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CABBIES

GPS : “Genuinely Pointless Systems?”
By Daniel Marrin

 

For the last six months, New York cab driver Eric Okoe, 42, has been driving with one of the city’s new Global Positioning, or GPS, systems.  With the new system, riders can watch TV on a screen in the back seat.  They can also use that screen to pay the driver by credit card.  

 

On a Monday night, Okoe dropped a passenger off in Morningside Heights who chose the credit card option.  A tip calculator window popped open, with options for a 10, 15, or 20 percent tip.  The passenger pushed a button for 15 percent and instead the screen went blank. 

 

That’s one problem among many with the GPS system, problems that have drivers divided over whether their system is an asset or a rip off.

 

The city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) says that the GPS systems are now in almost all New York cabs.  The systems are on their way to other cities around the globe.  The GPS systems aren’t navigational.  Rather, they link the cab up to wireless networks, which is how the passenger is able to access electronic debit and credit card payment. 

 

Some drivers find the system  appealing.  Driver Eric Okoe said he is getting more fares with it despite the problems.   “A lot of people don’t have cash.  Now they have the credit card and charge it.  With me, it’s OK.”     

 

However, other drivers complain that the costs outweigh the benefits.  Each time a credit card is used, a 5-10 percent fee is cut from the driver’s wage for that fare.  In the end, that can mean losing the entire tip.   Drivers are also complaining that the system can be as unreliable for reception as a cell phone.  A driver may end up in a dead zone where the credit card option simply conks out on the machine. 

 

This costs time and in some cases entire fares, as passengers blame drivers and leave without paying.  This has some taxi workers saying the system needs to change.    

 

“This is a money-losing proposition,” said William Lindauer, campaigns coordinator for the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, which represents more than 7500 cabbies.  “We call the GPS the Genuinely Pointless System.”

 

Lindauer said that the Alliance anticipated problems.  Back in the late ‘90s, the city taxi commission failed with the “talking taxi” campaign, where celebrity voices told people to buckle their safety belts and remember their belongings.

 

 “It would go on when people were trying to tell where they were going,” he said.  “People detested it.”  By 2003, all yellow cabs were ordered to dismantle the device. 

 

Lindauer sees the GPS devices as another TLC folly that hurts drivers.  For one thing, the owners of the cabs have to pay for enhancements themselves, whether they want it or not.  Then there are the fees  drivers are charged for credit card usage, which can add up to 10 percent of their total fare.

 

“This is unheard of,” Lindauer said.  “If you’re a retailer, you pay a bank processing fee, sure.  But usually you pay no more than 2 percent.”   Here one fee is going to the bank and another to the vendors of the GPS system.  If the driver works for a garage, the owners of the garage also get a cut for administrative costs.  For the drivers, Lindauer said, “This is rip-off city.”     

 

 

The other rip-off, he said, is being done by the passengers who leave without paying when the system shuts down.   Lindauer said airport trips can be especially costly.  If a credit card gets no signal at the airport, some hurried passengers just leave, with the driver unpaid for what could be a $50 trip.    

 

Victor Salzar, a New York driver and organizer at the Taxi Workers Alliance, said he and his fellow drivers are getting frustrated with problems with reception.  If there’s no way to get reception at the passenger’s stop, drivers try going around the block for reception or looking for an ATM.  It annoys the passenger and delays the driver for whom time is everything, said Mr. Salzar.

 

 “Once a driver gets into the seat of his taxi, he already starts in a hole.  He has to make up the lease money and the gasoline money,” Salzar said.  The new system’s problems can add up to two minutes for each drop off.  When that’s accumulated across a day of trips, Salzar said “it can add up to half an hour of waste.” 

 

Taxi organizer Ron Blount is seeing similar problems in Philadelphia, where thousands of cabs have been outfitted with the GPS system.  Because the system is so slow to process a receipt and all of that, some passengers aren’t even taking the time to put in a tip in when they choose credit card transactions.  “It’s horrible,” he said of the system.  “It’s really really horrible here.” 

 

However, despite its pitfalls, some drivers still want the GPS system.  New York cabbie Robert Riofrio, 37, is looking forward to getting it.  “Every day, I’m losing two, three, four, five fares a day because I don’t have the credit card system,” he said.  “Once the public knows that all the cabs have credit card systems, there’s going to be a lot more business for us.”

 

The GPS is already being marketed to other cities.  Verifone, one of four vendors for the systems here in New York, has expanded to Fort Lauderdale and is planning for Chicago and Las Vegas.  They are even planning foreign marketing in Singapore and Mexico, said their public affairs officer, Pete Bartolik.      

 

Meanwhile, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance is asking drivers to call an 800 number any time the GPS system breaks down on them.  They’re putting the results into an ongoing survey.  The alliance is also in the City Council fighting the credit card fee structure. 

The alliance’s campaign coordinator William Lindauer remains opposed to the system.      

 

 “They call necessity the mother of invention,” Lindauer said, “but sometimes invention is just a mother.” 

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