Centenary facelifts and gizmos leave cabbies in no mood to party

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 February, 2008, 12:00am

New York

During the 100th birthday celebrations for New York's metered taxis last year the city's iconic yellow cars got a thorough facelift.

Authorities worked with a non-profit organisation to decorate cabs with vinyl sheets covered with flower patterns painted by local children. It also asked cab owners to install devices, including a TV monitor, a global-positioning system (GPS) and a credit-card scanner.

But the technological makeover plan has faced resistance. The New York Taxi Workers Alliance, the union that represents a quarter of the city's 44,000 taxi drivers, called two strikes and filed a lawsuit last autumn to try to stop enforced installation of the devices.

The efforts have failed and about 9,000 of the city's 13,000 cabs now have the new gizmos. But this didn't make some drivers any less sour about their introduction.

Passengers are often told the card scanner is broken and New York media have reported incidents where drivers have spat at, punched, or locked up passengers when they demanded to pay by plastic.

Mathew Daus, commissioner of the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC), which initiated the project, described such behaviour as criminal and urged passengers to call police if such incidents occurred.

It is not that the drivers don't realise the value of the new gadgets, but the devices come at a price. Although the US$3,000 installation fee comes from the cab licence owner, the drivers say the cost has hit through higher lease charges.

And what they've paid for is a GPS that invades their privacy by tracking the car's whereabouts on and off duty and a credit-card reader that charges them a 5 per cent processing fee for each transaction, more than the normal charge from credit-card companies. In addition, the machines are not always reliable.

'I don't care what you write there, the passengers are a******* . They pay a US$5 fare by credit card, but after all the charges and costs, I end up paying for their ride,' roared a driver, who gave his name as Mr Lee, at a bus station in Manhattan.

'It is inappropriate for the cab drivers to disobey the rules. But when we have this many problems caused between the drivers and the passengers, that becomes a TLC problem.

The way the TLC has imposed the rules on the cab drivers has obviously created so much discontent among the drivers,' said John Liu, head of the transport committee of the city.

Allan Fromberg, a spokesman for the agency, pointed out that the devices were part of an agreement in 2004 between the cab licence owners and the city, in which the former promised to pay for the installation in exchange for fare increases, and the higher fare plus the larger tips passengers tend to give when they paid by credit card were more than enough to cover the processing fee for the transactions.

The agency launched a crackdown last month involving more than 100 undercover inspectors. Drivers can be fined up to US$350 for refusing to accept credit cards.

According to the agency, passenger complaints related to the issue have dropped one third between November and January.

'The drivers are being misinformed about these finances, but once they have the experience, they realise they are not doing so badly. In increasing numbers, drivers start to embrace it,' said Mr Fromberg.

But the Workers Alliance sees a different picture.

'Their numbers are phony. We speak to the drivers all the time and we know it's not true,' said Bill Lindauer, the campaign co-ordinator for the drivers' union who drove taxis for 30 years.

Driver Haroun Kone said last week the credit-card reader in his car didn't work and a disbelieving passenger insisted on trying it.

'She spent five minutes on the machine, I had to let her because she might be an inspector,' he said. Tomorrow: London