Home Taxis Taxis and Transit: A love-hate relationship?

Taxis and Transit: A love-hate relationship?

by Benjamin Kabak

New York City Taxi Activity from Juan Francisco Saldarriaga on Vimeo.

Advocates for better transit in New York City focus most of their attention on issues facing buses and subways and rightly so. After all, over 7 million people per day use the buses and subways. But in terms of increased mobility and flexibility, taxis play an important but understated role in the city’s transportation network. Still, they are cars and bring with them the ups and downs of cars. How do we reconcile the two?

A few recent pieces have put the spotlight on taxis, and they each highlight how these vehicles are both integral to a successful city and could also be a problematic part of an auto-centric attitude. Eric Jaffe at The Atlantic Cities’ blog focused on the complementary nature of taxis. He highlighted recent research by Columbia professor David King who studied taxi ride frequencies. King has found asymmetrical taxi throughout the day, and Jaffe explains:

King sees an important pattern for the data points: the origins and destinations have a geographical asymmetry that suggests people are only using cabs for one leg of their daily round trip. If this were a video of people driving their own car to and from work, the morning and evening rush would be a perfect mirror. It stands to reason, then, that the other leg of the trip is taken by public transportation; after all, it’s unlikely that many people park their car somewhere then take a cab home.

In other words, writes King, New York City taxi cabs appear to work within the existing transit network, not against it:

This matters because it means that individual’s travel journeys are multi-modal. If we want to have transit oriented cities we have to plan for high quality, door-to-door services that allow spontaneous one-way travel. Yet for all of the billions of dollars we have spent of fixed-route transit and the built environment we haven’t spent any time thinking about how taxis (and related services) can help us reach our goals.
King, for one, has spent a lot of time thinking about this subject. He and colleagues Jonathan Peters and Matthew Daus of CUNY recently presented a paper on the complementary transit nature of taxi cabs at a meeting of the Transportation Research Board. In it, they argue that “taxi service is a critical aspect of a transit system.”

…There’s a good bit of common sense. Taxis enable car-less travelers to switch modes in the middle of a journey. A New Yorker can take the subway to work, walk to a bar, then cab it home, and many do just that every day. This “asymmetrical mode share,” as King and company call it, is a hallmark of transit-oriented cities — granting easy, flexible travel to no-car residents.

Jaffe wonders “why many urban transport experts ignore the idea of using cabs to expand a transit network.” The answer, I believe, can be found in a recent piece by Charles Komanoff. Using his congestion pricing model, Komanoff has determined that adding an additional 2000 yellow cab medallions could increase Manhattan traffic by a considerable amount. In fact, based on the amount of time taxis spend in Manhattan, that increase projects to an around 10 percent of current traffic levels.

Therein lies the rub. We need taxis to offer the flexibility for those who do not want to drive or cannot afford a car, but taxis also contribute to congestion which has a strong negative impact on pedestrian life, the city’s productivity and its environment. In other words, taxis — can’t live with them, can’t live without them. It’s an irreconcilable conundrum.

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BrooklynBus February 9, 2012 - 12:12 am

If there were additional taxi medallions, where is it written that they would have to serve Manhattan and increase traffic congestion? I remember when yellow cabs served allthe boroughs. Whatever changed to cause them to only serve Manhattan and the airports needs to be changed again so that they serve all five boroughs. If the yellow cabs won’t do it, then that other plan suggested last year to create a new class of taxi needs to be approved.

A good taxi and ride share program is essential to a good public transit system, and when I went to school, taxis were considered “public transit” although not mass transit.

Frank B February 9, 2012 - 12:50 am

That’s an interesting idea, the taxi being only one leg of the trip; the evening commutes not mirroring the morning commutes.

I know that when my uncle (who lives in Staten Island) worked for MorganStanley, he used to take the Express Bus in the Morning, despite being within walking distance of the Staten Island Railway (And an “Express” stop, for what that’s worth in Staten Island).

Yet, for some reason, he didn’t take the same route home. He preferred to take the subway to South Ferry, and get on the train at St. George to get home in the evenings.

Totally unrelated, but interesting; you would think one would take the same exact route, albeit reversed to get home, but if all these cabs are but one leg of the journey, this is apparently a previously unseen trend.

ajedrez February 9, 2012 - 10:34 am

Part of it could be frugality: In the morning, he was tired and wanted a more relaxing commute (and the express bus is probably a little faster, so it gives him a chance to sleep a little later in that respect as well). In the afternoon, he had some more time to kill and didn’t mind the extra time spent via the ferry-SIR.

