Let me begin this column by congratulating our medallion taxicab drivers for giving rise to what has evolved into one of the great TLC media stories of the year - the significant decline in complaints.
Every year, the mayoral administration publishes the “Mayor’s Management Report,” which is essentially the City’s report card for its delivery of services. Standing proudly amid a sea of important numbers was the fact that complaints against drivers are at their lowest level in more than a decade. In just a sampling of the statistics, the TLC received 10,183 medallion driver complaints in Fiscal Year 2002 as compared to 14,129 in FY 2000 (a decrease of 39%). Perhaps more importantly, the number of complaints fell consistently in areas such as driver rudeness, which declined by as much as 50% cumulatively over the past two fiscal years. This decrease happened during a time when there are more drivers (an increase of 9% since FY 2000), more medallions (400 additional between 1996 and 1997), more access to the TLC (twice the incoming phone lines at our Customer Service Hotline and an increase in visits to our web site of over 700% since its inception), as well as steadily increasing ridership. Not surprisingly, this good news sparked the interest of the media over a period of several days, and remains a hot topic of discussion even as we speak.
What is going right instead of wrong? First, there is no doubt in my mind that we are seeing the tangible cumulative benefits of the TLC’s reforms of 1998 and 1999. The creation of the Persistent Violator and Critical Driver Programs did more than just hold our drivers to a uniform high standard of behavior, it served to weed out the small number of bad drivers that cast so negative a shadow on the rest of the industry. With those bad drivers gone, those who were left felt justifiable pride at being the best the industry has to offer. They know a TLC license is a privilege, and they treat their passengers accordingly. I have said it before, and I will say it again, no one wants a bad driver off the road more than a good driver. Continually improving both our initial and continuing education curricula was key to this success as well. The idea that drivers could come back into the classroom environment after a year’s worth of experiences, share them with their colleagues and receive additional customer service training to sharpen their skills translates into drivers who are more sensitive to the needs of passengers.
Then there was the major shift in our philosophy. As promised, we are communicating better, we are listening better, and we are reaching out more in new and better ways. A prime example is the TLC’s new Driver Recognition Program. When hundreds of drivers were invited to the first-ever Driver Recognition Ceremony to receive awards and the City’s heartfelt thanks for their good work, they knew that the TLC truly appreciates what they are doing. The same is true when drivers now receive a personal letter from me to let them know that someone took the time to write us to praise them. Positive reinforcement is a powerful tool, to be sure, but it is also common sense to say “thank you” when someone is doing a good job.
In the understanding that nothing is more important than protecting our families’ health, drivers have also responded positively to the TLC’s reaching out on a grassroots level to sign them up for HealthStat, to provide low-cost and free health insurance for them and their families.
Drivers have also embraced the TLC’s combination of enhanced technology and hands-on management to help them spend less time at the TLC and more time on the road, providing for their families. On the technology side, our imminent implementation of the LiveScan system, which electronically transmits fingerprints directly to State authorities rather than mailing them, will see driver applicants with a license in hand faster than ever before. Also, innovative management techniques have now resulted in significantly decreased waiting times at our adjudications facility.
Speaking of enhanced technology, the TLC also very recently unveiled a pilot program to test seven In-Taxi Video Systems in a limited number of taxicabs, a test that we believe may add an additional measure of enjoyment and customer service for the riding public. Each of the seven companies has a unique product, with some offering interactive capabilities and service, while others simply deliver a combination of entertainment and advertising. All will carry TLC-mandated public service announcements designed to improve public safety and passenger convenience. While the goal is better customer service to the public, a secondary benefit to this program is that it also augment driver and owner income through better tips and monthly fees from technology providers.
I would also like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who participated in our TLC 9/11 Memorial Ceremony on September 13, and made it such an overwhelming success. For those who were not there, it was a day to mourn the many lost lives, but also to honor the drivers who contributed their time and their energy - at great personal cost - through Operation Free Transportation. It was a fitting time to unveil what will be a tangible, lasting memorial to the victims of our city’s greatest tragedy - a new taxi medallion featuring a stark white background, and a simple red, white and blue ribbon of remembrance.
Last but not least, I would like to leave you all with the message that the TLC listens. Over the past year, we heard not one but many dozens of complaints about the situation that existed at JFK Airport with respect to certain individuals soliciting bribes to give some drivers preferential treatment at the dispatch line. Almost immediately upon hearing these complaints, we partnered with the Port Authority and the Queens District Attorney’s Office to begin a far-reaching undercover investigation. I am pleased to report that this investigation has culminated in the arrest of seven individuals on serious charges. These arrests should return airport operations to normal, which will ensure equal treatment and less waiting time for all drivers, for whom time is money.
Looking ahead, the TLC has many other initiatives and plans in the works to assist its regulated industries. Some of those you will be seeing in the near future involve the TLC working to provide insurance discounts to eligible vehicle owners, reforms of the TLC’s licensing system to streamline and reduce the amount of time it takes to get a TLC license, as well as the positive results of our efforts to address issues at the city’s hotels (again, we are listening to you!).
We at the TLC wish you all a happy, healthy, and, above all, a safe holiday season.