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Hail to the Cabbies: Global Adventures in Sitting : CABBIES: Adventures

July 12, 1987|PETER S. GREENBERG | Greenberg is a Los Angeles free-lance writer

Here's the story line of an upcoming movie called "Graveyard Shift": "When a 350-year-old vampire drives a cab on the night shift in New York City, terror is his favorite passenger . . . and the meter is running." Sound familiar?

To be sure, New York City's cabbies always have had a dubious reputation. It's been said that you don't simply ride in a taxi in the Big Apple . . . you attempt to survive in one.

That's not really fair, actually. Considering traffic and the general condition of the roadways (after all, a trip up potholed Madison Avenue is often more grueling than the Baja 500), the New York taxi drivers do a reasonably good job.

New York has 11,787 yellow Medallion cabs, with 41,000 licensed drivers. And last year only 15 drivers had their licenses revoked because of passenger complaints.

Don't Speak English

There are problems, of course. A new generation of non-English-speaking taxi drivers has made it more difficult to get around the city. Another problem in New York--added to a recent 22% fare increase--is driver attitude.

Recently, the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission conducted a sting operation called "Easy Rider." A total of 35 inspectors, most of whom were black or Puerto Rican, hailed cabs and asked to be taken to "popular refusal points"--the South Bronx, Harlem or Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. All told, 14% of the drivers refused.

Still, I'd rather take my chances with a cab ride in New York than a lot of other places.

In New Delhi, for instance, finding a cab is often impossible. You can't hail one on the street, taxi stands are difficult to find and, if you should be lucky enough to find one, remember that cabs in New Delhi have a nasty tendency to break down.

In Lagos, Nigeria, you don't hail a cab, you beg for one. And then you argue over the fare.

Negotiate Your Fare

In Mexico City, negotiate your fare before you get into the cab. Few taxis have meters, and those that do don't work.

The same is true in Thailand, where taxis have meters that are nothing more than ornamental. One general rule in negotiating your fare: Whatever the driver asks, divide by three and settle at one-third the asking price.

In Bangkok at least the non-working meters benefit passengers: The traffic is frequently voted the worst in the world, and long waits on city streets are normal.

Sometimes the meters in Asian taxis can work in your favor. In Manila the taxi meters start at 12 cents U.S., and the fare inches upward at glacier-like speed.

You find "Indiana Jones Autograph Model" taxis in Cairo. Imagine a car that has been repeatedly crashed into a wall. Other than the engine, only the horn works. You are now in an Egyptian taxi. There are, however, two compensations to taking a taxi in Cairo.

First, you don't have to take the bus, meaning you inhale less fumes and dust. And the second is--assuming you negotiate the cab fare before you get into the taxi--the drivers are quite friendly.

Often, cities only solve their taxi problems when faced with major national or international events.

Cabs Cleaned Up

In Australia, Perth worked hard to clean up its cabs in time for the America's Cup races. And Brisbane, home of next year's Expo '88, has 1,425 taxis divided between only two companies. The taxi council of Queensland is hard at work inspecting the taxis and starting a drivers' educational program to help them learn more about their city.

Atlanta, host to next summer's Democratic National Convention, is facing a similar problem. Many of the city's taxis are driven by newcomers to Atlanta who don't know their way around the city.

In Korea, cabs are cheap--if you speak Korean. Otherwise, unless you are carrying a Korean map of where you need to go, prepare to get hopelessly lost.

Most taxis and taxi drivers in Seoul are getting ready for next year's Summer Olympics. Drivers are being given crash courses in English, and the government says it will severely restrict licenses to any taxi driver who is not basically fluent in English by next September.

The one city that has no excuses for a bad taxi system is Washington, D.C.

Nothing can be more confusing than cabs and cab fares in the nation's capital. It's been said that almost a third of the city's 11,000 drivers have no license or valid insurance, and often have no idea where they are going.

Bad Driving Records

Other drivers have notoriously bad driving records. Recently I was a passenger in a Washington cab that suddenly lurched to the left and smashed into a large delivery truck. It soon became obvious that this was not my driver's first brush with another vehicle.

He nonchalantly shook his head, reached into his glove compartment and pulled out a camera he keeps with him to record such events.

The zone fare system in Washington is confusing. So is the cab situation in Kansas City. At the airport I counted 18 cab companies, and fares ranged from $20 to $28 to go to the city's Crown Center.

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