Lately there seems to be a marked decline in the quality of the NYC taxi experience. Cabs are dirtier, smellier, and more rattly. There seem to be more new drivers who are less knowledgeable about basic city geography – just yesterday a driver was bizarrely confused by my request to go uptown forty blocks on the avenue he was already on. The “taxi of the future”, touted by the Bloomberg administration as the path to modernizing the NYC fleet, has failed to materialize in the concentration that was predicted, and even those cabs are less than the ideal conveyance that was promised. (We are still besieged by annoying video screens, and the retractable step intended to assist people getting in and out fails to lock more than half of the time. I am waiting to read a news item about someone losing a toe.)
Of course Uber, Lyft, Via, and their ilk have everything do with this. The market for taxi medallions has plummeted, leaving many owners under water and prompting a wave of foreclosures as riders opt for the convenience, cleanliness, and predictability of these other services. Rain and rush hour send free taxis into nonexistence, but one can still get a ride with an app and know how much it will cost before getting stuck in traffic.
The Lyft app that facilitated my ride to dinner in the rain the other night wanted feedback afterwards on a number of items, including the witty banter of the driver. I am a chatty Cathy most of the time and frequently appreciate an outgoing taxi driver, but the Lyft guy was an introvert. I did not dock him for this though, as his car was spotless and odorless, and he drove safely and without the carsick-inducing brake-riding that so many yellow cab drivers seem to favor. A good driver like him can also participate in the other services, and there is no bureaucracy to deal with if he provides a bad experience. Rather than endure the hassle of taxi court, a rider can just give a bad rating to register displeasure and inform future riders, which also incentivizes the driver to perform well. Riders are likewise encouraged to refrain from abusing their drivers to avoid the mobility-limiting peril of being banned for poor ratings.
Why, then, even with all of these benefits that app-powered car services provide, do I find myself stepping bravely into the street and hailing a rickety yellow cab almost every time I need to get somewhere in a car? Perhaps it’s just habit, or my own small protest against the mindless acceptance of the benefits of “disruption” that these services are touted as bringing, or my instinctive lumping of all of these companies in the same ethically-challenged bucket as Uber. Or maybe it’s my clinging to that older, less technologically advanced New York, where the inconvenience of getting a taxi in the rain might be recompensed with an engaging driver or a memorably bad journey, either of which can provide an amusing future anecdote. For all of the “transparency” and putative convenience these services give us, the human connection that is so crucial to urban living is reduced when riders and drivers eye each other as future data points rather than as fellow citizens and travelers.