Taxi as Icon: News Clips and Selected Essays
Monday, April 12, 1971

"A cab rider is a special breed. He will always ride a cab. We will never lose him."
-Manager of a Manhattan taxi firm
That's what they said about the water buffalo too, and the peregrine falcon. After a 50% increase in taxi fares last month, the Great New York City Cab Rider looked like another endangered species. But, wily and adaptable creature that he is, he has begun appearing on the city's streets in resourceful new guises. As a result, now it is the cabbies, more than the riders, who are in trouble.

For all its impact, the increase did little more than put New York on a par with other U.S. cities (see chart); yet no other city is so set up, and so bogged down, with mass transport that 800,000 of its citizens take at least one cab a day. Or did, before the hike. Now, with the average ride up from $1.35 to $2 and the oldtime $7 fare from midtown Manhattan to Kennedy Airport almost doubled, business in New York is already down at least 20% and still ebbing. Only in the rain, or late at night, does the stalwart passenger's resistance yield. For the most part, empty cabs cruise the city streets, circle the hotels and line up at airports, train stations and bus terminals, endless funereal processions for which few mourners can be summoned.

"I just love to see them empty," says Butler Sanchez, 37, a computer programmer. "Those guys think New Yorkers will accept anything. Maybe we can make a stand here and show them." Says Manhattan Housewife Jeannette Fowlkes: "I'd rather take a bus and be late than get there on time in a cab." Her husband George now drives his car when they go out at night. "Rather the cost of a parking lot," he vows, "than the round-trip taxi fare."

Many cab riders are determinedly finding merit in the subway. "It's dirty, crowded, airless and awful," says Film Maker Peter Hansen, "but it's fast, and by God it's still cheap [30ยข]." One elderly woman, climbing the stairs from the 1RT, said to her companion: "I don't know what all the talk is about. I didn't see a single mugging." For others, like Maxwell Dane, a founder of Doyle Dane Bernbach, only the ultimate form of resistance will do. "Walking," Dane suggested to his employees in a memo about the fare rise, "is considered a most healthy form of exercise."

Quaint Expression. The taxi industry is maintaining a stiff upper meter. According to Arthur Gore, publisher of the trade sheet Taxi News, "It is only a question of time before people come round." But with the imminence of summer, traditionally a slack season anyway, drivers aren't so sure. "I drove all the way from Wall Street to the East Side without a fare today," lamented Max Fuchs. "With a situation like this, I feel like getting loaded."

Gone are the horror stories, commonplace only weeks ago, of drivers haranguing passengers, refusing trips that took them even a block out of their way, and spitting at quarter tips. Now, eager to nurture their trade, they are reportedly all sunshine and gallantry, sprinting around their cabs to open doors. Shrugs Jacob Lativitsky: "I even go to The Bronx with pleasure." A quaint old expression is coming back into use in discourse between drivers and their customers. It goes: "Thank you."

Still, if Comedian Bill Cosby is any indication, the Great New York City Cab Rider remains unmoved. "A cabbie sidled up to me the other day," Cosby relates, "and said, 'Wanna go to Harlem, sir?' I told him I was off duty."