As soon as I pulled the taxi door handle, I knew.
Yep, it didn’t open. I reached for my iPhone. Just as I predicted, the driver heard my wife and I were going to Brooklyn and drove off. A 30-year old married consumer journalist, I stepped off the curb by City Hall in Manhattan and took a picture of his license plate. It wasn’t the first time I’d been illegally refused a fare to Brooklyn from Manhattan, and I was sick of it. Once home, I took a few minutes online and filed a report with 311. The former Managing Editor of Consumerist.com, I’ve counseled millions of readers on how to fix their consumer issues by speaking up. Now it was my turn. I was ticked off, but I was also curious to see how well 311 actually worked. I wanted to poke the system and see how it responded.
Filing a report with 311 against a taxi is dead simple. Just go here, select the appropriate infraction, and fill out the five step online form (For iPhone users, there’s even an app for that). The second thing they ask you is if you’re willing to attend a hearing, either over the phone or in person. If you say no, your report will go to the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC), but nothing will happen to the driver. I said I was willing. (There was no option for “more than willing.”)
My friends were horrified (with me)
I told some friends and they joined in my anger over a fare refusal, but they were horrified when I told them I had reported the driver. “I would never do that,” one said. “I wouldn’t want to take away his livelihood.” But they don’t know the facts.
I didn’t know the fines myself before I made the report, but according to the Taxi and Limousine Commission rules, a hack would only have his license revoked if it was his third offense, on top of paying a $1,000 fine ($750 if you plead guilty before trial). Second offense is the same financial penalty, but besides a reduced fine, a taxi driver can also avoid having his license suspended by pleading guilty before the trial. First offense is a $500 fine, which can be plead out to for $350.
So my little bleeding heart friends, while many taxi drivers do a great and often thankless job, this driver would only lose his if he was a repeat offender. And if he’s breaking the law for the second or third time, shouldn’t he be punished? Or would you rather he be left to drive around and break a law that might end up really hurting someone?
I didn’t set out to cost a man a day, or several day’s wages, I just figured that if more taxi drivers thought twice about illegally refusing rides, it’d be a better world for passengers.
1st offense: $500 fine
(can plead to $350)
2nd: $1000 fine, license suspended
(can plead to $750, no suspension)
3rd: $1000 fine, license revoked
(can plead to $750)
When a taxi driver refuses a fare, which is against Driver Rule 54-20, he’s doing the math. To find out the numbers, I headed down to the taxi fleet garage at 4th avenue and 5th street in Brooklyn. The air was thick with whirring as mechanics performed bypass surgery on a cab. A driver pushed his receipts through a slot in the thick plate glass window dispatch booth. Money came back out. Every wall and window was covered in signs with rules, warnings, and admonitions. A diagram showed how you shouldn’t drive through a puddle if it’s higher than your hubcaps. A sign in red block letters on the door said, “DO NOT REFUSE ANY PASSENGER.” In a small chained-off area were two yellow picnic tables. Seated at one was a dispatcher who checked out the license a short guy handed him and said there’s no jobs available, but what are you capable of doing?
A board above the window announced the leasing rates as $109-$134, depending on whether it’s daytime or the more profitable weekend night. Asking around the garage I found out that drivers pay about $30 a day in gas, plus maybe $20 in food and incidental expenses over a 12-hour shift. They can expect at least $200 during a daytime shift in revenue, and $300-$400 during a night shift. A driver’s takehome pay is then $41/day or $216/night, which averages out to $128.5, right in line with TLC estimates that taxi cab drivers currently take home an average of $130. Then on top of running his daily tally through his brain and calculating whether or not taking my fare to Brooklyn is worth it, he’s also figuring that I’m not a hack inspector or an undercover student decoy that the TLC has been using as part of its ongoing “Operation Refusal” crackdown.
Taxi costs per day
…or an average of $128.5
But it’s not really about reaching a daily break-even minimum. If so, wouldn’t the recently passed fare increase from 40 cents to 50 cents per mile, which goes into effect in September, decrease the number of fare refusals? Taking a moment to ponder it, Allan Fromberg, spokesman for the Taxi and Limousine Commission tells me over his cellphone while standing outside the Commissioner’s office, “I don’t see the correlation.” Instead, he says, the calculus a driver does is, “I don’t want to go anywhere where when someone gets out of my cab, there isn’t someone to get in right away.” Profit comes from keeping the the taxi at full capacity and getting as many fares as you can for as much as the shift as possible.
(Via email, Fromberg also told me, “While we are well aware that the problem persists, services refusal for any reason is not tolerated by the TLC, and we are committed to keeping the pressure on against violators.”)
I answered the first letter from the Taxi and Limousine Commission by saying I was willing to come down and testify in person at any time (cue knuckle crack). Several months later, a second letter from the Commission arrived, thanking me for informing them of the violation. “We have investigated your complaint and found that the driver in your case violated TLC rules,” said the letter. “No hearing will be necessary as the driver has plead guilty to an appropriate charge and paid a penalty.” Justice by letter? Ok, I’ll take it.
It was amazing - a government bureaucracy that did its job.
I had gotten fed up with all the refusers who came before and decided to do something about it. My goal was to make him and any friends he told think twice next time before refusing a passenger just because they don’t feel like driving there. My goal with this post was to document the process of reporting a taxi and seeing what, if anything happened, and find out more about why it did. It’s an incredible power that just a few mouseclicks and pen strokes got a man fined at least a day’s wages, all without me leaving the house. I hope that this post may inspire a few other passengers who might otherwise think they just have to sit and take it to use that power wisely, and for taxi drivers to respect those passengers and the law a little bit more.
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