Plan to Improve Outer-borough Taxi Service Hits Roadblocks

The Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC), along with the mayor’s office, has been working to address what they have called the “outer-borough problem.” According to the TLC, taxi service outside Manhattan is nearly non-existent, leaving riders with little choice but to hail “gypsy cabs.” These vehicles are not licensed by the TLC and operate illegally.

Improving taxi service outside of Manhattan is a major initiative of the mayor’s office, but the plan has not come without its fair share of controversy. TLC medallion holders voiced their concern that one of the proposed programs would devalue their medallions’ face value. Bushwick riders said they thought the the black car service cost less than yellow cabs. Livery industry representatives said they thought the initiative would destroy the livery business model.

Despite the controversy, the TLC is pushing forward with the mayor’s stated goal.

According to TLC Commissioner David Yassky the outer-borough problem is the result of licensed yellow cabs staying within Manhattan, where it is easier for them to get fares. Citing data compiled by the TLC, Yassky said at a Bushwick community board meeting in March that 97 percent of all taxi pick ups occur in Manhattan or at the airports. In the absence of taxi service, Yassky said, 22 thousand “gypsy cabs” serve the outer boroughs, representing a need for the TLC to expand its operations.

Allan Fromberg, TLC deputy commissioner for public affairs, said the outer-borough plan had not been finalized and that the TLC is working closely with legislators and stakeholders to develop the best program. Because of this, it is unclear what the TLC is planning, although two possibilities seem likely.

The first possibility is a program that will enable TLC-commissioned livery cars to legally pick-up riders who hail them off the street. Vehicles under this program would be required to adopt some additional TLC equipment, such as a fare meter, a credit-card reader and a roof lamp. The TLC had been promoting this program to the community boards in March and April.

The second possibility, according to reports from the New York Times on April 27 and May 12, citing unnamed sources familiar to the outer-borough discussion, is the creation of a new type of yellow cab which will be prohibited from picking up riders inside Manhattan. According to these reports, the outer-borough yellow cab program supersedes the plan to allow livery drivers to pick-up street-hailers, although Fromberg declined to verify the reports and insisted that the livery-street-hail plan had not been scrapped.

“I can’t speak to a New York Times article that is unattributed,” Fromberg said. “You can not find anything in that article with official corroboration.”

Although Fromberg declined to provide specific details regarding the current state of the outer-borough initiative, he said that the TLC was confident that it would meet the mayor’s goal of improved taxi service outside of Manhattan, “regardless of the way that happens.”

One of the biggest opponents to proposal to allow livery driver’s to pick-up street-hails is the Livery Round Table, a livery industry interest group which represents over 26,000 workers in the tri-state area. Guy Palumbo, round-table executive director, speaking at the same community board meeting as Yassky, said that the livery organization supported the TLC’s goal of improving outer borough taxi service as well as condemned the practice of illegal street-hailing by livery vehicles.

According to Palumbo, allowing livery drivers to operate as both a dispatch service and a street pick-up service would reduce the effectiveness of the base operator. Palumbo said that because livery drivers would be preoccupied with serving their street hailed riders, the pool of available riders would be reduced, thus increasing delivery time and hurting the industry’s reputation with riders.

In Bushwick and many urban neighborhoods outside of Manhattan, “gypsy cabs” are a common sight. Some are licensed by the TLC as livery vehicles, others are not licensed at all. All are picking up street-hailers illegally. At any time on Broadway one may hear the staccato of the black car’s horn, vying for passengers. Either oblivious or indifferent to the fact that these drivers are breaking the law, riders seem to have no reservations about getting in a “gypsy cab.”

440 Car Services

440 Car Services on Myrtle Avenue

Javier Barreto, a driver for 440 Car Service on Myrtle Avenue, said that he was dubious that there is an outer-borough problem. “There’s already enough cabs [car services] in Bushwick. We don’t need any yellow cabs. That’s why they’re in Manhattan,” Barreto said. “Everything is money, that’s it.”

Barreto said that he thought the program to bring yellow cabs to the outer boroughs would hurt the local car service industry by reducing the number of calls they receive.

“When they open a new car service in our area, it reduces our calls. I’d imagine if we had yellow cabs working here there would be even less calls,” he said. “It’s going to be a loss for us.”

Luis Gonzalez, another 440 driver, also said he believed the new yellow cab program was “all about the bacon,” but he did not have the same fears Barreto had. He said he did not believe business would be hurt, “because the service we provide, we go straight to your house and pick you up. Yellow cabs don’t do this.”

