New York’s Broadway: Why Do the Cab Drivers Hate It?

New York City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan is here in Sydney, and spoke last night at the City of Sydney’s CityTalks series, hosted as always by Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore.  Sadik-Khan gave her standard presentation on her work in New York, with emphasis on the conversion of traffic and parking space to pedestrian and park spaces.  She also highlighted the new Bus Rapid Transit project, called Select Bus Service, clearly distinguishing between SBS projects that are still compromised, such as First/Second Avenue and Fordham Road, and those that really will be fully exclusive-lane and thus highly reliable, such as the 34th Street line now under development.

Sadik-Khan was as eloquent as usual, but she was asked one question that seemed to deserve a better answer.  The question was “Why don’t the cab drivers like the removal of traffic lanes on Broadway?”

Broadway, a diagonal street across the otherwise regular midtown Manhattan grid, is gradually being converted from a through-traffic street to a low-traffic local street with a generous pedestrian and outdoor seating area, like this:


The remarkable thing about this project is that it not only created a lot of pedestrian space but also improved overall traffic flow on other streets of the Manhattan grid, or at least on the long north-south avenues.   Vehicular flows on these avenues actually improved, as measured by GPS transmitters located in all of the city’s taxis.

That outcome is credible because the diagonal intrusion of Broadway had always interrupted what were otherwise consistent flows of green-time along Manhattan’s parallel avenues.  At times when the rest of the grid flowed fairly well, intersections involving Broadway tended to be particular knots because Broadway required an extra signal phase.  De-emphasizing Broadway as a car traffic street has apparently had the effect of removing some of these knots.

So as Sadik-Khan reports it, the taxis themselves measured an improvement but the drivers of those same taxis still declared the change a failure.  Sydney is contemplating a street-repurposing project on George Street (coverting traffic lanes to pedstrian, bike, and light rail) that will be at least as impactful as the Broadway changes in New York, so Sydney listeners needed some useful advice on this point.  Taxi drivers, like hairdressers, get many opportunities to share their opinions with customers.  (This is especially true in Australia where solo customers usually sit in the front seat, so that chatting with the driver feels like a natural thing to do.)  Becuase taxi drivers are often intensely knowledgeable about the city and its traffic, it’s easy for the average citizen to assume that they’re experts about urban transport issues generally.

All Sadik-Khan offered on this was the usual “change is always difficult” line, or as she put it: “Everyone wants change so long as everything stays the same.”  Yes, taxi drivers may be thinking like NIMBYs, with feelings of entitlement about all the street space in the city, but many of them are also — as Sadik-Khan herself mentioned — very smart and practical.  Among such smart and practical people, why is there such disapproval of the changes to Broadway?   Does the taxi industry see no benefit in having more pedestrians on the streets of Manhattan?  After all, only pedestrians hail cabs …

22 Responses to New York’s Broadway: Why Do the Cab Drivers Hate It?

  1. ant6n November 11, 2010 at 8:19 pm #

    Well, I guess the question is whether cab drivers are interested in better flowing traffic.

  2. JJJ November 11, 2010 at 10:10 pm #

    I think you need a whole post about cab seating culture. I grew up in south america, and I always sat in front.
    I do the same in the US. I wonder if the cabs think Im odd….? I wonder if theyd make me sit in the back if I was 6 feet tall. Or not white. Or worse, both.

  3. EngineerScotty November 11, 2010 at 10:25 pm #

    In many places, taxicabs are fortified like police cars; with passengers in the back to protect the cabbie in front. When and where this is appropriate is an issue I’ll avoid…
    To consider the question at hand. On one hand, Broadway (and the businesses located thereon, particular the theatres) are a major source of patronage for cabbies, I suspect–if traffic changes are making it harder to pick up or drop off fares at these key destinations, that may be an issue. OTOH, not being able to travel diagonally on Broadway may be advantageous for the driver, if it lengthens a diagonal trip and thus increases the fare. OTTH (on the THIRD hand :), if the cabs are particularly busy, longer trips may mean fewer flagfalls–potentially reducing the cab’s revenue.
    Beyond that, I have no idea; and I don’t know if any of those are true and applicable.

  4. EngineerScotty November 11, 2010 at 10:36 pm #

    Maybe I’ve made too many trips to Hong Kong (have yet to visit Australia), but I just realized that the term “flagfall” (meaning the initial fee charged upon hiring a taxi–and referring to the old mechanical flags used to indicate whether a taxi was available or in use) doesn’t appear to be in common use in the US or the UK. The term has its origins Down Under, according to Wikipedia, and is also used there in other contexts to refer to startup/minimum charges (such as per-call connect charges for mobile phones). It’s also found in other English-speaking parts of Asia, apparently–including Hong Kong.
    Thought Jarrett might like this linguistic diversion. 🙂

  5. Alon Levy November 12, 2010 at 2:19 am #

    What I’ve found is that when I’m in a taxi, I get somewhat of a windshield perspective – i.e. I get more nervous when traffic is stop-and-go, or when there are obstacles and pedestrians around. Just like as riders we perceive transfers to take longer than time in transit, as drivers and passengers we perceive time spent in traffic or going around pedestrians to take longer than time in free-flowing motion. It’s possible that although traffic is faster, fewer people choose to take taxis.

