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.
RIP Big Bertha, New York City’s punk rock pickup truck
When I moved to New York City to live as an adult more than 20 years ago now, one of the things I most looked forward to was being able to live without a car. The 10 years of being a car owner had been miserable. My first car broke down a lot and was finally consumed by flames in an engine fire. I replaced it with a 15-seat passenger van I purchased from an inebriated redneck in the back woods of Northeast Georgia. The van also broke down a lot. The drive shaft fell off on Highway 285 in Atlanta and I give it to charity in hopes of getting a tax write-off rather than try to sell it.
But time and life circumstances change, and six years ago my then fiancé and I decided to get a vehicle together as we were building our new life. I was playing a lot of punk rock shows at the time and we needed something affordable but that would carry a lot of musical equipment as well as be suitable for camping and hunting. We couldn’t afford much, but we managed to find something that fit the bill and was reliable at an affordable price: a full-length pickup truck that we named Big Bertha.
The name was an homage to my then-finance-now-wife’s great grandmother Bertha. It was also an alliterative reference to Blue Betty, an ill-fated blue van that I came to possess for several months and was able to use for only one punk rock show. Driving a barely-functioning van from Suffolk County to Brooklyn while having to shift into neutral at every stop to keep it from stalling out is a harrowing experience that builds character. How that van made it as far as it did is a miracle. We were never able to get it working and eventually sold it for scrap metal and got $300 for it, which didn’t fully cover what I had spent to insure it.
Big Bertha performed flawlessly for every punk rock show, every camping trip. When my wife and I went on our honeymoon, we drove Big Bertha to Maine. A missed highway exit took us through Lowell, Massachusetts, where we stopped by to visit Jack Kerouac’s grave (“You don’t look like typical Kerouacers,” the woman at the cemetery office told us, which we took as a compliment). When my wife was pregnant with twins, she found it convenient to use the truck. When our twins were born, Big Bertha enabled us to take our offspring home from the hospital safely.
Perhaps the greatest immediate benefit was ease of getting to shows with equipment when playing music. When my band Blackout Shoppers came home from playing Philadelphia and needed to blast some classic Whitesnake to the hipster-infested Lower East Side, Big Bertha had the power. When we did a short tour with Two Man Advantage, Big Bertha took us through the bitter cold. I somehow managed to park the nearly 20-foot truck in the East Village when we opened for Joe Coffee and 45 Adapters at Bowery Electric.
Driving and parking in New York City is not easy. It is especially difficult to do with a large vehicle. Where we live in Queens makes owning a car a bit easier, as street parking is possible and there are residential streets with more available parking than other places. Owning a vehicle as large as Big Bertha would be impossible in Manhattan and more popular parts of Brooklyn.
Our punk rock pickup truck persevered, until it didn’t. Its transmission, which was never 100%, began to decline rapidly over these last months. When I attempted to drive it to see SLAYER at Jones Beach, I had to quickly change plans and use the family minivan for the trip.
We had Big Bertha towed to our mechanic and the prognosis was not good. Bertha’s transmission was gone and it would be costly to replace. She had taken her last ride and it was on the back of a flatbed pickup truck.
Luckily, our friend Amy Jackson happened to be looking for a buyer for her Jeep Grand Cherokee, and we could not find a better person to help replace our truck. Amy is a photographer and adventurer. When a friend of hers was seriously ill a few years ago, she quickly organized and produced the Gentlemen of Punk Rock calendar to raise money. She accepted our offer and will be using the money to fund her trip to Antarctica. Amy Jr. will be part of our family and while she will never have the enormous presence of Big Bertha, she will be a lot easier to park.
Like many aspects of city living, owning a car is tougher here than elsewhere, but we find our ways to make it work. A decade ago I never thought I would own a vehicle again, and now I have two vehicles registered in my name. Wish us, Amy, and Amy Jr. good luck and smooth travels.
Celebrating independence with friends and explosives
The Fourth of July every year brings with it many great traditions: hot dogs, fireworks, partying to excess with friends and family. And every year I have partied with high school friends in a way that embraces all of these observances.
My high school friend Steve and his wife Paige put on a great 4th of July party that brings in friends from far and wide.
Steve is the center of our social circle among most of my Connecticut friends. When we were in high school, his mother’s house was our central meeting place, and Mrs. Q was a second mother to a lot of us. She is missed. Steve and Paige’s house has become a second home to many. They have helped many friends and relatives who have needed places to stay. Even friends with perfectly good homes of their own nearby wind up spending a lot of time at Steve and Paige’s house.
