How Some Illegal Taxi Drivers Are Fighting Back Against the Green Cab Program
It was a busy night, two days before Christmas, and the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant were packed with shoppers. So Emmanuel* was out later than usual. He had just picked up one last fare from his corner in Bed-Stuy, which was usually a safe zone, but moments later he was pulled over by a Ford Econoline van. Emmanuel knew the model. It was what New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission officers used when they did undercover sweeps for illegal cab drivers.
He also knew what came next: Two TLC officers would approach his car; he'd roll his window down; one of them would reach in and take his key. He would be booked for driving without TLC plates, his car would be impounded, and he'd have to pay a big fine to get it back. The TLC had recently begun cracking down on illegal, or "gypsy," cab drivers, more than ever before, and this was its modus operandi. So, as the van idled behind him, and as the TLC officers appeared to call for backup, Emmanuel quietly shifted into drive, stepped hard on the gas, and peeled off. The officers, caught flat-footed, didn't even try to chase him.
"If they're young and they're new, they might want to chase you," Emmanuel says later, from inside his black Crown Victoria, a car the Ford Motor Company produced from 1992 until 2011, mainly for law enforcement and taxi drivers. His is a 2008 model, and the inside is pristine, with deep leather seats and a steering wheel wrapped in a black leather cover. The car has never given him a problem in the two and a half years he's been driving it, he brags, adding that it's much faster than the TLC agents' undercover vehicles — typically a Ford Focus or an Econoline. "The cars that they drive could never compete with this car," he says. "This car holds about 320 horses in the engine." The fastest he's ever driven it, he says, is 140 mph.
Emmanuel and about a dozen other drivers share a busy corner in Bed-Stuy, just more than a mile from the Barclays Center. From there they can pick up a steady stream of passengers returning from work. Some of the drivers on the corner are not licensed to operate cabs, and although some do have the required TLC plates, all of them operate illegally in one way or another. To protect themselves against the increasing TLC enforcement, they have formed a crew.
All illustrations by Greg Houston
Emmanuel, 29, has been on the corner the longest, since 2011. He is the de facto leader of the group. A native of Flatbush, he's an imposing figure, at almost 300 pounds, with a shaved head and a fuzzy chinstrap beard. He has worked various jobs — most recently at a Starbucks and then a Lowe's — but he became an unlicensed cab driver after realizing he didn't like working under somebody else. Now he's the boss of a whole crew. A single father, Emmanuel is always willing to give advice to the younger drivers, mostly about how to protect one another from the emerging threats to their enterprise.
On some days, "protection" means popping the tires of one of the city's growing number of "green cabs," some of which have started trying to pick up passengers on Emmanuel's corner, the exact cross streets of which he disclosed to the Voice on the condition that it not be shared for publication. On other days it means doing the same to the TLC officers' vehicles. On occasion, Emmanuel says, he and his crew will give a TLC car what they call an "oil change." This entails waiting until the officers are out of the vehicle, then pouring motor oil over the windshield, making the car almost undrivable. Some of the drivers have also started to carry Mace, which doubles as a safeguard against dangerous passengers and a potential weapon to use on TLC officers.
But most of the time, Emmanuel's job means coordinating evasions of the authorities. His efforts initially earned him the nickname "The Enforcer," a sobriquet he now uses to describe a younger driver named Alex*, another member of the crew. Alex, who wears dreads and is half Emmanuel's size, does all the tire-popping and "oil changing" these days. "You know what I do to TLC?" says Alex, letting out a high-pitched laugh. "I give them a hard time."
Emmanuel says having Alex do the dirty work only makes sense. "You can't have a 6-foot-1, 270-pound dude flatten a tire; you're going to see him as soon as he goes down," he says. Emmanuel is big, but looks even bigger in his oversized gray sweatshirt, baggy jeans, and skullcap. "I tell them what to do. But I never get my hands dirty." Alex, he adds, "gets a thrill out of doing it."
With the green cabs — cheaper, city-licensed taxis that serve only the outer boroughs — starting to encroach on their turf, protection seems needed on the corner more than ever. The neighborhood has also begun to change, bringing withit more enforcement. "At one point it was so easy...TLC wasn't enforcing at all," Emmanuel says. "But then they added the Barclays Center, they added major attractions that they know people will use taxis to get to....Then they started coming out like crazy."