Maritza Rodriguez, Bushwick resident, said the black cars “help the community a lot, especially people like my mom. She uses them when she goes to the hospital.”

Rodriguez also said that she thinks black cars cost less than their yellow cab counterparts, and said she did not like the idea of black cars adopting meters. “With the meter, whew, it will go sky high,” she said. “Don’t put no meters. Everything is good. They should leave it the way it is.”

Andrew Hennifeld, Bushwick resident, said he would not use yellow cabs if they began appearing in Bushwick. “It’s a rip off! It will be a terrible thing if the car service industry gets hurt. A lot of people rely on the black cars,” he said. “It’ll be sad day in Bushwick.”

Yassky said in March that he hoped to see a program go to the City Council by June, but in light of recent developments, it is unlikely to be voted on that soon. Fromberg said he could not say for certain when the plan would be voted on.

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Census Data Shows White People Moving to Bushwick

New Condos

The construction site of a new condo building on Myrtle Avenue.

Once known for its high crime and derelict buildings, Bushwick has been undergoing a shift from a dangerous Brooklyn hood to a place where you can discuss fine art over some coffee.

According to recently released data from the census bureau, white people have been moving in hordes to Bushwick. Of 16 census tracts located around central Bushwick, the white population tripled from 2,500 in 2000 to 7,600 last year. The only other ethnic group to see a net increase in population was Asian, which rose 45 percent to 3,800.

Although Hispanics still account for 70 percent of the Bushwick population, their numbers have dropped roughly 2 percent from 47,200 in 2000 – when Bushwick was 80 percent Hispanic – to 46,500. The black population also saw a small but significant decrease of 4 percent, brining their count to 5,700 – which marked the first time in decades that there has been more whites than blacks living in Bushwick.

Good Bye Blue Monday

Good Bye Blue Monday on Broadway.

Matthew Varvile, 28, employee of the Broadway coffee shop Good Bye Blue Monday. Said living in Bushwick “was like living in the West during the western land rush. It was boom time.”

Varvil lived in Bushwick for five years prior to moving in 2010. In that time he described the neighborhood as undergoing gentrification, but said the recession slowed the process. “The gentrification would have been more complete if not for the economic collapse,” he said. “After the bottom fell out of the market, the condos stayed empty. I have actually seen condos go up and come down.”

Varvil moved to Bushwick in 2005 from New Orleans because “it was Katrina time. I didn’t know where to go.” He said he decided to move to Bushwick because many of his friends and neighbors were going there. He has been working on and off at Good Bye Blue Monday ever since.

Lovan Alexander Berényi, 25, moved to Bushwick from France two years ago after falling in love with a local girl. Having a background in carpentry, he said that he has noticed an alarming decline in the quality of construction since he arrived.

“A lot of the lofts are very poorly renovated, made to the cheapest and fastest capacity,” Berényi said. “Houses are falling apart and it’s not right. If you demand more money in an area, you need to develop it.”

Bushwick

Overhead view of a typical Bushwick trash heap.

Banging on his living room wall, he pointed to where the wall met the ceiling, a junction which he said was fine when he moved in, now coming undone. “Luxury condos” like Berényi’s are sprouting up all over Bushwick in place of the trash-ridden lots and the condemned buildings that pepper the neighborhood’s streets.

The businesses are also changing to meet the growing white demographic. “Hipster” bars and cafés now appear among the Mexican restaurants and the bodegas. “Do-it-yourself” music venues are appearing in the warehouses and lofts.

Henry Glucoft, 25, cofounder of the Willoughby Avenue coffee shop Little Skips said his store attracted all types of “young and creative people.” Smoking a bummed hand-rolled cigarette outside his shop, Glucoft said “I feel like Bushwick gives hope to other creative neighborhoods to see positive urban development.”

Whether Bushwick will become the new Williamsburg by 2020 is anyone’s guess, but Varvil speculated, “I really don’t think gentrification is going to stop anywhere in America, people are going to have to change their expectation of what urban living is.”

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TLC Plans New Program to License ‘Gypsy Cabs’

On a tour of the outer boroughs, NYC Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) Commissioner David Yassky presented to the Bushwick Community Board March 16 a new program to extend street-hailing privileges to dispatch drivers in the outer boroughs. According to Yassky, a vacuum of yellow cab service has created a market for unlicensed “gypsy cabs” which prowl the outer-borough streets.