The day of the party, circumstances delayed our departure until after 2 p.m. Driving on I-95 in Connecticut is its own special hell, and a Saturday on a holiday weekend it was an infernal misery of traffic. A two-hour drive became a three-hour drive, and since our kids had already napped at home, they screamed and cried for much of that three-hour drive. When we finally pulled onto our friends’ property, it was after 5 p.m.
I didn’t have time to make the stop for fireworks like I normally do. The forecast called for rain.
Once we got there, it was great to be among friends again.
Steve is a very handy person. He turned his one-story house into a two-story home and constructed his own out-buildings to keep farm animals on his property. He got me into hunting, gave me good advice on how to move about the woods, and helped me field dress my first deer. He also introduced me to the works of Arthur Schopenhauer and we’ve debated both the immutably dark nature of human existence until the wee hours of the morning.
Steve and I were both financial journalists for a while. After being laid off and being without a regular job for a long time, Steve began working in shipbuilding by helping to renovate the historic Amistad. He has since began working on boats in Newport, Rhode Island. More than a year ago, he told me he could not go back to working behind a desk. At the party he said he hated having to be away from his family for so long for his job, but that he loves his job. He wakes up every morning and looks forward to going to work. It was something I had heard about but didn’t think I’d see.
A man who loves his job today is rare. I expected to see Bigfoot or get kidnapped by a UFO before one of my friends told me they loved going to work every day. Even though he loves to play the part of a curmudgeon, he looked sincerely happier than he’s been in the past. It was great to see and I can’t think of someone who deserves that more than Steve. He brings a lot of good thoughts and much-needed perspective to a lot of his friends. I know I’ve been better for having had long conversations with him and I’m far from alone.
He’s been writing a lot of good poetry lately as well and posting his poems online. He’s getting to see new things, and be inspired by his work with ships. “In so many ways, sailing is freedom like most of us can’t even understand.” He messaged me at one point.
A while into our time at the party, I found Steve sitting on a lawn chair in the back of his pickup truck. With him was our friend Jay. The two were perfectly content to sit with their beer there and observe the party from their perch. But they soon began to attract a crowd. Everyone wanted to stop by and enjoy the conversation. In between searching for and wrangling my children and stuffing my face with food, I discussed poetry with Steve.
We agreed that two men sitting in the back of a pickup truck was good fodder for a poem and we decided to each write a poem with this as the theme.
The party continued and despite my not being able to contribute to the supply of ordnance, there were still plenty of fireworks. My twin girls asked to be brought inside and skip the rest of the barrage after getting a bit too close to the pyrotechnics. Inside Jay was making his outstanding jambalaya, and we got a peek at the culinary genius at work.
We stayed late and got on the road for home after 11:30 p.m. Someday we’ll stay overnight in a tent on our friends’ lawn like my wife and I did before we had children.
It was a great way to celebrate Independence Day. The national politics evolves and devolves, and no matter your perspective, it’s easy to become discouraged. The strength of our country lies in the bonds we form with friends and neighbors, and at Steve and Paige’s house, a strong community thrives on its own.
How to be a pedestrian in New York City
New York is a very walkable city. We have horrible traffic that makes driving regularly in the more densely populated parts of the city nearly impossible and a grossly imperfect but extensive mass transit system that makes owning a car in the city unnecessary.
Walking the streets of Gotham is mostly a joy. But there are also a lot of frustrations in getting about on foot, as not everyone is up on their pedestrian etiquette.
I think we can safely exempt tourists from some of the walking rules, because we need their money to keep the city’s economy afloat and many tourists are from far-away places that don’t have the same customs or don’t have the same walking-friendly infrastructure. Lots of American suburbs, for instance, don’t have sidewalks in their residential area (something that threw me for a loop when I moved from Yonkers to Yorktown Heights).
Here are five essential rules for how to be a pedestrian in New York City:
Keep to the right of the sidewalk or stairs. In most countries people drive to the right. The same applies to pedestrian traffic just as it would automobile traffic. Walk to the right and you don’t have weave around a million people going the opposite direction. It’s a very simple concept and usually works well for motorized traffic.
