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Usability of Taxi Cabs

Your standard yellow cab in New York has a light on top of the cab.  If the light is on, the cab is looking for a customer, and you can try to flag it down or rush to grab it before someone else takes it.  If the light is off, the cab is not looking for a customer, so you can safely ignore it.

Except it's not that simple.  There's a whole second pair of lights, labelled "Off Duty", around the main light.  When the "Off Duty" lights are on, then apparently the taxi is, well, off duty, regardless of the center light.

Am I the only one who finds this annoying?  As the pedestrian out in the rain, the ONLY thing I care about is whether the taxi is available or not.  The extra light gives no additional information that the first light didn't give.  Worse yet, sometimes taxis leave both lights on, in which case it's very difficult to tell at a glance whether it's in the "looking for customers" state or the "looking for customers, except not really, because I'm off duty" state.

This can't be well understood by the general populace either, because at least once a day I see someone trying to hail an "off duty" cab.  I have to admit to doing it at least once myself.  Is there any method behind the madness?

Jordan Lampe
Friday, March 21, 2003

Ah, so that's what the theory behind the lights is. I tried to figure out the lights too, but when I noticed that both the cabs with lights on and with lights off pick up customers, I decided that the cabbies just don't use them.

This reminded me about those little lights on top of electric poles and street lamps.  I could not guess their purpose, until one day I've read that they used to signify places that had fire and police alarm telegraph boxes (which were removed some time ago).

Michael Krakovskiy
Friday, March 21, 2003

I think the official purpose of the "Off Duty" light is so you don't get angry when the cab won't stop for you because it looks empty.

Between 4-5 (am or pm), "Off Duty" means the cabbie is in a rush to return his cab at the end of his shift, and will take you if you're going some place close, but will not take you to the airport or anywhere out of his way. By turning on the Off Duty light he avoids getting in trouble for refusing a fare based on the destination, which is illegal, but since the shifts change at 5, you can't blame them... they get in deep trouble if they don't get the car back on time.

Which explains why there are zero cabs around at 5 PM.

Joel Spolsky
Friday, March 21, 2003

The real joy of this 5 PM drought is that ALL of the cab companies are on this schedule, so if you're looking for a cab at this time you're really in trouble.

A friend of mine in the Bronx also introduced me to the basics of using 'gypsy' cabs, which are much more frequently used in the outer burroughs.  These cabs are usually big, shiny black cars with a big radio antenna and a sticker on one of the windows with the name of the limo company they work for.

There's no internal partition between the driver and passengers usually, and there is no meter.  When you hail one, you tell them the destination and they'll give you their price, which should be comparable to the metered price.

You don't need to worry about it in most of Manhattan, but if, for example, you're going up to Columbia and take the wrong train up to 116th street you might find this advice useful.


Charles Lewis
Tuesday, March 25, 2003

By my experience, Gypsy cabs are almost always about 20% more expensive then the yellows (maybe I need to barter, or I look like a sucker), and you have to be absolutely sure that you get a price from them in advance.  I believe they aren't supposed to pick you up, but most will.  You're supposed to call for one.  A few are unlicenced and illegal.  I prefer the yellows, but outside of Manhattan or the airports you often can't get a yellow.

Keith Wright
Tuesday, March 25, 2003

Most cabbies don't put both Off Duty and Available lights on at the same time. Some do, of course, and they can be annoying, but I guess you learn to spot 'em.

That being said - if you see two lights (ie there's that separation in the middle), it's off duty. If you see one, it's available. If you don't see any, don't bother :)

Not too bad, I think. But in the rain, I agree - you don't care why you can't get in the cab, you just want to know if you can or not.

Joel, a question to your point about destination discrimination.... are cabbies obligated to take out-of-borough fares? A lot of friends who live in Jersey (ie  Hoboken or Jersey City) especially always have to haggle before they get in the cab, and more often than not the cabbie refuses to take them home!!

And I'm not talking about haggling on price - my friend offered him 50$ once when it was raining, and the guy still wouldn't go. Hell, even though I live in Manhattan, we were closer to his place than we were to mine, and the same cab had no problem taking me home.

Tim Marman
Wednesday, March 26, 2003

    Tim, yeah, there's this mental boundary between NJ and Manhattan that cabbies freak out about.  I had a similar experience trying to get back from Hoboken once; for what amounts to a short trip through a tunnel, they were asking for JFK-level fares.  I ended up taking the PATH for a buck instead.

Charles Lewis
Wednesday, March 26, 2003

Yeah, that sucks. I'm supposed to go to Hoboken to meet friends tomorrow, and I'm not happy about the prospect of getting home (to Manhattan) at 2am :)

I guess the thing Joel mentioned is only valid within the 5 boroughs. Can a cab also refuse to take you to JFK?

Or is out-of-borough not metered by default, and thus it's negotiable?

Tim Marman
Thursday, March 27, 2003

I'm not positive, but my sense is that you're  correct: the fare for rides between cities (states!) is negotiable.

It is _definitely_ true that if a cab stops for you, he's legally obliged to take you to your (within the 5 burroughs) destination.  I generally let it slide if someone doesn't want to, but feel free to jump in the back seat as soon as they stop and then threaten to call the T&LC if they give you any lip. 

In the first season of Michael Moore's TV Nation (1994), there was a damning segment on how NY cab drivers refused to stop for black passengers.  I think that since then the city has put their foot down on this practice, as well as the practice of refusing passengers based on destination.


Charles Lewis
Friday, March 28, 2003

Tim, all of these rules are posted in cabs. Cabs must take you to any place in NYC (including JFK), Newark Airport, and anywhere in Westchester (and maybe Nassau) count. The fare outside of those places (including the rest of NJ) is supposed to be negotiated between the driver and the cabbie, and the cabbie can refuse the fare.

I was once in Hoboken and needed to get back home to Manhattan at around 2 AM. I was with some people, and we hailed an off-duty NYC cab which picked us up. We asked to be taken to the train station, but since he was going to Manhattan anyway he offered to take us for $50. We got him down to about half that and took the ride.

Michael Davidson
Friday, March 28, 2003

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