“Our goal,” Yassky said, “is to take what car services are doing now – which is picking up people off the street – and make it legitimate.”

The program would allow livery car owners to licence their vehicles to allow them to make street pick-ups as well as the prearranged pickups they are already entitled. Yassky stressed that dispatchers would not need to purchase a taxi medallion but rather would need to pay a few hundred dollar licence fee. Each dual use vehicle would be required to use a TLC meter and would need a roof light, GPS equipment and credit card readers installed. Drivers of these dual purpose vehicles would also need to get taxi driving certification.

Also touring the boroughs behind Yassky, Guy Palumbo, executive director of the Livery Round Table, a group representing over 2,600 livery employees, responded to the commissioner’s presentation by expressing concern that the TLC’s proposed dual licensing system posed a threat to the car service industry and would damage it over time. According to Palumbo, dual-licensed vehicles would be less reliable at performing prearranged calls because street pick-ups would distract drivers from the base, reducing the amount of available drivers and slowing customer service.

“We are not a taxi service, we are a prearranged service,” Palumbo said of the car service industry. “When a car is both, there is no way to account or control it.”

Palumbo suggested that a better course of action would be to create a separate system to regulate taxi-cabs in the outer boroughs. According to Palumbo, separate systems would allow the different sectors of the market to “focus on their specific areas of expertise.”

Palumbo also warned that drivers under the new program would lose their workers’ compensation and incur higher insurance rates because of regulatory differences between livery and street-hailing vehicles.

Despite Palumbo’s reservations to the TLC’s program, he said that he was in favor of increased enforcement of street-hailing laws, saying that dispatch drivers who performed illegal street hails harmed base operations and increased delivery times.

After speaking, Yassky took a some time to field questions from the crowd – however, because Yassky arrived an hour late to the meeting, the question period was brief. Most attendees were left with their questions unanswered by the time the commissioner left out the front door, Palumbo hot on his trail.

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Bushwick Bar Serves Super Deals

Our Heroes

Gotham City Lounge, underneath the elevated train.

Underneath the elevated train sits Gotham City Lounge, a comic book themed dive bar located in the heart of Bushwick. A mural of Batman and Superman on its brick exterior—complete with pop-out busts of our heroes’ heads—greets passers-by. A ring of the bell followed by a buzz of the front door and one enters a strange place where super hero and super villain alike put aside their differences to order “the special.”

Inside Gotham’s red and blue walls is an impressive collection of comic book memorabilia—hanging from the ceiling and inside cuts in the wall. The bar itself is a collage of comic book cut-outs underneath a layer of plastic. Also alluring are the bar’s famous low prices.

At three dollars for a shot of whiskey and a can of Pabst beer, “the special” is Gotham’s key draw. A selection of beer and a menu of super-hero-named drinks is also provided for those times when the special is not called for.

"The Special"

A shot of Old Crow and a PBR -- "The Special"

“We have all types of people come in here,” said Jeff Whyte, 40, a bartender at Gotham City Lounge. “We have artists, musicians, writers. They all order the special.”

Smoking outside the bar was a group of Pratt University graduates. Among them Rebecca Memoli, 25, a former Bushwick resident and longtime Gotham City patron. She said that although she no longer lived near Gotham City Lounge, she still liked to go there to escape the noise of Williamsburg.

“We were actually going to take the L into Williamsburg but then we saw the M and decided that we actually wanted to hear our conversations tonight,” she said. “So we came to Bushwick.”

Evan Dolcher was at Gotham for the first time and was nothing but thrilled with the bar. A comic book fan himself, Dolcher was impressed with Gotham’s collection. “Especially the Ghost Rider issue, I have never seen that before,” he said.

Dolcher then proceeded to get into a serious debate about the Watchmen series—something that Memoli said happened all too often at the bar. “I’ve heard some pretty ridiculous arguments before,” she said. “All the time there are people getting into these heated debates.”

Dave Nicholas, 22, a Bushwick resident and student at Queens College, said that he liked Gotham’s atmosphere and the diversity of the crowd. Nicholas said stops in for a drink once every few weeks.

“it’s not just a regular bar with bottles in the back. There’s something more to it than that, something that makes it more interesting than the regular Mexican and hipster bars around Bushwick,” he said.

Whether it’s the flow of whiskey or the comic-book decor that keeps customers coming back, Gotham City Lounge is located at 1293 Myrtle Avenue, right underneath the Central Avenue stop on the M line. There it stands in stark defiance to the injustice of the over-priced beer—five nights a week until 4 AM.

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