Stay focused on walking. You may be a master multi-tasker when you are behind your desk at work or in the kitchen of your home. The sidewalks of New York are a different place. Do not look read a book or mobile phone while walking. You don’t look like a deep literary soul when you try to read a book while walking, you look just as stupid as a smart phone zombie but twice as pretentious.
Keep your eyes ahead of you and avoid gawking. There a millions of dazzling sights and no city in the world makes for better people watching than our bustling Gotham. It’s tempting to soak in all that’s around you and give in to the wanderlust and marvel at the vibrant life of our city, but some of us are trying to get to work or catch a bus or subway. If you keep your eyes straight ahead and let the foot traffic ebb and flow around you easily, you’ll get to where you are going with much less of a hassle. The bearded strangers trying to make eye contact with you are likely panhandlers and not the next Walt Whitman.
Remain considerate of others. Walking three abreast is OK in some places, but we have limited sidewalk space and if you are traveling in a group, others are going to be moving quicker and need to move around you. Our sidewalk cut-ins are often limited and not as easily maneuvered by people in wheelchairs and the elderly, so go ahead and step upon the curb like the healthy person you are.
Remember when cars and other vehicles have the right of way. Pedestrians have the right of way, except when they don’t. It’s OK to cross against the light when there are no cars coming, but if there are, stay out of their way. Pedestrians who blindly walk into traffic like they haven’t a care in the world are the ones I prefer to see smooshed.
So please be alert. Everything in New York requires thought and mastery, even walking from place to place. Life is too short to stumble through it cluelessly. If you focus on where you’re going you’ll be a happier person when you get there.
A Bridge Adventure Near 59th Street
Since four out of five New York City boroughs are on Islands, living in New York means dealing with bridges (and subway tunnels) if you want to get anywhere. Since I became a driver in New York a few years ago, I have mostly driven over the Whitestone Bridge, which is closest to my home.
Lately the authorities have gotten into the nasty habit of adding or changing names to some of its bridges. The 59th Street Bridge was officially called the Queensboro Bridge until a few years ago when they decided to also name if after former New York City mayor Ed Koch. It’s now the Ed Koch/Queensboro Bridge. The Triborough Bridge has been renamed the RFK Bridge after Robert F. Kennedy, who was a U.S. Senator from New York when he was gunned down. This has been aggravating. I don’t want to call the Triborough the RFK Bridge. Triborough works better – it connects three boroughs and the name sums that up nicely.
The 59th Street Bridge is a depressing and aggravating bridge for drivers. It has all of the congested traffic of midtown Manhattan with the sooty industrial character of the more neglected parts of Queens. But it is free, so people will stew in hellish traffic to save themselves the $7.50 it now costs to take the Triborough Bridge. (Public policy experts note that the systems of tolls we have on bridges in New York is backward, that we should charge tolls for bridges over the East River that cause more traffic congestion and instead encourage people to use the larger, highway-connected bridges, which now charge tolls).
This past Saturday I was driving home after dropping off some good friends in midtown Manhattan. I made my way east from Times Square and seriously considered taking the Triborough home. No, I thought to myself, I must overcome my apprehension about taking the 59th Street Bridge and make a success of it this evening.
I found myself on First Avenue but did not make the first turnoff I saw for the bridge. I came upon another turn for the bridge and took it, following behind another pickup truck. I saw a sign saying that the outer roadway of the bridge was closed between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. I thought nothing of it; I hadn’t planned on taking the outer roadway of the bridge, which I had never heard of anyway, and those signs usually referred to weekday construction.
The truck ahead of mine came to the entrance of the bridge, which was closed. It was blocked off with orange traffic barrels. The man got of his truck and just moved some of the barrels. He looked at me as he got back in his truck and his face wore the expression of someone who just did not give a fuck about closed roads. For all I knew he was an off-duty cop. I paused for a minute, not sure if I should follow this driver to a new illegally-opened section of the bridge. Fuck it, I thought. If the cops stop me then I’ll play dumb and just say I didn’t know the bridge was closed because the roadway wasn’t closed. That was technically true.
I could have been driving into a dangerous construction zone or have been tailgating some kind of undercover police operation or been intruding on some other kind of high crime or misdemeanor taking place over the East River. All of those unfortunate circumstances still sounded a lot more fun than contending with the convoluted traffic that would have been required to stay law abiding. I drove up the closed ramp of the bridge.
