A couple weeks ago, I observed that taxis can help us with our goals of reducing pollution, carnage and obesity and increasing efficiency, fairness and social connections. But they can only do that by making it easy for people not to own a car, and they can only accomplish that by being available and reliable. I would add that they need to be affordable - cheaper than a car, when used in combination with transit, cycling and walking.
The yellow cab system in Manhattan serves our goals. My father is an example: he ran a successful small business for twenty years without a driver's license, using taxis when he needed to transport moderately heavy equipment. Thousands of Manhattanites rely on yellow cabs for all kinds of trips where they feel that buses and subways are inadequate.
The de facto gypsy cab system in the "inner boroughs" (roughly, Manhattan north of 96th Street, the Bronx west of the Bronx River, Queens west of Flushing Meadows and Forest Park, Brooklyn west of Kings Highway, and Staten Island north of the Staten Island Expressway) is also pretty successful at integrating with transit to provide an alternative to car ownership. To the extent it succeeds, it does so because it's available (the gypsy cabs cruise the streets and respond to hails) and affordable (the rates are often lower than yellow cab fares for comparable trips).
Reliability is the big question in the "inner boroughs." "The Changeling" on the Bed-Stuy Blog gives a list of shortcomings: (1) from a distance it's hard to tell whether a car is a livery cab and whether it's already taken, (2) the honking that substitutes for availability lights is annoying, (3) haggling is difficult, and some passengers resort to flirting, (4) some cars and drivers are unlicensed and some dispatchers are unprofessional.
In the true outer boroughs (the South Shore of Staten Island and the eastern parts of the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens), the problem is availability. The car services simply don't cruise. And honestly, there's also an availability problem in Manhattan at peak periods. During rush hour in the rain you can stand for a long time, and fights over taxis are not uncommon.
In essence, there are three problems, then: availability problems in Manhattan and the outer boroughs, and reliability problems in the "inner boroughs." So what can we do about these problems? I'll take a look at some of the Bloomberg administration's proposals in future posts.