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.
Years ago, I was helping someone move apartments and we took a cab. We were calling for gypsy cabs as this was in uptown Manhattan where it was difficult to hail a cab. The driver had zero English. Even when my friend wrote the address on a piece of paper and handed it to him, he thought he was going to 124th Street because the number of the building address was 124. He called his dispatcher on his cell phone and him interpret this address.
We don’t expect everyone to speak the King’s English in New York—what native New Yorkers speak is far from the King’s English—but driving a cab or working with the public in this town in any official capacity should require English and until recently that was the case for having a license to drive a cab (colloquially known as a “hack license.”)
New York City taxi drivers are no longer required to pass an English language proficiency test. This regulation had been on the books for a while but not stringently enforced. Ask any New Yorker who has taken cabs in the city regularly and they have had drivers with little or no English. Now it’s just official.
And it’s a bad idea. We don’t have a lot of things that hold us together here in New York or America anymore for that matter. If we’re going to perish in a suicidal cultural bouillabaisse, then I guess descending into a hellish Babel is part of the deal. But the interest of public safety can’t be abandoned so quickly and recklessly.
What’s motivating this in New York is not a lack of drivers who are willing to learn English, but the medallion cab companies losing drivers to startup hailing app companies like Uber and Lyft. It’s not a matter of public policy or politicians’ hearts breaking for destitute non-English speakers, but the cold hard cash that fuels what remains of our “democracy.”
It’s amazing that you can get a driver’s license in the U.S.A. without knowing English, but at least let make sure that those who drive other people professionally know the language. New Yorkers come from every part of the globe and whatever your opinions of our current immigration question, most people agree that people who live and work together need to know the same language.
Technology that’s shaking up the taxi industry will enable drivers who are restricted in language to only deal with clientele they can communicate with. Since you can order any kind of vehicle to pick you up with a ride-sharing mobile application, you can also specify that language proficiency of your driver. Thus the balkanization of the U.S. is advanced further, and all in the name of helping and fairness.
I have never been a frequent user of cabs but in my days of hard drinking and late nights that became early mornings, I would take a cab. Since most cab drivers in New York are from other countries, I enjoyed speaking to them about where they were from and learning about what was going on in the world from people who had a closer connection to it.
New York has survived for hundreds of years in part because people have learned to work with one another despite enormous differences. A common language makes that possible.
Hank’s Saloon in Brooklyn was hosting a punk rock show celebrating the birthday of Mike Moosehead, one of the city’s most talented musicians. I was not going to miss it, even though the weather was horrible and the city was slow to plow the roads.
Driving cautiously over roads and highways caked with snow that had been churned by traffic to a grim grey slurry, I eventually found my way to Hank’s. I pulled up to the traffic light outside the hearty saloon and prepared to make a turn to look for parking.
Some young men outside the bar looked towards my truck and I thought I recognized them. One of them at least looked like a guy I know from playing in punk bands. They looked like they recognized me and approached me.
“Uber?” said the young man.
“No, sorry,” I said, feeling stupid, though I’m guessing he felt dumber. The cars that are Uber cars are usually newer and have a very clear and recognizable ‘UBER’ or ‘U’ sign in their window.
“Does Uber have pickup trucks?” I asked. The young man didn’t seem to know.
Uber, the online taxi service that allows users to summon and pay for cabs entirely online and without cash, does have pickup trucks, though they are rare in New York.
Being the resident old man in the office where I work, I do not have the Uber app on my smart phone. My wife has used it to secure a ride for her mother when the weather locked our truck under a sheet of ice a while ago. It’s a useful thing to have because you can take the mystery and risk out of whether or not you’ll get a cab. I rarely take cabs and I don’t trust Uber.
Years ago, when I spent more time drinking into the early hours of the morning in bars far from home, I wound up taking a lot more cabs. I enjoyed talking to the drivers, who are usually from a different part of the world, about where they are from and life in the city. I once met a Muslim driver from Pakistan with a long beard and traditional garb who had become an American citizen. He was heartfelt in his frustration at how extremists had come to define his religion in his adopted home.
The migration to online taxi hailing means trouble for New York’s yellow cabs, and the yellow cab drivers have only themselves to blame. Every New Yorker can recount a litany of horror stories about the difficulty in hailing and getting decent service from yellow cabs.
Yellow cabs will cherry pick who they take. Even though this is illegal, they will drive around with their ‘out of service’ lights on to avoid regulations. I have successfully hailed a yellow cabs only to have them drive away when they thought I had too much luggage. Drivers have been known to overcharge, tamper with meters, and otherwise cheat and nickel and dime their fares.
Online taxi service is a concept whose time is long overdue. We can rent cars online and buy plane and bus tickets online. There’s no reason calling a cab online shouldn’t be commonplace for everyone, and in a few short years I have no doubt it will be standard operating procedure.
Where Uber goes wrong however, is in its pricing. It runs pricing on a strict supply and demand basis and gouges its prices through “surge pricing,” so when demand goes up, pricing can go through the roof. Because the service is not cash-based and is charged to the customer’s credit card, people can be charged exorbitant amounts of money for what would normally be an inexpensive cab ride. Recently Uber quickly raised its prices in Sydney, Australia during a recent terrorist hostage standoff. The fare algorithm that Uber uses does not adjust for human decency.
Like other New York traditions, hailing a taxi on the street is one that is fading. Nostalgia will keep it alive for a good while longer, but technology has found a more reliable way to get people in and out of cabs. Like other New York traditions, there is good and bad about its loss, but it’s a loss nonetheless.