The outer roadway of the 59th Street Bridge (a.k.a. the Queensboro Bridge a.k.a. the Ed Koch Bridge) is one narrow late separated from the lower roadway by bridgeworks and thick concrete walls. Every once in a while there is a break in the wall and someone driving a smaller vehicle than my pickup truck could probably get away with maneuvering in and out of the lane. I was stuck on the outer roadway until the bitter end.
I drove on the closed outer roadway as quickly as I could while trying to look normal and blend in with the traffic, though there was no other traffic in my lane at all, except the daring barrel-mover, whose tail lights I could dimly make out far ahead of me. I drove on expecting the law to come bearing down on me any minute or to dead end into an impassable construction site. None of those things happened. I drove over the bridge with a paranoid mania until the regular traffic patterns of the bridge shunted me into a lane that didn’t help me get home.
The worse thing about it for someone driving home from Manhattan over it is that it is very tough to find your way when you reach the other side of the bridge. Whether you take the upper or lower roadway and what lane you take on either roadway can quickly determine your options when you reach Queens. Driving eastbound, it transports you from an anger-fueled Byzantine knot of Manhattan streets to a clustered maze of impossible roadways of Queens.
I eventually disentangled myself from whatever unappealing part of Long Island City I was in and found my way to Northern Boulevard and a more pleasant drive home.
I Can’t Drive 25
For most of my time in New York, I did without a car. After being poor and having cars break down on me at record pace, I was glad to be done with the world of automobiles. I was happy to leave the driving to New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, though the MTA is poorly run and will always find new ways to make you late for important events.
But time has changed the game plan and I am now one of the lucky people in the five boroughs with a vehicle. Being in one of the farther reaches of Queens, parking is not as worrisome as it would be in Manhattan or other more densely populated parts of the city.
I still work in Manhattan and take public transit to and from work every weekday and will use public transit a lot on the weekends if driving and parking will be bothersome. So I have the dual perspective on city life as viewed from both car driver and mass transit commuter. Mayor de Blasio’s plan to lower the standard speed limit in New York City to 25 miles per hour is ill-advised, unfair and counterproductive.
The administration got the idea from a committee that proposed other measures as well, such as more red light cameras that would automatically dole out tickets and more speed bumps. But if you are serious about cutting down on traffic fatalities, getting bad drivers off of the road should be top priority. More aggressive enforcement is part of the new “Vision Zero” plan, but too much is going to hedge on the speed limit reduction. And that is a punishment to the entire city.
Trying to slow down the whole city won’t work. Driving 25 miles per hour is unrealistically slow for most drivers. Soon after announcing his plans for a change, Mayor de Blasio’s motorcade was caught speeding and violating other traffic laws by CBS News.
Real, aggressive enforcement of traffic laws would put the de Blasio administration up against a variety of groups that he would normally not want to upset.
When I was living in Northern Manhattan, I once saw a livery cab drive on the wrong side of the street in front of police in order to make a light and merge into traffic. I have been in cabs with drivers who lacked English proficiency needed for a New York State driver’s license, let alone a livery license. Cracking down on unqualified and dangerous cab drivers would make our roads a lot safer, but the ideas proposed by the Mayor include needlessly punitive things such as putting devices on cabs that would stop the meter if they were speeding. Cab drivers are opposing those new proposals anyway. You might as well get on their bad side with the right proposals for the right reasons.
Really cracking down on people who consistently violate traffic laws would be an improvement, but there is some evidence to suggest this would have a disparate impact on racial minorities. It’s politically easier to punish everyone with a lower speed limit than to target the drivers that are causing havoc on the city streets.
Reducing cyclist deaths would mean really stopping and ticketing the legions of bad cyclists who ride the wrong way down one-way streets and ride on sidewalks. That would put the Mayor at odds with more of his natural political allies.
We see this kind of response on the part of city government all of the time, when making things worse for everyone can also generate results that political leaders can point to and claim credit for, public be damned.
And here’s something else advocates of the plan fail to consider: A 25-mile-per-hour speed limit would also allow the police to stop just about any driver any time for speeding. It would be a city-wide speed trap that would put us on the same page as Podunk counties in rural areas that collect a large chunk of their revenue from unknowing out-of-town motorists.
The only people who would normally drive 25 miles per hour are the obese or elderly driving motorized scooters. No fully functional driver would drive that slowly without there being traffic congestion or inclement weather. Hopefully this proposal will be kicked to the curb.