Monday, November 17, 2008

Mayor Michael Bloomberg vs. New York City’s taxi industry: Here’s wishing a plague of boils and oil leaks on both their vile, law-flouting houses

Let me start with my cranky prejudices. I hate New York City taxis.

Generally speaking, New York’s cabs are filthy, uncomfortable rattletraps. The “clear” Plexiglas partitions between the front and back seats (actually, most of them are opaquely grimy), designed to keep the driver from getting shot by a stickup man, can also get a passenger’s face flattened if the vehicle stops suddenly.

The seats in most of New York’s taxis (they’re rejiggered Ford Crown Victorias) are low on the floor. The seats supposedly offer lots of “leg room” but don’t you believe it. The front seats get pushed so far back (I assume for the comfort of the driver) that sometimes passengers can’t even find “foot room.”

Still more reasons to hate New York taxis: The driver’s identification card, only sometimes posted where it’s supposed to be, is generally unreadable behind the filthy Plexiglas shield. At night, lighted by the rough equivalent of a dim flashlight bulb, it’s just as unreadable.

Cell phone madness

Its also rare — extremely rare — to get in a cab in which the driver isn’t chattering away on his cell phone. I’ve had drivers take me to the wrong destination because they were too engrossed in their conversations to listen to where I said I wanted to go or to notice that we had passed my destination.

Much as I hate the taxi industry I also have an equally intense loathing for Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the who's ultimately in charge of regulating taxis.

"The voters be damned!"

Bloomberg campaigned for term limits, got them, and subsequently decided that contrary to the term limits law and he will of the voters, he wanted a third mayoral term. So now he has used his considerable political clout to overrule term limits (which the New York's citizens voted for twice) with the complicity of the City Council. The Council was in effect bribed by having their own term limits lifted, too.

That's only a small part of it. Another item: In his misguided efforts to achieve something that would make his record look good, the mayor unsuccessfully fought for a lunatic congestion pricing plan which would have done little to relieve congestion, but would have driven up the cost of doing business in New York. You’ll find a number of informative rants on the subject here:

Turning yellow cabs “green”

The latest bee in the mayor’s slightly cockeyed bonnet has to do with “green taxicabs” — you know, the kind that spew out less pollution and carbon dioxide and drink up less fossil fuel.

Never mind that Mayor Bloomberg could save New York from tons of hydrocarbons, not to mention a good part of the traffic that’s clogging the streets simply by outlawing cruising. That’s the practice the cabs have of trawling the streets for passengers—a practice that puts just about all 13,000-plus cabs on the city on the street. They're out there 24 hours a day, seven days a week according to a taxi industry legal brief for which I’ll produce a URL shortly.

If we simply had a law like the one in Paris that prevents flagging down taxis in streets, the vehicles could line up at designated taxi stands, engines off, until a passenger came along. And during rush hours, you wouldn’t have potential passengers desperate for a ride wading into oncoming traffic to snare an empty cab.

Less traffic? Less pollution? A safer city? Nope, that would be too easy. Instead, the Bloomberg-controlled Taxi and Limousine Commission suddenly decreed that all new taxis have to be of a new and fuel efficient design that gets 25 miles to the gallon. Nothing wrong with that, right?

Sad to say, wrong.

Cute, clean, green and dangerous —
maybe the mayor’s people can’t read.

There are already some of these cute 25 mpg-or-better vehicles out on the street. I like to ride in  them. They’re of a completely different design than the traditional, modified Ford Crown Victoria that gets only 12 mpg. They’re higher off the ground, therefore more comfortable than the Crown Victoria. They're easier to get into and out of. They seem to offer about the same amount of legroom, but offer passengers the added advantage of being able to sit up straight. And maybe just because they’re new, they’re not as filthy as the Crown Victorias.

A small problem:
they’re also not as safe.

