Ilya Marritz covers business for WNYC.
When it comes to catching a cab, New Yorkers living outside of Manhattan often have a tough time. This year, Mayor Bloomberg proposed to allow car services, also known as liveries, to make curbside pickups. But there’s a catch – they’d have to install meters.
At the moment, Bloomberg's proposal faces strong opposition from the yellow cab industry. But given that liveries don’t currently use meters – how exactly do they set prices?
Matt Mohammed of Blue Car in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, said the answer is simple: price is calculated by distance. Mohammed pointed to a laminated map of New York City on the wall of his Atlantic Avenue dispatch office.
"We set the prices as like circles," Mohammed said, tracing concentric rings around his location. Every few inches, another sticker was affixed to the map showing the price. Park Slope: $10. Flatbush: $18. Canarsie: $30.
Mohammed said fares aren't calculated precisely point-to-point, as in taxis, but more roughly, neighborhood-to-neighborhood. Trips to Manhattan cost a little extra because that can mean traffic. Airport trips, which are seen as a cash-cow, are generally discounted.
Carlos Bolano, owner of Continental Car Service in Park Slope, said the rate for most trips works out to roughly $3 a mile.
Yellow taxis cost less — 40 cents per quarter mile, or $2/mile. But there are so many surcharges, Bolano said there's usually little difference in the final price, and car services are sometimes cheaper.
Stickers on a map show the fares at Park Slope-based Continental Car Service. (Ilya Marritz/WNYC)
Recently, photographer Virginia Sherwood showed up at Bolano's plexiglass window, and informed him she had a torn retina. She had to get to her eye doctor on the Upper East Side, and fast. Bolano quoted her a price — $32 — and told her the car would be ready to go momentarily.
Sherwood said she walked past three yellow cabs on the way to the dispatch office, and that she prefers to take liveries.
"It's about the same price. You don't get any attitude from the drivers," Sherwood said, before getting into the car.
There are roughly 22,000 thousand livery cars in New York, compared with 13,000 yellow cabs. Since they started appearing in the 1970s, liveries have gone places some cabs are reluctant to go. They set their own prices, determine the color and make of their cars. And people depend on them.
Bolano's base is a dingy office on 9th Street behind a door with a sign that reads "NO DRIVERS." The tools of his trade: three telephones and a two-way radio. Even in the off-hours of the late morning, there's seldom a moment of silence between the ringing of the telephones and the static cough of a radio transmission.
Above the desk hangs portrait of Bolano's childhood hero, Napoleon Bonaparte, wearing a diaboloical smile.
"That's my main man. That's the man I dreamt all my life," Bolano said.
Bolano's own army is considerably smaller than the Corsican's. He has 70 drivers. And as with any army, loyalty depends on pay. Bolano lets his drivers keep all their fares, and takes a weekly fee of about $100. People in the business call this the "Latin" model because it was pioneered in the 90s by Spanish speakers.
"It's a way of getting more drivers so you can give better service to the public," Bolano said.
The Latin model stands in contrast to an older system, where the owner takes commission between 20 and 50 percent of the fare. Livery owners call this "Arabic" or "American" model, though they tend to use ethnic terms loosely.
Blue Car's Matt Mohammed said his little fleet of 20 company-owned vehicles, whose drivers work for commission, is being squeezed by Latin-model operators.
"We have no way to compete with these people," he said.
Average Brooklyn car services fares come from Arecibo, Continental, 7th Ave. Car Service, Eastern Luxury and Castle Car Service on April 4, 2011.
(Graphics by Stephen Nessen/WNYC)
Average Manhattan car service fares come from Carmel, Delancey Car Services, Tel-Aviv Car and Limousine Service, Allstate Car and Limousine, Dial 7 Car and Limousine. Note that Manhattan fares go up about $5 from 2:45 p.m. to 7:15 p.m.