If you've been a little puzzled by recent coverage of various taxi-related issues in the media lately, don't feel bad. It's not your fault. For some reason, the news organizations and blogs seem more interested in talking about the way someone wants to see the system work, or the way someone says the system works, or the way the law says the system works, and not much interested in describing how the system actually works.
For example, you may have noticed that the Bloomberg administration is trying to get taxis to pick up passengers outside of Manhattan. Then you read that the Bloomberg administration is punishing taxi drivers that pick up passengers outside of Manhattan. Nobody points out the inconsistencies.
In this post I'll try to give you my understanding of how for-hire passenger transportation works in the city, as actually practiced. And yes, I'll call them all taxis.
First, you have the "medallion cabs," which number a little over 13,000. These are all painted yellow by law with lights on top to indicate availability. By law they charge set fees based on distance and time, as measured by meters. They are allowed to pick up passengers by being hailed on the street, but they mostly pick up in Manhattan below 96th Street and to the airports. They are often based in Queens, and may pick up passengers between their bases and Manhattan.
Then you have the "livery cabs," also called "car services" or "gypsy cabs." The vehicles are usually Lincoln Town Cars with license plates that read "T" followed by a long string of digits. They can be any color but yellow, and almost never have lights on top. Livery cars are all associated with a "base" with a dedicated dispatcher, and they may display stickers identifying their base. The fees may be posted on the base's website, but are often negotiable.
Most passengers hire a livery cab by calling the dispatcher or walking into the base. Some services can be reserved by email or text message. Many accept corporate accounts. By law, drivers are forbidden to pick up passengers who hail them on the street. In practice, they cruise any street with reasonably heavy pedestrian traffic north of 96th Street or outside Manhattan. Because they have no lights on top, they indicate their availability by tapping their horns at passing pedestrians.
"Black cars" are the highest-quality, best-maintained livery cabs, usually painted black. The black car services only accept corporate accounts, and often have standing arrangements to bring employees to work and back. Many companies have a "guaranteed ride home" policy where any employee who works later than a certain time (such as 9PM) is entitled to a black car ride home at the company's expense.
Every once in a while you'll also see a plan to create taxi stands in the outer boroughs. For some reason they never mention that there are already taxi stands in several locations near major transit hubs. There are two near me in Queens. Of course they're completely illegal: the drivers feed the meters in commercial parking spaces. But they're there.
In practice, then, you can hail a yellow cab in Manhattan below 96th Street. You can hail a livery cab or find a taxi stand in the rest of Manhattan or in the subway-accessible outer boroughs. In the rest of the city, the former "two fare zone," you can typically only get a ride by calling a car service.
That's the way it is. Some people would like it to be different, and they have various plans to bring that about. In future posts I'll talk about some of these complaints and proposals.