The taxi fleets that successfully sued the Mayor to lift his regulations pleaded that the little cars weren’t as safe as the big Fords. I assumed for many weeks this was just an industry red herring. I was wrong, as I learned when I examined court papers filed by the taxi industry. Some examples of safety problems:
…just weeks ago, the TLC [Taxi and Limousine Commission] was forced to issue a warning and directive stating that one of its mandated after-manufacturer vehicle alterations - the addition of vinyl seat overings – hinder the deployment of side curtain and front seat air bags in the hybrids. Had the TLC taken time to read the owners manuals of the approved vehicles, it would have seen that they explicitly warn against the installation of vinyl seat coverings. The TLC, however, ignored this safety warning and many others in its rush to mandate hybrid taxis.
Oh, and even one of the manufacturers agrees these fuel efficient babies aren’t safe as taxis:
…Toyota, who created and licenses hybrid technology – refuses to support the use of its cars as taxis due to its engineers’ concerns. A Toyota spokesman said: “Our engineers are nervous about it because they were not designed for commercial use. (NY Times, April 27, 2008) Another Toyota representative explained that the hybrids “have not been designed to withstand the rigors of 24/7 commercial use.”
And in the “You’re doing a
heckuva job, Bloomie” department
In October 2004 the TLC [Taxi and Limousine Commission] conducted a sealed bid auction fort the CNG or hybrid (collectively “alternative fuel”) licenses. The City set the minimum bid price at an amount significantly below the then-prevailing market price for unrestricted licenses because the TLC recognized that alternative fuel vehicles are more costly to own and operate than conventional gasoline-powered vehicles…
…At the time of the auction, the TLC knew that there were no commercially available alternative fuel vehicles that meet TLC specifications for use as a NYC Taxi….Despite the lack of available alternative fuel vehicles, the TLC went forward with the auction …Eighteen of the licenses were successfully bid on…The bidders proposed the use of hybrid Ford Escapes, but the TLC refused to allow them to use these vehicles because they did not meet the TLC specifications for interior room. The TLC rejected all other vehicles the bidders proposed, and did not offer any other vehicles that could be used with the alternative fuel licenses…
Congatulations, license bidder —
you’ve successfully bid on…nothing.

Because the TLC refused to issue the bidders licenses and refused to approve any vehicles for use with the alternative-fuel licenses, on April 21 2005 the bidders sued the TLC demanding that the TLC close on their licenses.
We were for the Hondas before
we were against them —but
now we’re
In July 2008…the Honda Civic Hybrid and Honda Accord Hybrid were removed from the list. Plaintiffs were told that the Honda Civic Hybrid was removed due to particularly poor performance. Later in July, however, the Honda Civic was inexplicably added back to the approval list. In August 2008…the Honda Civic was also removed again.
Here are my own cranky solutions
to New York congestion and taxi problems

1. Outlaw taxi cruising. Require all taxis to wait for passengers at taxi stands, or to be summoned to specific addresses by telephone. It works in Paris, where the streets are even crazier. It'll work here, too.

2. Detroit’s on the rocks. Require them — require them I said — to manufacture hybrid cars safe enough to be used as taxis. Just tell them, “no taxis, no bailout.”

3. With city taxis lined up at taxi stands, it’ll be easy enough to subject them to a daily filth inspection. If they’re filthy inside, cut off their medallions (which the City auctions off like permanent real estate for a minimum upset price of $700,000. In fact, in the aftermarket those medallions sell for well over a million bucks. Is it any wonder a taxi ride costs so damn much in New York, while taxi drivers barely eke out a living working 12 hour days?

4. Stop the city’s cabbies from talking on the phone, with or without hands-free devices. If they’re caught talking on any telephonic devices in their taxis, don’t cut off their medallions. Cut off their ears.

5. Put a moratorium on those million dollar taxi medallions. (An exception can be made for individuals who own just one medallion and are trying to make a living.) After two years, all other medallions should become invalid and the taxi owner (usually a multi-car fleet) will be forced to rent taxi medallions from the city for an annual and more reasonable price. The city will collect a steady income stream — instead of an occasional taxi medallion windfall that the city then has to pay for by spewing more taxis onto the street. And because taxi overhead will be so much lower, drivers who lease their cars should be able to earn more, while passengers pay less.

But it all has to start with dumping Mayor Bloomberg. Despite a considerable amount of image doctoring, he’s not a successful mayor. He’s just as incompetent as George Bush. Send him back to Wall Street, with the rest of the investment world failures.

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