You talkin’ to me?

So there seems to be a possibility that New York taxi drivers will go out on strike in the coming weeks, over a dispute about the Taxi & Limousine Commission’s decision that GPS technology has to be installed in every single one of the 13,087 yellow cabs that dominate the streets of the city.

The Commission, which provides each taxi driver with the medallion that licenses them to pick up passengers, says that the systems will be used to allow enable customers to view their journey on a special screen, and pay for it by credit card. It’ll also mean that drivers will no longer need to fill out paperwork as they do today, and potentially make it easier to reunite passengers with the property they accidentally leave in the back of a cab. Speaking as a man who has lost approximately 43 umbrellas in taxis over the last twelve years, that’s got to be a step forward.

Drivers are up in arms, as the GPS positioning system can be used to track the whereabouts of a taxi, even when the cabbie is off duty. They claim it’s an invasion of privacy, likening it to the ankle bracelets used by authorities to track criminals. If the threat to strike becomes a reality, it could conceivably bring New York to a standstill.

A couple of things came to mind when I was reading about the whole sorry tale over the weekend. Firstly, one of the complaints of the drivers seems to be that credit card payments can cost them up to 5% of the fare. Fair enough. But let’s face it, paying by credit card can make things a hell of a lot easier, and could conceivably generate even more custom. Paying by credit card in a London taxi incurs a 12.5% service charge to cover all fees, and I see no reason why a similar charge couldn’t be instituted here.

But the even stranger thing about the whole affair is that despite the fact that GPS technology is being installed in every single cab, it won’t be used to aid taxi drivers in their navigation of the journey. For anybody that’s ever been in a yellow cab, that’s a decision that will go down as one of the most ridiculous since Gerald Ratner decided to joke about the quality of the jewellery that made him a multi-millionaire.

Put simply, New York taxi drivers couldn’t navigate their way out of a car park. My girlfriend had to tell a driver how to get to Newark airport a couple of weeks ago – akin to a London cabbie having to be directed to Gatwick. In a New York cab, unless you want to go to an address that has a numbered street and avenue, or the place you want to get to happens to be the street on which the driver lives, the chances of you making it to your eventual destination by the shortest route are slimmer than Nicole Richie a few days after she’s been dumped by a long-term boyfriend.

As long as you’ve got a social security number and have heard of the English language, you can drive a yellow taxi in this city. In London, you’ve got to spend two years (at least) doing The Knowledge, to ensure that you’ve got an encyclopaedic understanding of the 25,000 streets within a six mile radius of Charing Cross. Admittedly you’ve also got to have dubious views on immigration and an in-depth understanding of West Ham’s Inter City Firm, but at least you’re likely to be able to get a passenger from Camden to Kensington without going via Clapham.

The thing about the New York situation is that the installation of GPS systems in cabs was approved in 2004, at the same time as a 26% rise in fares, and now it seems that it’s payback time for passengers. More than a thousand GPS systems have already been installed, and anecdotal evidence suggests that those drivers get better tips and longer rides. And if those longer rides are closer to being in vaguely the right direction, surely that’s got to be a good thing?

PS If any taxi drivers are reading, my name’s Violet and I live in Queen’s.

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