Taxi as Icon: News Clips and Selected Essays
Friday, February 3, 1967

Slowly, silently and in single file, 500 New York taxis with "Off Duty" signs aglow last week made the 15-mile trip from a Bronx funeral parlor to Kennedy Airport. In a hearse at the front was the body of Carlos Quilly, who had been fatally shot in the back while driving his taxi, and was being flown back to Puerto Rico for burial. The cortege was a moving protest by the drivers against their biggest occupational hazard: violent crime. Reported holdups of New York cab drivers number more than 600 a year, and 14 cabbies have been murdered in the last seven years. Says Joe Paradise, an official of the local cab drivers' union: "We are sick and tired because we are the forgotten men. Cabbies get killed, mugged, beaten up, but there is no action— it's like he don't belong to nobody."
While cab drivers are frequent victims of crime, they are also frequent heroes— tipping off police to fights and robberies and often joining in the pursuit and capture of lawbreakers. Two months ago, while honoring 75 of them for heroism, Police Commissioner Howard Leary called them "the city's second police force."

Growing Shortage
With cab crime on the front page day after day, New Yorkers have begun to think anew about taxis. Complaints that drivers are rude, ignore hails and refuse to take Negroes to Harlem are familiar: the police department gets 500 of them per month. What New Yorkers really wonder about, as they try in vain to get a cab during rush hour or rainstorm, is whether or not cabs are becoming scarcer. Astoundingly, the answer is yes. In 1929, New York City had close to 29,000 taxis. But the Depression put many of them out of business, and competition for passengers among those remaining led to such ferocious cab wars —with arson and shooting—that the city in 1937 severely limited the number to prevent even more violence. New York now has only 11,772 licensed taxis to serve almost 1,000,000 passengers a day. Similar hold-downs afflict people in Boston, Philadelphia, Miami and San Francisco.

There is also a growing shortage of drivers. In Los Angeles, the 900-cab Yellow fleet has a 60% annual turnover of drivers. The two biggest cab companies in Memphis man only 200 of their 300 taxis. Philadelphia's Yellow Cab Co. pays employees a $25 bounty for recruiting new drivers who stay on the job at least 90 days. So serious is the shortage that companies which employed 75% full-time drivers to 25% part-timers ten years ago, find the proportions rapidly reversing. Nowadays the man up front is quite possibly a moonlighting actor, minister, artist, teacher or student. Or a woman. Boston has 63 licensed women cab drivers, New York City 200, Washington 400.

The reason for the shortage is that cab driving offers low rewards for high risks. A fleet driver puts in ten to twelve hours a day six days a week, and if he takes home $125 including tips, he is doing very well indeed. The independent driver, who has managed to "crack the nut"—that is, to raise the $20,000 to $30,000 needed in many major cities to buy a medallion "tin" or license for his own cab—makes $150 to $170. Among his occupational irritations are poor tippers (known in cabbies' jargon as "skunks" or "flapjacks"), non-tippers ("slicks," "stiffs" and "fishballs"), passengers who arrive at the destination broke (a "bucket load"), and "line loaders" who still try to use the cabbie as a pimp (he seldom is).

Fare Play. All the problems are magnified many times in New York City, the nation's most concentrated taxi center. Last week the police department at long last set up a 70-man task force to protect cab drivers, began stopping taxis for spot checks of the passengers. The state legislature started discussing a bill that would require cabs to be equipped with distress sirens, red roof lights, and a bulletproof glass or plastic partition between the front seat and the rear. The city council was considering Mayor John Lindsay's proposals to alleviate the cab shortage by issuing 1,794 more medallions. Many cabbies think that an even better answer would be to raise the rate, which at 50 for each fifth of a mile—plus 350 for the "icebreaker" or flag drop—is among the lowest in the nation. (Highest fare is San Francisco's 450 flag drop, and 100 for each additional fifth.) Says New York Driver Jacob Levine: "If you boost the fares, only the well to do will ride regularly, and cabs will be free for emergencies, like women having babies."-

Traffic, which slows cabbies down and makes ulcers a prevalent occupational disease, is the thorniest long-term problem. But that is getting better in New York as a result of Mayor Lindsay's no-nonsense tow-away campaign to clear midtown streets of illegally parked cars. Many citizens, who have screamed for years about the impossibility of driving across town, foolishly screamed even louder over the crackdown. But cab drivers suddenly found themselves logging 15% more trips than before, and their customers got there faster.