Kathleen Horan, Reporter, WNYC News
Kathleen Horan is a staff reporter for New York Public Radio, covering the neighborhood beat. She also reports 'Reset', an ongoing series documenting police-community relations in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn.
Complaints about taxi drivers refusing to take passengers to their desired destinations have increased by more than a third over the last year. So the city is moving ahead with a plan to increase fines and penalties. Officials hope expensive tickets and the risk of suspended, or even a revoked license will stop drivers from saying "no" to customers. Drivers say that while there are many reasons why they decline a trip--most agree, the overall problem is essentially a financial one.
"Refusals stick in the craw of a lot of New Yorkers," said Taxi and Limousine Commissioner David Yassky. "It may be a small issue in terms of dollars and cents compared to other things, but it's a big issue in terms of how it feels."
It's not as if drivers loathe going to the outer boroughs — most live there. But to be successful, drivers said they have to focus on volume and not distance.
"I would prefer to stay in Manhattan and prefer to be picking up passengers one after the other because in Manhattan you get passengers very frequently," said Bashir Betker, who has driven a cab for six years and said he needs to make between 20 and 30 trips a day to profit.
Most cabbies who rent their taxis and medallions begin their shift in the hole — lease prices range from $105 and $129, with hybrids costing a bit more. There's also the 5 percent fee drivers pay for every credit card transaction. Gas is now over $4, and moving violations and parking tickets add to the cost of doing business.
Driver Seth Goldman, 26, said these concerns are always on the minds of cabbies.
"You're very focused," he said recently after completing his 12-hour shift. "You have economic pressures. When you hear 'Brooklyn' or 'Queens' in the morning rush hour, you think, 'Ugh, that ruining my day.'"
Driver Manjinder Singh (photo right) said outer-borough travel can be a losing proposition. It can take 40 or more minutes just to get across a bridge, he said, and he may return to Manhattan without a passenger.
"Everybody comes to work to make money, not lose money," Singh said. "If the driver can lose money, I think its not worth, you know?"
There are times when Singh said he doesn't refuse a fare but suggests that customers might be better served by taking the train.
"We tell them do the mass transit because it much more convenient for you to where they want to go and it will save you money too," he said.
Singh added: "Sometimes they listen and sometimes they don't care. They say they want to go with you and that's it."
Another challenge to outer-borough travel is shift change, when drivers who lease or share their vehicles have to return them to garages or face late penalties.
For most day-drivers that deadline is usually between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. Cabbies have the right to put their off-duty lights on and ask customers if they're going in the same direction.
Driver Bashir Betker said he gets stressed out about getting pulled far from his garage in Queens at least an hour before his shift finishes so he tries to stay in the vicinity of the Queensborough Bridge.
"I say that I can take you to East Side," he said, "anywhere on East Side — upper or lower — is ok with me."
Officials hope expensive tickets and the risk of suspension or license revocation will deter drivers from saying 'No' to customers seeking to travel to the outer boroughs.
But head of drivers group the Taxi Workers Alliance Bhariavi Desai, who said drivers infrequently refuse trips, noted that if the city wants to rectify the problem they shouldn't simply implement new punishments.
"We don't believe that the solution for the driver is refusal," Desai said, "but we also don't believe the solution is to scapegoat the drivers. The solution has to be an economic one because the problem is an economic one."
But TLC Commissioner Yassky, who said drivers assume risk like any other entrepreneur, said their compensation has already been addressed.
"As far as the economics go, it's built into the fare," Yassky said, "and I guess if that's another driver saying that they think the fare should be increase, I'm sure that drivers would like to see the taxi fare increased."
Drivers would indeed like to see the fare raised. Desai said they'll be requesting a 15-percent increase in surcharges and waiting time since their overall fares haven't been increased since 2004.
Her other suggestion is that drivers be given some of the perks of mass transit since taxis move more than 600,000 people each day.
"To begin with, we want to be exempt from turn restrictions that anywhere buses can turn we believe yellow cabs should also be able to turn," she said. "Removing the turn restrictions alone would make a big difference. ... Sometimes the reason the fare to the outer boroughs takes so long is the amount of time the driver takes exiting Manhattan itself."
Another proposal is to allow drivers to use HOV commuter (High Occupancy Vehicle) lanes when they're returning from the outer boroughs and have an empty cab.
Driver Seth Goldman said just about any overture from the city would go a long way: "I would like to see them making our job a little easier instead of constantly harder give us a break like the bus driver occasionally."
But the city thinks the fix should be more stick than carrot. If legislation is approved, first-time fines could rise to $500 for cabbies that refuse passengers and third-time offenders could see their licenses revoked.
Information courtesy of the Taxi & Limousine Commission and New York Taxi Workers Alliance. (Stephen Nessen/WNYC)