Jan 11, 2011

New York, NY - Where Do All the Cabs Go in the Late Afternoon?

New data have confirmed the perception that just as the afternoon rush is beginning, taxicabs disappear by the hundreds. Many are heading to Queens for a shift change.
Chang W. Lee/The New York Times
New data have confirmed the perception that just as the afternoon rush is beginning, taxicabs disappear by the hundreds. Many are heading to Queens for a shift change.

Ever feel as if you can't get a cab around 5 o'clock? Now there's scientific proof that you're right.

There is new data to confirm what generations of New Yorkers have long known in their bones: just as the afternoon rush is about to begin, the taxicabs disappear by the hundreds.  From 4 to 5 p.m., the traditional hour for cabs to change shifts, the number of active taxicabs on the streets falls by nearly 20 percent compared with an hour before, according to a city review of GPS records taken from thousands of cab trips over the past year.

In fact, the number of cabs that pick up at least two fares during that taxicab witching hour is the lowest of any hour between 7 a.m. and midnight, the data show. This vanishing trend turned up in the data regardless of time of year or day of the week.
The hour from 4 to 5 p.m. has long been considered a low tide of taxi service, the maddening moment when, in apparent violation of the laws of supply and demand, entire fleets of empty yellow cabs flip on their off-duty lights and proceed past the outstretched hands of office workers seeking a way home.  But despite decades of complaining from New Yorkers, taxi officials have never been able to gauge the true extent of the shift changeover's effect on service, until now.  "It's not just urban legend," said David S. Yassky, the chairman of the Taxi and Limousine Commission, who asked his agency to investigate the phenomenon. "It's a real dip."
The Bloomberg administration, which prides itself on data-driven policy, is still grappling with how to handle the discovery. Mr. Yassky said that, so far, he had no plans to ask for any changes to the industry's schedule, although his team is still considering its options.  Mr. Yassky said the city "should be circumspect about substituting its judgment for the judgment of business people." But he acknowledged that any attempt at regulation would have to take into account the forces that have kept the practice in place for years.
The explanation for the 5 p.m. dip is steeped in the history and economics of the taxi industry. Many taxicabs are used by two drivers a day, each working a 12-hour shift. To ensure that each leg is equally attractive, taxi owners schedule the shift change in the middle of the afternoon, so each shift gets a rush hour.  But the switch cannot happen too early, either: a 2 p.m. changeover, for instance, would require a day driver to start his 12-hour shifts in the wee hours of the morning. And cabbies say the midafternoon offers brisk business not evident 12 hours later, when fares mainly consist of late-night revelers.  Hence the 5 p.m. compromise. When the changeover became standard, its timing did not pose a big problem for passengers. Many taxi garages were situated on the Far West Side of Manhattan, requiring cabs to make only a short trip to 11th Avenue before heading back to Midtown with a fresh driver.
But in the 1980s, as commercial rents rose, taxi fleets began migrating across the East River, particularly to Long Island City, Queens. The 5 p.m. shift change now included a journey over the often-packed Queensboro Bridge, not to mention the return slog to the city. Drivers started going off duty between 4 and 4:30 p.m., to ensure that they had enough time to make it to the garage; even today, tardy cabbies can be hit with a $30 fine.
If the system changed, "I'd be very upset," Youssef Kamel, 34, a day driver from Brooklyn, said the other day. Mr. Kamel was at the BP station on Houston Street, which is among several places that serve as transfer points for driver-owned taxicabs, unaffiliated with a fleet. The gas station gets so busy after 4 p.m. on weekdays, with dozens of cabs gassing up and changing drivers, that managers wave off private automobiles, asking them to return after 5.  The rising popularity of the driver-owned model means that more cabbies today coordinate a handoff in Manhattan, which may be lessening the impact of the 5 o'clock dip.
"There are more drivers changing shifts in Manhattan today than ever before," said David Pollack, the publisher of Taxi Insider, a monthly industry publication.  Some of the 5 p.m. frustration, Mr. Pollack added, could be about perception. "It's like Fred Flintstone at 5 o'clock: the whistle blows and everybody wants a cab," he said.  There is precedent for the city to regulate livery drivers so that they better meet customer demand.
A publication from 1839, "By-laws and Ordinances of the Mayor, Aldermen and Commonalty of the City of New York," decrees that the mayor can make rules "respecting the standing of horse coaches and carriages at or near the theaters and other places of amusement at night, and at and near steamboats and other vessels at all times, and at and upon the stands designated and specified for such coaches, as may be necessary to preserve order and decorum."
Indeed, the issue has not gone ignored by the taxi lords. A 1987 dictate by the City Council ordered the taxi commission to investigate the feasibility of staggering shift changes throughout the afternoon, in an attempt to free up more cabs during rush hour. That report has since been lost to history, and the practice continued unabated.  In 2004, the city took a more aggressive approach, implementing a $1 surcharge on fares between 4 and 8 p.m. on weekdays in an explicit attempt to encourage more drivers to work in the afternoon rush. "We believe that the 20 percent dip would be even worse if it weren't for the surcharge," Mr. Yassky said.
Still, Mr. Yassky acknowledged that the afternoon taxi drought remained "one of the two or three things that people routinely bring up to me." One recent complainant was former Mayor Edward I. Koch, who mailed a letter to Mr. Yassky a few days before Christmas, asking about "a dearth of available cabs in the late afternoon."
"One of my law partners remarked on the fact that at 4 o'clock, you can't get a cab," Mr. Koch said in an interview last week. "Wouldn't it make sense to have a substantial number of cabs on duty at all times?"
"In government," Mr. Koch added, "nothing goes away. This is a perennial."

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