Friday, January 27, 2012

Still Life With Robin: A New York Taxi Ride

by Peggy Robin

The  Cleveland Park Listserv  had a lively discussion earlier this month about ways to improve DC taxis. We could make them all the same color; they should have devices to take credit card payments; they should all have functioning availability lights on top, they should have a GPS map to show where they're going, and so on. All of these things would make them more like New York City taxis, that is, in superficial ways.

Whatever changes or improvements are mandated for DC cabs, it takes a real New York taxicab ride to remind you how different New York taxis are from the cabs we have in this slower-paced town.

I'm talking about the way taxis ping-pong around the streets of New York, and the how the ebb and flow of traffic changes the way the drivers negotiate the traffic -- and negotiate with each other. I'm talking about what happens when the two true New York cab drivers are intending to put their cabs in the same place at the same time. I was recently the passenger in one of those cabs, and for a time it felt as if I had stepped into some comic (though harrowing) movie scene, with badly stereotyped characters as the opposing drivers. Picture this:

My cab driver is making incredible time as he zooms up the Third Avenue, a one-way street going north, in the middle of a weekday afternoon. At first he's catching all the green lights, dodging double-parked delivery vans, and whizzing around construction sites and other obstacles with wondrous agility. But then the traffic starts to become thicker, and he's got to jockey for position, competing against other cabs and car services for the next available space ahead. He jumps ahead of a few cabs, engendering some hard, honking rebukes. And then another cab driver beats him --by an agonizingly small margin of error-- to the barely available car-length in the line of cars moving forward on his left. I gasp aloud as this happens, sure as I am that he won't yield in time and that the next thing I will hear is the hard crunch of metal against metal. However, at the last possible instant, he stops his own forward motion to let the other cab slide through. But he's not happy about it, and at the same time he's hitting the brakes, he's giving the other driver the finger.

The next thing he does, as soon as he's free to move, is to step on the gas to bring his cab alongside the usurping cab at the next red light. Then he rolls down the window and lets the other driver have an earful. His vocabulary for this barrage is admirably fluent, though I gather from his accent and his displayed name that English is his second language and that he is from someplace in the Middle East. The other driver, a West African, rolls down his window to defend himself and his driving. He's equally articulate and equally angry. Each is still critiquing the other's driving when the light turns green and the cabs behind them start honking in unison. I'm just wondering if they're going to get out of the car and turn their verbal fight into a physical one, when at last, my driver hits the accelerator and races off at high speed, leaving the other guy far behind.

"There's a lot of crazy drivers in this city," he explains to me, when we reach my destination. I was thinking, that goes for both of you. And I also was thinking, while there may be a lot about DC cabs that could use improvement, the drivers (in my experience) aren't known their aggressiveness. Maybe that's one thing to be grateful for.


"Still Life With Robin" also appears on Fridays on the Cleveland Park Listserv.


  1. You have just described another thing that makes NYC cabs far superior over DC cabs -- the drivers. They can actually drive and get you somewhere on time. I do not see the driving you described as a negative. All too often, I am driving behind a DC cab which is loping along, straddling two lanes, apparently with all the time in the world to go nowhere. And, did you notice that the cabs in NYC are cheaper than DC? How is that? NYC is a much more expensive city, fuel is much more expensive, etc. This just confirms that the DC cab drivers cry of "foul" over the current rates is, itself, foul.

  2. It's funny -- I almost ended my column with an appreciation of the way NY cab drivers drive: How well they know the city and how they don't like to waste any time. And after all, the two drivers did manage to avoid crashing. Still, that surge of adrenaline I felt when I thought the two taxis would collide is something I'd prefer to avoid. On balance I have to come down on the side of safety. But I do take your very valid point about the positive side of NY cabbies' driving style.

    On another point, I've also been dismayed at how often I need to give DC cab drivers directions to get from downtown to Cleveland Park. I've never had to give directions in NYC.