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Congestion pricing could hit yellow cabs hard

New York’s yellow taxis are iconic. But the rise of companies like Uber and Lyft has left them struggling. Now they may face a new challenge. A proposal to reduce traffic would charge drivers a fee to enter Manhattan below sixtieth street. That could hit yellow taxis hard. Madeleine Thompson reports.

THOMPSON: It’s 3 p.m. at NYC Taxi Group in Brooklyn. Yellow cabs arrive, and then depart with fresh drivers. Gene-Charles Mark is a 31-year veteran of the industry. He’s just finished the morning shift, and it wasn’t a very lucrative one.

MARK: It’s really tough. It’s very, very tough for us.

THOMPSON: Like many drivers, Mark usually heads across the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan at the beginning of his day. Governor Andrew Cuomo could soon charge him an additional two-to-five dollars just to reach his first fare. Mark says that could really add up for yellow cabs making multiple trips between boroughs. Individuals driving their own vehicles would be charged $11.50, but Mark doesn’t think that will keep them from coming.

MARK: People who drive into the city, it’s not like us who try to make a living. These other people will be able to afford that kind of stuff. Right now we’re, we’re trying to survive now.

THOMPSON: The experts who put together Cuomo’s proposal are aware of this. One is the aptly nicknamed “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz, a transportation engineer and former cab driver who worked on the plan. He says Uber cars outnumber cabs four to one, and it’s not fair to punish yellow cabs for their prominence. The proposal would also raise money to fix the city’s ailing subway system but, it turns out, cabs already pay 50 cents per trip to the MTA.

SCHWARTZ: I think it’s worth thinking about yellow taxis as being part of the public transportation system.

THOMPSON: The proposal currently taxes all for-hire drivers the same amount, but Schwartz says that could change. While taxis are an integral part of moving New Yorkers around, they don’t have the luxury of a monopoly, like the subway does. And where cabs have faltered, competitors have swooped in. For example, people of color have long complained that yellow cabs discriminate against them. Jamal James says he has taken no more than four yellow cabs in his lifetime.

JAMES: They don’t stop for me at all. I used to have to have my white female friend flag one down for me and I come out of the blue and sit in the car.

THOMPSON: Even though he drives for Uber, James is sympathetic. He and Schwartz agree the city should do something to preserve the iconic yellow vehicles. Until that day comes, Aleksey Medvedevskiy isn’t too worried. He owns NYC Taxi Group in Brooklyn, where Gene-Charles Mark works, and says ride-share cars have their own shortcomings. Imagine it’s rush hour and a passenger orders an Uber.

MEDVEDEVSKIY: Because of the traffic it takes 15 to 20 minutes for that particular Uber car to go around the block, while three to five empty cabs pass by that passenger… 

THOMPSON: …sorely tempting the impatient rider to cancel their Uber and flag one down. Medvedevskiy says even the crumbling subway system works in cabs’ favor. Train delays mean more frustrated commuters hailing cabs. And, if it comes to it, he has his own idea for how to ease congestion without burdening his drivers.

MEDVEDEVSKIY: I think cabs should be allowed to use bus lanes.

THOMPSON: Medvedevskiy says his employees are putting in far more hours to make the same amount of money they did just a few years ago. For one driver, these conditions took a fatal toll. Earlier this month, Doug Schifter committed suicide in front of City Hall because he said he was in financial ruin. In a note on Facebook, he wrote that he hoped his death would bring attention to the issue. Some younger drivers are changing careers or taking second jobs, but industry veterans like Gene-Charles Mark say it’s too late for them.

MARK: We’re the landmark of New York City, when you’re talking about the yellow cab, you know. So let’s hope for the best.

THOMPSON: Cuomo’s proposal has a ways to go before it’s implemented. In the meantime, despite a tenuous future, Mark will keep doing what he’s always done. Madeleine Thompson, Columbia Radio News.


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