* We spoke to many drivers who requested that we not use their real names. All such drivers are referred to by pseudonyms.
Perhaps understandably, TLC officials don't often talk publicly about their face-offs with unlicensed drivers, although the battle between illegal taxis and city enforcers has been going on for decades. TLC officers are currently required to complete a 10-week training program before they head out to the streets. In the program, prospective officers learn the commission's rules and regulations, as well as how to defend themselves against attacks like those described by Emmanuel. When they're on patrol, they wear bulletproof vests and carry batons and pepper spray. TLC Chief Operating Officer Conan Freud says officers are required to report any damage to their vehicles and that there have been no reports of damaged tires or oil-slicked cars. But, he adds, "I'm not going to say it never takes place."
David Yassky, who served as TLC commissioner from 2010 to 2014 under former mayor Michael Bloomberg, is more open about the abuses the TLC officers faced battling illegal cabs under his tenure. "Without question, they sometimes encountered hostility from people who don't want to be penalized for breaking the law," he tells the Voice. The TLC did not make current commissioner Meera Joshi available for interviews.
But TLC spokesman Allan Fromberg acknowledges that sometimes inspectors do get injured in the field. One way, he says, is when drivers attempt to pull away after being stopped — just as Emmanuel did in the incident that occurred before Christmas. "Once the driver realizes they're going to get a summons or they're going to be seized, sometimes they try to pull away and the door is open so it will strike the inspector, or their feet or legs will be run over," says Fromberg. "Taking the keys out of the vehicle is one way of slowing things down."
The city has been trying to eradicate the unlicensed-cab problem since at least the 1960s, though illegal taxis have been around for much longer. When metered cabs first started operating in New York in 1907, there was little regulation, and illegal drivers began popping up almost immediately. By the 1930s, these unlicensed cabs had a name: "wildcat taxis." The wildcat drivers were known for dramatically reducing fare prices and taking business away from the legitimate taxi services. Even so, the licensed cab industry thrived, and by the '60s its success had occasioned a new set of problems. For one, drivers felt emboldened to refuse service to passengers, and often, the decision to accept or reject a fare was based on destination. Cabbies just didn't want to go to the outer boroughs. This opened up opportunities for illegal drivers to serve those areas, mainly in Brooklyn and Queens. Around 1964, these unlicensed car services started being known as "gypsy cabs." New York State Assemblyman Jose Rivera, himself a former unlicensed driver and organizer, says the name likely stems from the fact that illegal taxi drivers in New York have largely been immigrants.
As the number of illegal-cab drivers swelled in the late 1960s, the city tried to institute some regulations. In 1967, the city ordered official taxis — those that had a medallion, or permit, to operate — to paint their cars yellow, and unlicensed cabs to paint their cars a different color, so riders could know who was legitimate. The unlicensed drivers reacted angrily to the change, attacking 14 licensed taxis in Brownsville and Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn, according to a New York Times report at the time. Some licensed cabs were overturned, and others were set on fire. Then-mayor John Lindsay responded by offering full police protection to all legal taxis. But he also sought to appease the illegal drivers — many of whom wanted to be legal but were unable to obtain licenses — by telling them he thought the law was unfair.
In 1971 the city created the Taxi and Limousine Commission, and the agency's first chairman, Michael Lazar, announced he had a plan to put "an end to the city's gypsy-cab problem." He suggested all such cabs become fully legal by agreeing to no longer take "street hails." Instead, they would only serve passengers who called and arranged trips ahead of time. But this plan didn't mollify the unlicensed drivers, either. Up to 50 of them, upset over the possibility of losing their cruising business, responded by organizing protests in the South Bronx. When firemen responded to a blaze lit during one of the protests, they were hit with bottles and bricks. Lazar's legalize-the-gypsies initiative — which was immediately opposed by the yellow-cab industry, too — was eventually scrapped.