The Cobalt Devil February 9, 2012 - 5:28 pm

Exactly right. My commute from Dongan Hills in the a.m. is via express bus, which is quicker and more relaxing than the ferry/subway option. After work, I often hang with friends in the city and opt to take the subway/ferry and then SIR home since I’m in no big rush. It’s also easier on the wallet as the x-bus is $5.50 each way, while the subway/ferry/SIR is only $2.25. Many x-buses (including the X15 I take in the morning) don’t run after 7pm, so it’s not much of an option.

noah February 9, 2012 - 1:05 am

i have spent more than 5 years driving a cab here, and i recently quit. The accompanying “rub” to 2000 extra medallions is that the income of the average cab driver takes a nose dive, and the quality of professionalism, and safe driving also sinks lower.

What if a lot more medallions were sold with time restrictions. each medallion would be only legal to use within one 8 hour span for 5 to 6 days, with one 24 hour day allowed as long as the cab takes a break for 3 hours in the middle of that day.

this will solve two problems, the value of medallions will go down, and cab drivers will no longer be over-worked. however it will create another problem, cab drivers will have to find a second job to supplement their income.

Chris February 9, 2012 - 2:20 pm

Why would driver income be reduced? If anything it should increase as there is more demand for drivers to match up with the medallions. Medallions are capital, not labor. New medallions are like a positive capital shock: bad for existing capitalists (current medallion holders), good for labor (drivers).

noah February 9, 2012 - 1:08 am

oops, i forgot to mention, this would solve the most important problem. if all drivers were required to drive only at certain times, and those shifts were only 8 hours… we would never have a shortage of cabs. shorter shifts, and mandatory times means there wouldn’t be a time when all the cabs go off duty at the same time.

Nathanael February 13, 2012 - 3:19 am

Eliminating the “shift change” when there are no cabs available would be highly desirable.

Christine February 9, 2012 - 7:45 am

I think another thing to consider regarding the “one leg” phenomenon is that for people living in the boroughs, there are numerous locations to catch cabs when you and the cabs are both on their way into Manhattan in the morning. A good example is Clinton Street in Brooklyn … incoming cabs will almost always find a fare into the City from Cobble Hill or Brooklyn Heights. Conversely, for those same cab riders, it will be highly unlikely that a cab driver will be willing to bring them back home over the bridge at rush hour (or even any hour), particularly if you are a women.

Bolwerk February 9, 2012 - 1:19 pm

Huh? They don’t really have a choice in whether they bring you home.

TP February 9, 2012 - 2:10 pm

What do you mean? They do have a choice to break the law, and they do it constantly. I’ve reported dozens of cabs who refused to take me to my destination and I’ve filled out the forms saying I’ll go to court if they challenge me. But you eventually get sick of all the time and effort required to report cabs, getting their name and license and going to fill out the forms on the site. You also put yourself in danger of being assaulted or driven somewhere else (both have happened to me personally, and the Post has reported on these incidents many times– it’s not rare). It’s easier to just admit defeat and try to walk to the train that’s running local the whole way with 20 minute headways and service disruptions.

Bolwerk February 9, 2012 - 3:09 pm

Of the several dozen times I’ve cabbed it home late at night since moving to the outer boroughs since 2007, I think I’ve been refused a ride exactly one time, and managed to reason with the driver a few other times. In that one event, where the guy locked the doors and refused my entry, I simply left an indentation of my boot on his cab to make my displeasure clear. And then I took the next cab, who maybe wasn’t thrilled with the trip but at least did what he was obligated to.

As for assaults, what were the nature? I’ve almost never heard of that just for being taken the wrong neighborhood. Most assaults by cab drivers I’ve witnessed at least involved non-payment or a fare dispute or whatever. (And, FYI, it’s fcuking amazing how many cab drivers seem to keep illegal weapons about.)

noah February 10, 2012 - 1:14 am

actually, clinton street is known so well by cabbies, that still only 30% of the cabs will get passengers going back. taxi driving is never a certain thing, and also you are less likely to get a ride back to brooklyn, particularly if you are a man! but anywho, isn’t the chart showing exactly the opposite? the morning commute is done more often with subways and busses, and the afternoon commute into the evening is more reliant on taxicabs. by that alone, there are more taxicabs taking people over the river. Of course there are a lot of cabbies who refuse rides, and they need more TLC agents to fight this greed.

digamma February 9, 2012 - 9:44 am

“We need taxis to offer the flexibility for those who do not want to drive or cannot afford a car, but taxis also contribute to congestion which has a strong negative impact on pedestrian life, the city’s productivity and its environment. In other words, taxis — can’t live with them, can’t live without them. It’s an irreconcilable conundrum.”

