The yellow taxi is used by New Yorkers and visitors alike. Visitors, whose travel opportunities are numbered, are only afforded a little insight into the peculiarities of this quintessential New York transportation mode. As the movies have shown, hailing a cab involves waiting on the curb and waving. Sooner or later, one will stop. You climb in, say hello, and give the driver an address. You take in the city through the smudged side window. You reach your destination, pay, say goodbye, and take a practical, authentic New York experience home with you. A couple of these experiences are worth every visitor’s while.
If you call New York home, traveling by taxi isn’t quite so simple. Unless they’re considerably out of the loop, New Yorkers rarely wait patiently on the curb holding out their hand. Instead, they quickly resort to Uber. Uber cars find you—not the other way around. There’s an imperative thought process leading up to a decision for or against a taxi ride. One must consider many variables: route, direction of travel, time of day, traffic, day of the week, weather, and the dreaded taxi drivers’ shift change between 4:00 and 5:00 p.m. (during this hour, despite heightened demand, the number of taxis drops significantly—a decades-old problem for which there doesn’t seem to be any solution). Sound like a lot of thinking for a single taxi ride? It may be, but it’ll save you frustrating wait time.
Before we get to the really interesting aspects of New York taxi travel, here are a few facts:
• There are 13,605 taxi licences and over 51,000 licensed taxi drivers in New York City. The number of licenses has remained amazingly stable over the years.
• Nowadays a license costs around $700,000 (in the pre-Uber era, it cost almost a million).
• Most of the licenses belong to companies that then rent them out to drivers.
• The drivers work for up to 12 hours at a time. About 90% of them are immigrants.
• A taxi driver’s yearly income is around $33,000. In other words, it’s a tough, low-paying job.
• The initial fee for a ride is $2.50. In comparison to other cities, taxis in New York are affordable.
There are no formalities exchanged upon entering and exiting a taxi. Generally, you should yell out your destination without losing a second. This won’t be interpreted as rude—quite the contrary. You’re doing yourself, the taxi driver, and the stressed, reckless driver behind you all a favor. As soon as the taxi starts driving, you’ll have time to make the next minutes comfortable for yourself. This may involve opening the window to dilute an undefinable but intensive taxi aroma and ease the impact of a notorious, neck-breaking driving style that can interfere surprisingly quickly with physical and mental well-being. Also of note is that New Yorkers, despite this often ‘interesting’ driving style, don’t usually buckle their seatbelts. In fact, nobody does.
Taxi rides usually include another guaranteed experience: you become witness to a telephone conversation in an unknown language. Almost all taxi drivers talk on the phone, and often without interruption. What’s he talking about, and to whom? Is it the fiancé in Morocco, the daughter in Queens, or the mother in India? Is he speaking to other drivers via the taxi radio and making fun of his customers? It’s one of the city’s greatest enigmas. There’d certainly be enough material for jokes: the drivers witness fighting couples, women who change their entire outfit over the course of the ride, backseat deals, and bossy, know-it-all back seat drivers on a daily basis—no wonder they drive so fast.
Traveling by taxi in New York has positive aspects, too. Sometimes a simple question can lead to a rewarding conversation—with the Yemeni surgeon whose pubescent daughter is going through a difficult phase. Or with the Belarussian engineer who isn’t sure if he should train to be a nurse. Or with the Ghanian teacher who assures you that tomorrow will be a better day.
When all of the right elements fall into place, taxi travel can even be enchanting: you (and the driver) may, for example, have the pleasure of admiring the city worldlessly through open windows while a symphony plays on the radio in full volume.