In 1976, urban planner Charles Vidich, who had completed several studies on the city's taxi industry for Lindsay, published a book called The New York Cab Driver and His Fare. According to Vidich, eliminating unlicensed cabs from the city was nearly impossible. "For every law squelching the illegal activity or possible encroachment of private livery operations into the medallioned domain, there have arisen a dozen forms of new deception and subterfuge," he wrote. Illegal cabs, in other words, could not be stopped.
In 1992, Mayor David Dinkins tried again to address the problem, saying he would increase by six times the amount of money the city was spending to stop unlicensed drivers from stealing legal business. But like other plans before his, Dinkins's proposal garnered little support and was never adopted. Yassky believes the reason unlicensed cabs have persisted for so long is simple: No viable, legal cab services have ever been introduced in the outer boroughs.
"When you have a legal way," he says, "the market will gravitate toward the legal."
During the last two years of his final term as mayor, Bloomberg decided he would try to tackle the illegal-taxi problem. But this time the plan involved putting more legitimate cars on the streets. Thousands of city-regulated, lime green–colored cabs would be dispatched to the outer boroughs and would finally create a market force that would push the illegal cabs out of business. A TLC analysis released in 2012 found that 95 percent of yellow-taxi pickups happened either in central and Lower Manhattan or at airports, leaving the outer boroughs badly underserved. Under the green-cab program, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, and Staten Island would at last have regular access to legal, city-approved taxis. The plan, first mentioned in Bloomberg's State of the City address in 2011, would eventually call for the release of 18,000 green cabs, to be rolled out in blocks of 6,000, over the following three years. Yassky was tasked with implementing the initiative.
Like the yellow cabs — of which there are 13,000 currently operating in New York City, according to TLC numbers — the green cabs would be operated by private companies or individuals, and would be regulated by the city. Also like yellow cabs, they would be allowed to pick up passengers who hailed them from the street. These particulars differentiated the green cabs from the city's massive "for-hire" fleet, which comprises more than 51,000 livery cars, black cars, and luxury limousines, and now also includes the vehicles associated with ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft. These for-hire cars take only passengers who arrange their trips ahead of time. They do not have medallions from the city, but instead are associated with a private base station (excluding Uber and Lyft). The base station provides its drivers with services that include parking, insurance, and a two-way radio or mobile device to communicate with a dispatcher. Drivers of these cars indicate that they are legal and for-hire by affixing stickers to their windows that include their base name, its operating license number, and its telephone number.
The so-called gypsy cabs don't have these markings. Their drivers generally operate solo and without any insurance. They generally aren't regulated in any way. Today, no numbers exist on how many unlicensed cabs roam the streets of New York City, but the TLC estimated in 2011 that as many as 150,000 illegal street-hail pickups take place every day. The TLC hoped its new green cabs could replace every one of those illegal street hails.
While plans for the green-cab initiative were initially floated in 2011, the program's implementation was slowed after yellow-cab owners sued the city in 2012, citing concerns that green cabs would hurt their business. At the time, the Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade, which filed the suit on behalf of yellow-cab owners, argued that the law authorizing the green-cab fleet was unfairly passed in Albany by legislators and the governor, rather than by the City Council. "The city sold the exclusive rights of street hails to medallion owners," MTBT spokesman Michael Woloz said in a statement issued at the time. "In one fell swoop...that right was taken away."
But in June 2013, the New York State Court of Appeals overturned a lower-court ruling in favor of the MTBT and upheld the law authorizing green cabs, allowing plans for the outer-borough taxi program to move forward. Yassky said the concerns expressed by yellow-cab owners were unfounded. "In general, cartels try to protect their territory against even theoretical incursions," he tells the Voice.
When the green cabs finally arrived, in August 2013, they were met with immediate praise from residents of the outer boroughs, where more than 80 percent of the city's population resides, according to U.S. Census data. In the program's first year, the green cabs collectively made more than 43,000 trips a day. They flocked to popular neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Harlem and Astoria, though they also fanned out into the further reaches of the outer boroughs. And they proved that they weren't a major threat to yellow taxis, which only saw their fares and tips dip by 2 percent from the previous year.