What? That’s not irreconcilable at all. What percentage of cars in the city are taxis? Implement a congestion charge and the number of personal vehicles will go way down but taxis will stick around.

Ed February 9, 2012 - 9:55 am

This is purely anecdotal, but I live off of one of the most congested areas in Manhattan for traffic, and many times a majority of the traffic is made up of cabs.

Noah also concerns my suspicion that the quality of service provided by taxis took a turn for the worse after 2000 -it seemed that alot of the new drivers were simply worse drivers, didn’t know the city well, and tended to stay in Manhattan and clog up the streets.

Policy on commercial autos needs to be rethought, but its a stretch to say that they are part of mass transit or public transit.

Spendmore Wastemore February 9, 2012 - 12:25 pm

“its a stretch to say that they are part of mass transit or public transit.”

Not at all. I no longer own a car and rely on a combination of modes to get around. (I have physical issues which prevent me from using transit for all trips.) Without taxis, specifically the radio car fleet, I would have to either buy, insure and park a car or move out of NYC.

SEAN February 9, 2012 - 10:46 am

When I’m traveling through the city, one of the things I fear most when crossing the street are taxis do to the bad reputations of the drivers. I assume they wont stop if I’m in the middle of the crosswalk & have the right of way.

Eitan February 9, 2012 - 12:15 pm

I don’t really see how it’s an irreconcilable conundrum. Shouldn’t taxis always be preferred to people driving in the city, since taxis don’t waste valuable Manhattan land with parking and can serve many people throughout the day? The skyrocketing cost of medallions should should be a signal that expanding medallions is a good idea. But to limit congestion, it needs something like a corresponding congestion tax.

In terms of the one leg, I’ve had the opposite experience as Christine living in the outer boroughs. In my neighborhood of queens, it’s tough to find a cab, but I have no problem getting a cab late at night to go back to queens. Maybe it’s a brooklyn/queens situation, since cabs can always head to LGA or JFK.

Bolwerk February 9, 2012 - 1:24 pm

Ecologically, cabs discretely are probably less efficient per passenger-mile than POVs (at least if you don’t count the driver as a passenger, as you would in a POV). However, under a CP regime, the extra pollution they generate would probably be worth it for the reasons you mention. It would be coupled with a huge reduction in pollution generated by other vehicles.

As for whether getting rid of cabs would get rid of congestion, the answer is probably no. New POV congestion would just be induced in the long run.

TP February 9, 2012 - 2:17 pm

Cabbies disproportionately live in Queens and tons of the garages are based out of Queens, so that could be part of it.

TP February 9, 2012 - 2:24 pm

taxis also contribute to congestion which has a strong negative impact on pedestrian life
Not really in the example given of taking the train to work and a cab home late at night after the bar. There’s a lot less congestion late at night. Compared to daytime, travel on the streets is much quicker, whereas the subway is much less frequent and more lines run local (or not at all). At some hours, it’s to the point where passing cabs are a big part of the “eyes on the street” for pedestrians, and may even increase safety.

BBnet3000 February 9, 2012 - 11:51 pm

Cabs are the reason for many people to take the train in the morning when they might be coming back too late to take the train easily (though this is more of an issue outside of New York, where driving is more of an option and trains dont run at night).

dungone February 10, 2012 - 8:36 am

My theory is that taxis stay in Manhattan because it’s already too congested to get in and out of Manhattan easily. It’s a tragedy of the commons and adding more taxis would just make everything worse. Then again, making things worse might not be a bad idea if you’re trying to make a point that we need more train tunnels to get more POVs off the road. Another possibility that would help is a dedicated transit tunnel for taxis and buses – something that would avoid the congestion at the entryways that POV traffic creates so that transit could move in and out of Manhattan quickly. Maybe it could be funded by some sort of a tax on medallion owners.


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