In a matter of months, New Yorkers riding in taxicabs will have more to look at than the view. The constant media buzz of modern life â€“ television programs, sports scores, advertisements â€“ will invade the back of cabs starting in October, the result of a new city regulation requiring that all yellow cabs be equipped with global positioning systems and video screens.
The city Taxi and Limousine Commission says it simply wants to make cab rides safer and more enjoyable for passengers. But the drivers of the city’s 13,000 yellow cabs have protested, arguing that the new technology will cost them money and impinge on their privacy.
WHAT THE SYSTEM WILL DO
Through the GPS system, taxi passengers will be able to know where they are at any moment. For New Yorkers who never want to be out of touch, the monitors and tracking system will make a cab ride -- 13 minutes on average -- more enjoyable. Passengers will be able to follow sports scores, get up-to-the-minute news, weather and more. (Those who want some peace and quiet will be able to turn off the monitors.) The driver will also notified of traffic congestion in the area and of large parties or concerts that are ending â€“ and could be fertile ground for finding fare-paying customers. With the new system, passengers can pay their fares using credit or debit cards.
Taxi and limousine commissioner Matthew Daus has called the tracking and the monitors “nothing short of revolutionary and evolutionary for the taxi industry" and has written that the technology “will benefit both drivers and customers.” The commission believes it will make it easier for tourists, who may not want to carry much cash, to use cabs. And the system believes such high-tech taxis will enhance New York’s image as the "city of the world.”
But cab drivers are not convinced. They worry that the tracking system will enable the police department and traffic agents to follow the cabs and prosecute drivers for violating traffic laws. “For myself, I am not against it, but I can see my fellow drivers being angry for being dictated to sacrifice for other people's extra entertainment," said one driver, Ibrahim Jane.
Some cab drivers question whether it is proper for the city to require private business owners to install a system that would monitor their activities. “We are not paid by the cab companies or the city. We rent these vehicles for over $100 per 12 hour shift,” a cab driver who identified himself as Jose wrote on the blog. “Why should we be tracked? Not even the city buses are tracked this wayâ€¦.What benefit is there to the driver?
The debate over the system derives to some extent from the fact that drivers and passengers do not always share the same interests. One of the supposed benefits of the technology is that it will make it easier for passengers to locate any items they mistakenly left in a cab, even without a receipt. The passenger will call a hotline, say where he or she was, and the tracking systems will determine which cabs were in that location at that time. A message will then go out to the drivers in that area to check their back seats for the lost goods. Certainly, if this works as advertised, it will benefit passengers. But cab drivers worry about lost time checking for items and then delivering them to their owners, particularly if the item involved is of little value, such as an umbrella.
THE COST OF TECHNOLOGY
The new system will cost an estimated $3,000 to $5,500 pr cab. This cost will be borne by the taxicab owners. Individual drivers fear the medallion owners could pass the costs on to them and that they could end up paying maintenance costs as well.
Beyond the initial cost, cab drivers fear fixing and maintaining the high-tech machines will take up precious time and hard-earned money.
But Daus, the taxi commissioner, has said the drivers were already compensated for some of those expenses when they city approved a 26 percent fare increase in 2004. And according to some reports, the drivers could get a commission from the advertising profits.
Tallying the financial costs and benefits of the plan for drivers is difficult. On the one hand, the technology will benefit the drivers because once they can pay with credit and debit cards, people may take more cab rides and give bigger tips. Since the fares will not be paid in cash, the money cannot be stolen from drivers. But the credit system will require the owners to pay processing fees. No one can yet determine what the bottom line will be.
THE NEXT STEP
The taxi commission wants the new systems to be in all yellow cabs by January 2008. But cab drivers have other ideas.
A strike is a possibility, according to the executive director of the Taxi Workers Alliance, Bhairavi Desai, "Drivers are angry and ready to take action," Desai, whose group represents about 7,000 cab drivers, said. Some protests have already been held. At one, in front of the Taxi and Limousine commission headquarters on Rector Street, about 100 demonstrators said they would take action to block the installation of the new technology.
But barring something unforeseen the high tech cab will be a mainstay of city streets by next year. And riders who want peace and quiet will have to turn off their monitors.