The launch of the first green cabs brought greater TLC enforcement of illegal cabs — the commission added 70 inspectors to its existing team of 100. It also hired its own private towing system, which has sped up enforcement. Meanwhile, special attention was added to "high-volume areas" and "transportation hubs," says the TLC's Fromberg. Both descriptions fit Emmanuel's busy corner in Bed-Stuy.
The success of the green-cab initiative was a worst-case scenario for Emmanuel and his crew, who now fear the impending rollout of additional cars. "If that happens, we're done for," he says of his crew. The additional cars, he worries, will not only take more of his business, but will also lead to even more intense TLC enforcement concerning unlicensed cabs. But Emmanuel remains unconvinced that all the green cabs that have been promised will arrive — not if the powerful yellow-cab lobby has anything to say about it.
In May, nearly a year after the rollout of the initial block of 6,000 cars, Emmanuel was almost proven correct. The TLC said it planned to delay the launch of the second round of green cabs, which had been slated to debut over the summer. The announcement came six months after Mayor Bill de Blasio was elected with the help of more than $300,000 in campaign donations from the yellow-cab industry. At the time, many cried foul. Joshi, the agency's new commissioner, said the green-cab program needed further study and more input from "stakeholders" before the city continued its expansion. But the backlash was swift. Story after story appeared declaring how and why de Blasio was killing the successful green-cab program.
Transportation experts and taxi rights groups accused de Blasio of bending to the will of the yellow-cab fleet owners and operators. Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, told Capital New York: "So, it's OK to leave 6,000 workers on a waiting list as long as fleet owners get their demands met? That's really the message that's being sent out through this."
Several days later, the TLC issued a press release walking back the delay, saying it still planned to authorize the next round of green cabs by late summer. Looking back, Fromberg says the supposed delay was all "a big misunderstanding."
"It was never the plan to start selling [permits] in June," he says.
Cab-industry observers disagree. Desai tells the Voice she suspects the city's position changed "after such a strong reaction to the idea of a delay." Eric Goldwyn, a public-transportation expert and researcher at Columbia University, says: "Conventional wisdom is that they were trying to not do the program, or at least not be clear about it, but with a little bit of outcry they decided to go forward."
In August, the TLC began issuing permits for the second round of green cabs. Those cabs are already being prepped and inspected, with some having even hit the streets in the last week, according to Fromberg.
As the program continues to move forward, the TLC is heralding the green cabs as a great success and a sea change for the outer boroughs. "The program is doing exactly what it was designed to do," says Fromberg. "It brought yellow cab–quality hailed service to the boroughs that typically do not see a lot of yellow hail service. It brought service that people can find predictable, with meters and roof lights and uniform markings and uniform fare, so the passenger doesn't have to haggle for it."
But transportation experts caution that the program shouldn't be seen as a panacea for the transportation problems in the outer boroughs. Goldwyn says green cabs aren't necessarily increasing transportation options in the city, just changing them. Some black-car or even illegal drivers, for example, may simply go green. "I don't believe there is one more cab on the roads than there was before," he says. "They're just getting people into their regulatory system, getting people inspected, getting insurance."
Columbia University urban planning professor David King agrees, saying green cabs aren't a perfect replacement for illegal taxis. "Some people are going to be better off, some are going to be worse off. Sometimes the passengers aren't happy to have the green cab substitute, because it's more expensive" than illegal taxis, he says.
App-driven services like Uber and Lyft may not substitute for unlicensed cabs, either. "We don't have any sense of who was taking the gypsies before. But the Uber market is not the same market as gypsies," says King, who adds that the two services attract different kinds of passengers.
Emmanuel also doesn't think the two overlap. "If yellow cabs couldn't put livery cabs out of business, then Uber won't put gypsy cabs out of business," he says. Instead, Emmanuel has bigger problems in mind — namely, the growing enforcement by the TLC.
It's 7 p.m. on a chilly Thursday in March, and Emmanuel's iPhone is lighting up with an incoming call from another unlicensed cab driver. It's a signal that something might be wrong. It is too early for the TLC to be patrolling the streets. The officers usually come out after rush hour ends and traffic dies down, when the illegal taxis are easier to spot and catch. And yet here it is, the warning call.
"Yo, what's up?" Emmanuel says, his voice cheerful and calm as he drives, his hands resting with ease on his steering wheel.