  6. Tom West November 12, 2010 at 6:26 am #

    Re: EngineerScotty and “flagfall”. The british term is “minimum fare”, but I like “flagfall” better.

  7. Vin November 12, 2010 at 7:34 am #

    Perhaps it’s that, while there may be more pedestrians, there are fewer spots for them to hail cabs – I bet the cabbies got a lot of fares along Broadway.
    Could also be plain old resistance to change, though.

  8. Danny November 12, 2010 at 7:46 am #

    As a former truck driver, I can assure you that perception of travel time/distance is never quite perfect, and often is very inaccurate. It takes measurement and analysis to find the right answer. I have proven myself wrong multiple times on which route is the fastest route.

  9. anonymouse November 12, 2010 at 7:48 am #

    Also, I bet having fewer traffic lanes makes things more inconvenient for the cabbies. In NYC, the outermost lanes on the street are effectively taxi-stop lanes, and if there are only two lanes now, that makes it much less convenient for everyone when cabs do their typical short-term double parking.

  10. Jeffrey Bridgman November 12, 2010 at 11:04 am #

    Are taxi prices by distance or time…. if there’s a time element, being able to take Broadway to a popular destination could make the trip longer, translating into more revenue for taxi drivers. If the traffic flow is improved, the trip takes less time, and therefore less income for the drivers…

  11. bzcat November 12, 2010 at 11:12 am #

    Well, NYC taxi do charge by time and distance but I don’t think the overall revenue take for the driver has changed since Broadway went pedestrian friendly. The improve in traffic flow on the N-S Avenues may seem to suggest the cabs are going to their destination faster and thus earning less fare per ride. However, that ignores the fact that cabs that end their trip faster also begin the next trip earlier. I can’t really think of a reason why cab drivers would be against the change other than people are creature of habit and when you take away something they take for granted, people tend to dislike the outcome even if it is better overall.

  12. bzcat November 12, 2010 at 11:14 am #

    My previous post is missing a word…
    “Well, NYC taxi do charge by time and distance but I don’t think the overall revenue take for the driver has NOT changed since Broadway went pedestrian friendly.”

  13. Tom West November 12, 2010 at 12:26 pm #

    Every taxi fare system I’ve seen works along the same lines:
    1) a minimum fare
    2) an amount per distance travelled
    3) an amount per minute that the vehicle is stationary.
    The latter is normally quite small, to ensure that taxi drivers earn more minutes moving at a typical speed than sitting still.

  14. Wai Yip Tung November 12, 2010 at 3:09 pm #

    After reading the whole post I still haven’t heard any justification or what they dislike about.
    The most likely reason I can guest is a just cynicism to change. Unfortunate public cynicism is rather rampant in my experience.

  15. Brent November 13, 2010 at 2:05 pm #

    One lesson here — the Broadway experience isn’t necessarily directly applicable to all situations. The capacity reduction was mitigated by the fact that it removed bottlenecks on every street and avenue that Broadway intersects in three-way intersections.
    Another example was the removal of the east “stump” of the Gardiner Expressway in Toronto 10 years or so ago; although it removed a 2 km section of expressway, it didn’t markedly change overall capacity because the expressway capacity was dictated by a single-lane ramp bottleneck. The project removing the expressway actually ended up removing that bottleneck.

  16. Daniel Sparing November 14, 2010 at 11:59 am #

    well, that before-after picture is not fair as the change in green foliage is mostly a seasonal change 🙂 but of course otherwise this broadway project is amazing.

  17. Simon November 14, 2010 at 2:43 pm #

    If a person who is perceived as “anti-car” tells people that removing lanes from a road has made the traffic faster and smoother, the chances are they’re not going to be believed. Most people would think it a logical impossibility. The data from the GPS won’t convince them.
    Most people don’t understand traffic, even cabbies (maybe especially cabbies).

  18. Alon Levy November 14, 2010 at 4:05 pm #

    I just realized we’re operating on the unspoken assumption that cab drivers are actually opposed to the traffic closure measures. Are they?

  19. Jarrett at November 14, 2010 at 4:07 pm #

    Yes, that's what Sadik-Khan told us, in response to a specific question about whether the cab drivers supported her changes to Broadway.

  20. Alon Levy November 15, 2010 at 1:53 am #

    I didn’t actually see all that much opposition coming from cab driver; most of it came from business owners, if I remember correctly.

  21. Ed O November 15, 2010 at 7:39 am #

    I can understand taxi drivers being apprehensive at the time of implementation – but have they had problems adpating, and are there still ongoing issues after all this time? I don’t know – maybe there’s more inefficient circling, or pick-ups in the Times Square area have fallen and aren’t recovering. Cabbies may not fully understand traffic management, but they understand impacts on their costs, takings and bottom line. Only the taxi industry itself can tell us what the problems (real or perceived) are. It is however, up to the Commissioner to weigh the significance of these issues in any decision making about the closures.

  22. rhywun November 15, 2010 at 9:32 pm #

    I recall a few “man in the car” stories when this change first happened – one can imagine how those went – but as far as I can tell it’s a total non-issue now. The media raised a huge stink at the time though, enough so that I believe this whole “cabbies hate Broadway” meme still persists. I guess she can be forgiven for maybe being a little caught off guard by the question. What she should have said is something along the lines of “Maybe they hated it at first, but eventually they got used to it and now it’s not an issue at all.”