or elsewhere, enjoy the snow day.

Late Christmas trees are the best Christmas trees

My family puts up a traditional Christmas tree. Well, not that traditional. A truly traditional Christmas tree would be paraded through town and then set on fire.

But Christmas is a festive time of year, a time when our shared pagan heritage is proudly on display, albeit via the yoke of Christianity. And, godless as I am, I always put up a Christmas tree, a real tree. I can’t abide plastic shrubbery when the sweet green smell of the forest is so desperately needed by city dwellers.

I have friends who put up their trees before the month of December, and for me this is much too early. And we prefer to wait until at least the 15th in our family, as our girls’ maternal grandfather’s birthday is the 14th, and we do not want to cloud that celebration any more than it already is by holiday circumstance.

Right after Thanksgiving, temporary outdoor Christmas tree shops set up on sidewalks in parking lots, and shopping areas throughout the city. In Inwood, Broadway near 207th Street was my place of choice and the people who often manned that shop had come down from Canada. Some come from Pennsylvania or Vermont or New Hampshire. Last year we bought our tree in the shopping center on Linden Place and the Whitestone Expressway Service Road—not the most picturesque place to buy a tree but it got the job done and we went home with a nice tree.

Years ago when I was living alone in Ozone Park, I didn’t get around to getting a tree until Christmas Eve or the day before, and managed to get a $5 tree for $3. I tipped generously but never had that kind of luck again.

My three daughters and I set out on a mission to buy a tree this past Saturday, 10 days before Christmas. We drove to Douglaston, Queens, where a length of sidewalk beside a high church yard wall along Northern Boulevard was an impromptu Christmas tree store. We found parking down a side street and arrived at the tree stand to the sounds of Charlie Brown’s theme song being played over a PA system. The man who helped us with our tree gave candy canes to the girls. Within a few minutes I paid cash for the tree ($58, which is pricy for a tree but by New York City standards that’s a good deal), tipped the guy who helped us, and we were on our way back home.

Our Christmas tree has punk rock ornaments from awesome bands like The Spunk Lads, The Bullys, World War IX, Skum City, and (self-promotional plug here) Blackout Shoppers. And almost all of these come from Superfan Heather, New York’s best and possibly most prolific punk rock band photographer (her boyfriend, Admiral Yammomoto, would be a close second). These ornaments go on the tree every year, as do ornaments made my wife and her brother as children that date back to the 1970s.

Since three young children worked on decorating the tree, my wife had the foresight to separate the non-breakable ornaments and focus on using them to decorate the tree. We’ll have plenty of time to use the fragile ornaments when our girls are older.

With lights and a bit of silver garland, and a healthy heap of ornaments, our tree was ready pretty quickly. We’ll remember to water it and work to be worthy of its pagan heritage.

 

Amazon on the East River

The skyline of Long Island City is a glowering army of glass and steel. As the 7 train crawls its way into the Queensboro Plaza station, commuters see buildings under various stages of construction. Many of these are high-priced residential towers boasting views of the Manhattan skyline and closeness to one of the subway lines that run though that part of the city.

The housing boom has moved high tech professionals to Long Island City – it’s a short commute to Manhattan and is still plenty cosmopolitan and relatively young and new. A largely industrial area until things began changing two decades ago, there is still a lot of charm that sanctifies Long Island City with the Whitmanesque aesthetic lacking in Manhattan and much of the more popular areas of Brooklyn.

So it was with a twinge of disappointment that New Yorkers learned that Long Island City was going to be home to one half of Amazon’s “HQ2,” or second headquarters. The city government bent over backwards to bring Amazon to our teeming shores and actual New Yorkers are right to be pissed off.

Full disclosure: I am an Amazon Prime member and I have several books available for purchase on Amazon. The Seattle-based retailer is the goliath it is because it championed online commerce before anyone could make money from it, and they made online shopping easy. I know I can go to Amazon and knock out a good portion of my Christmas shopping in a matter of minutes. So while I may heap some well-deserved hate on the company for its tactics and practices, I can’t deny the company has earned its dominant place among online retailers.

But Amazon engaged in a very slick and underhanded game. Putting out the notice that it was looking to build a large second headquarters in an American city, municipalities fell all over themselves to woo the company. Cities and states handed over reams of data they hadn’t provided to any other corporate caller on infrastructure, industry, demographics and economic forecasts. Amazon has yet another leg up on any and all remaining competitors. More than that, Amazon fielded offers of tax breaks and other lucrative pledges that would embarrass Tammany Hall. And in the end, none of these overtures may have made a difference. The factors that attracted Amazon were there long before the overtures of tax breaks.

Long Island City in Queens, New York and Crystal City, Virginia were the big “winners.” What exactly did they win? In New York’s case its nearly $2 billion in lost tax revenues thanks to guarantees made to the company, in addition for helping to build a helipad.

New Yorkers didn’t exactly break out the champagne to learn Amazon was coming to Queens. 50,000 well-paid tech workers means that already high rents and real estate prices will go up even farther. It means our already overloaded and dysfunctional subways and commuter railroads will be getting that much more crowded. It means more crowded classrooms in public schools, a bigger scramble for resources, and an infusion of shallow West Coast tech culture in our beloved Gotham. The specter of the big tax giveaway had people agreeing that this era of corporate toadying on the part of our political leaders had reached its nadir, especially in a city and state run by Democrats. Even the conservative National Review, no bastion of corporate-bashing Commies, agreed with Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that Amazon’s corporate welfare is wrong.

New York City doesn’t need to play this game. The city makes itself attractive by investing in its infrastructure and working to keep the standards of living high. That means we lock up criminals, keep homeless people off the streets and subways, and make sure those subways are no longer dysfunctional. That’s a lot we have on our plate, and we can’t afford to give away billions in tax breaks.

Let Amazon build its “HQ2” somewhere else if they don’t like paying their taxes. But don’t blame Amazon; New York and Virginia offered them sweet deals and it took them. Amazon didn’t make anyone beg them to come to their city. Our political leaders did that to us, figuring the win of wooing Amazon’s office was worth whatever Faustian bargain they had to make to get it done.

It wasn’t Jeff Bezos who sold New Yorkers down the East River. It was Bill de Blasio and Andrew Cuomo.

 

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