"What's good, playboy?" asks the voice on the other end. He's on speakerphone. It's Rafael*, a driver who hangs around the corner but rarely stays there long for fear of being spotted by TLC officers. He sounds panicked.
Emmanuel has just dropped off a young woman toting shopping bags three blocks from home base, an easy $7. Now he's piloting his Crown Vic back to the safety of the corner.
"Drive two blocks up," says Rafael. "I think there's a TLC car up there."
Emmanuel has instructed all the drivers on his corner to text the whole crew the color, plate number, and location of any car they think belongs to a TLC officer. Sometimes they just call Emmanuel.
But he's already seen the car and is sure it's just an undercover police vehicle. He tells Rafael not to worry. The cops don't bother the gypsies, leaving all enforcement to the TLC.
But Rafael, a bald Brazilian who wears a mustache and heavy cologne, has been on edge lately. Despite outfitting his own Crown Victoria to look just like a police car — complete with tints, strobe lights, and even a police license plate, all bought on Craigslist — he recently had a bad run-in with TLC.
It started, he says, when he picked up a passenger bound for Brooklyn from the Lower East Side at around 2 a.m. The passenger gave Rafael a Brooklyn address that Rafael didn't recognize. As they approached the Brooklyn Bridge, the passenger jumped forward from the back seat and tried to shove Rafael's car into park. Rafael guessed the man was from the TLC, and elbowed him in the head, busting open his nose. Rafael says he then opened the door to let the man tumble, bleeding, to the ground. He peeled off, "and WHOOSH, the doors closed," says Rafael with a dramatic flourish.
It's a story that's impossible to prove, but Fromberg says undercover officers do sometimes climb into illegal taxis before identifying themselves. While stressing that he did not know about this particular instance, he concedes "it's possible the inspector thought they were in danger and thought that was the only way they could get the situation under control."
Even Emmanuel isn't always able to evade the authorities. This spring, he says, he was pulled over by a cop car with two TLC officers inside — a rare betrayal by police, who generally know the unlicensed cabs in their neighborhood and don't bother them. The TLC confiscated his Crown Victoria, for the first time ever, and he had to pay $888 the following day to get it back. The money didn't bother him — he says he saw the fine as paying a "tax," or a fee for the TLC license he's never bought. He was angry with himself for being outwitted by the TLC.
The agency is seizing a record number of illegal cabs, taking more than 8,900 cars in financial year 2014, about a thousand more than it had taken the year before, and more than double what was confiscated in 2012. Before that, the TLC seized an average of 1,700 illegal taxis a year.
These changes in enforcement patterns, of course, affect the illegal drivers — but they also may impact the people who rely on them. There are some who ride with Emmanuel for the cover he provides, including pimps, drug dealers, and neighborhood thieves. The thieves, he says, will hop in his car after getting off the subway from Manhattan with their haul. He'll drive the drug dealers to drop sites, the pimps to their next john. But the majority of Emmanuel's passengers are everyday people — often with little disposable income — who rely on Emmanuel's cab when they need to get someplace quickly after work. Unlike a cab, Emmanuel and other drivers like him are usually available. And most can usually be found in the same place, on the same corner.
King, the Columbia professor, says people commonly believe that taxis are just for rich people or weekend splurges, which isn't true. "The two highest groups of taxi riders are the rich and the poor, who use it at the same rate," he says. They also "provide crucial door-to-door service" when other transportation isn't available, especially for people who don't drive. Because the concentration of poor residents in the outer boroughs is so high, King says, green cabs are "one of the best things the city could do to dramatically improve transportation options."
But that will only happen, he adds, if green cabs begin traveling to the far-flung neighborhoods that the unlicensed cabs serve. So far, green cabs have clustered in places close to, or in, Manhattan: Morningside Heights, Harlem, Astoria, Williamsburg, Park Slope. Goldwyn says he hopes that with the increased enforcement against unlicensed cabs in some neighborhoods, green cabs will fill in the gaps, so as not to create "transportation deserts."
City officials are also hoping that green cabs will help solve the city's refusal-of-service problem. Although it is illegal for city cabs to deny service to a passenger because of destination, any New Yorker knows that yellow cabs often drive away when they hear a destination in the distant outer boroughs.
