Washington Post
March 17, 2000

N.Y. Cabbies Are Missing Their Calling

Despite Shortage of Drivers, City Is Reluctant to Relax Tougher Standards

By Christine Haughney

NEW YORK -- Huddled in his furry Cossack hat and wool coat, Gregory Belfer squints down 56th Street looking for a cab, any cab, on a blustery March afternoon. Five years ago, he'll tell you, six to eight yellow cabs would be lined up before Le Parker Meridien Hotel, whisking guests to Broadway shows and swank restaurants. Today, Belfer tries to pacify irritated visitors who spend $300 a night on their rooms but can't get a taxi.

"There's not enough cabs, not mentioning the rush hour," he said. "You see the cabs, you jump at them. You don't want to let them go."

"Fridays at 8 o'clock, that's when you feel it," agreed Omar Morales, a doorman at the nearby Wellington Hotel for the past 15 years, who describes you-stole-my-cab shouting matches between competing customers.

In a city in which taxis once were as abundant as bagels and still remain as vital as subways, New York faces a cabbie shortage.

Reports from the companies that rent out fleets of cabs show that about one-fifth of their vehicles typically sit unused in parking lots, said Ron Sherman, president of the Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade, which represents the private fleet managers. That's double the number of idle cabs from five years ago.

"It's a profession that is hurting, and there are people out there that want to work," Sherman said.

During the boom of the 1990s, many cab drivers left the profession for safer, better-paying jobs with benefits. Meanwhile, the city tried to improve the quality of its cab service by requiring taxicab school and training. Now former cab drivers and out-of-work New Yorkers who might turn to one of the city's most essential professions are finding it difficult to join the trade.

One of these is Khalid Ameen, who enviously eyes the yellow cabs from behind the wheel of his royal blue Lincoln Town Car. With his income as a limousine driver down 40 percent since Sept. 11 -- as cost-conscious businesses cut out limo service -- he'd like to switch vehicles. But he doesn't qualify.

"I've been driving the same streets for 17 years," Ameen complained, calculating the expenses of 80 hours of taxi school, $600 in fees and two weeks of lost wages. "Two-weeks course, I cannot afford to pay rent."

New York cabbies have to pass physical exams, drug tests and exams for English proficiency and driver awareness -- requirements that took two decades to evolve, said Bruce Schaller, a consultant and former policy director of the Taxi and Limousine Commission. These are standards city officials are hesitant to compromise.

"Cabbies are better now than they have ever been in the history of the city of New York," said Matthew W. Daus, the city's taxi and limousine commissioner. But he says the city needs more taxi drivers who do not leave and join the profession with every economic shift.

"When the economy does well, the cabbies leave, unfortunately, and they go and enter other jobs," Daus said. "We're going to do whatever we can to keep them in the business." He is hoping to negotiate a fare increase -- the city's first since 1996 -- so he can lure cabbies with higher pay.

Earlier this year, the commission sent letters to former cabbies whose licenses had lapsed in the past four years.

"They got a lot of interest, and then when people found out they had to go through a three-day refresher course, they lost a lot of interest," Schaller said.

On March 15, the Taxicab and Limousine Commission held a taxi job fair in Queens. It opened at 9; Ameen was in line, he says, at 2:30 a.m., along with 15 fellow car-service drivers eager to switch to cabs.

He chatted with fleet operators. He boasted that he could find Tribeca Grill or the Harlem street called Old Broadway. But the fleet operators said they couldn't offer him work unless he attended taxicab school.

"If someone was working in a candy store and wanted to become a cab driver, they would go to school," he complained. "I'm living here and I know the roads. I'm driving here."

Ameen climbed back into his Lincoln. He had to make up for a morning of lost business.

"We didn't get anything," he said.

But the taxi commissioner won't budge.

"I want to make this an attractive industry," Daus said. "That's what we want to do is attract people who stay."