But Desai of the Taxi Workers Alliance says the TLC has recently been increasing its enforcement of service refusal as well. "They have become a lot more strict with the penalties, and I think a lot of that, quite frankly, was in the run-up to the green cabs," she says.
The agency started increasing the penalties for refusal of service in 2011, raising the punishment for a first offense from a fine of $200 or more to $500; a second offense has always included the possibility of a 30-day suspension, but the TLC raised the fine from $350 or more to $750. A third offense within 36 months results in the driver's license being revoked.
And just as it has for the illegal cabs, the TLC has been using undercover operations in its enforcement of service refusal. In fiscal 2013 the TLC performed 3,075 undercover refusal tests — more than four times the number of tests performed in 2012. Nearly 500 of the drivers tested were given summonses, almost twice as many as the previous year.
The corner isn't Emmanuel's endgame, nor is it for most of the other drivers. He's trying to make enough money to grow his own fleet of cars, and he thinks it would take him too long to do it the legal way. As an illegal driver, he makes about $100 a day, and if he picks up two or three passengers an hour, he can usually call it a day after just four hours of work. As he grows his fleet, he'll also rake in a good chunk of cash from his drivers. Growing up, Emmanuel watched how long it took his father and stepfather, both of them yellow-cab drivers, to make any real money. Both men still drive cabs. "But I'm not going to be stuck like them," he says.
Eventually, Emmanuel hopes to quit driving altogether and just oversee his fleet. "My whole plan is to legalize all my cars and just manage everything," he says. And he dreams of one day getting very rich by doing so. But shortly after his car was impounded in March, he decided he wasn't going to get there by running his corner. Instead of spending time and energy buying more cars for his fleet, he seemed to be wasting all of it evading the TLC.
In April, Emmanuel says he privately told some of his drivers that he was planning on getting TLC plates. He would no longer be a real gypsy. Instead, he would drive a legal black car, with legal taxi insurance. He could still get stopped if he picked up street hails — which he absolutely planned to do. But he would be much closer to legitimacy in the city's eyes. It meant he would no longer be around the corner much to dole out advice. And he would no longer coordinate evasions of the TLC.
Emmanuel's decision could be seen as a small acknowledgment that the TLC is winning the battle against illegal cabs. Fromberg believes the TLC enforcement has caused more and more drivers to go legal. And while Goldwyn believes the city will never be able to completely "stamp out the phenomenon" of unlicensed cabs, he thinks "they will get regulated down."
But in Emmanuel's view, he has won, too. He was able to make a living by cheating the system for years before he joined it. He hopes his other drivers will be able to make the same transition. He especially wants it for Alex, his protégé. His "enforcer" on the corner.
"This guy, don't let him fool you," says Alex, who still drives an illegal taxi, a beat-up Crown Vic. "He's going to be a gypsy no matter what he do. No matter what those plates say. Because once a gypsy, always a gypsy."
Over the summer, Emmanuel successfully acquired the TLC plates for his own car, which cost $388. All the certifications together cost $3,000. He also built up his fleet to nine cars, all of them Crown Vics, and got legal plates for six of them. None of the drivers in his fleet were drivers from the corner, because these guys already had cars, though Alex says that one day he might work for Emmanuel.
And as fall came, Emmanuel says, the TLC stopped coming around his old corner. Very few drivers were getting busted anymore. The TLC insists enforcement has not dipped overall, but might have changed in Bed-Stuy simply because officials concentrate on different neighborhoods at different times.
But Emmanuel is sure it's just the calm before the storm. He remembers last August, when enforcement dipped right before the first round of green cabs came out, and then started up again in full force once they were launched. He thinks enforcement is about to rise again to coincide with the next round of 6,000 cars. Autumn might be very difficult for the corner, he fears, and he's been working hard to get the last three of his nine fleet cars legitimate. He still drives his Crown Victoria around the neighborhood, but he's not coordinating TLC evasions very much anymore.
"I already got what I needed to get out of the corner," he says. "But I think I'll come back sometimes. Maybe on the weekends. And if you piss us off, I'll make sure that you get a few flats."
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