Taxi Scam,Take Two: The Times Sniffs the Air

The Great Taxi Meter Conspiracy That Wasn't sheds light not only on the presence of true political hacks at large in the administration of Michael Bloomberg (imagine that!), but also opens one of those rare windows into how those who run our Paper of Record see the world they're forced to share with the rest of us.

The Times has always been fascinated with taxicabs, at least as seen from the back seat. When City Hall first peddled its phony scandal story earlier this month, the Times fell for it like everyone else, putting the story on page one and insisting on getting First Citizen Bloomberg's personal response to the outrage ("Some of these people face serious charges.").

Royal indignation then began percolating among those taxi-riding regulars on the Times' editorial board. They issued their take a few days later. They were cheerfully resigned to having to put up with the plebeians who chauffeur them about town ("Taking a taxi in New York City is nearly always an adventure," it began in jolly good humor). But, like good aristocrats who understand their responsibilities to the lower classes, they voiced disdain at cabbies' claims that they had simply been given badly designed meters: "Drivers add that it's too easy to push the wrong button by accident, an excuse that is hard to fathom if it kept happening."

What's also interesting is that none of this was of any interest whatsoever to Times editors back in 2006 when the Taxi and Limousine Commission was belatedly implementing its decision to place new GPS/TV screen meter devices in every taxi.

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The Voice ran a lengthy story detailing some curious aspects to the agency's contracting procedure: Taxi bureaucrats rejected the only fully-functioning device which was being offered by a team that included a major credit union that would have allowed cabbies to avoid the 5 percent processing fee that later became such a stumbling block. The agency also rejected a British firm that was already in the market with a device that was working well on some 1,000 of London's famed taxicabs. The TLC told the Brits to airmail their proposal, then told them they were too late when it arrived the next day. The bungling continued when city taxi officials then illegally opened the rejected proposal, read it -- and then lost it altogether.

When the agency finally picked its winner, no one who follows city taxi business over the years was terribly shocked to find one contract had gone to a company that had quickly been cobbled together by the owner of the city's largest fleet of yellow medallion taxis -- the same businessman who had initially insisted the new meters shouldn't be mandated in the first place.

That was supposed to be the kind of thing that happened only in the bad old days, before Mike Bloomberg put competence ahead of connections.

Not that the Times didn't focus on what was going on in the world of yellow cabs. It did. There was an 800-word story in October, 2007, about the new decals that the TLC was putting on all of its cabs: "Cabs are getting an official NYC TAXI logo sticker. It combines the NYC emblem used by NYC & Company, the city's tourist board; a T set in a circle (reminding many viewers of Boston's public transit symbol); and the letters AXI in a custom typeface developed by Smart Design for a prototype cab of the future."

This was followed up with yet another bright a few weeks later, when many cabs carried painted floral decals on their hoods ("Many New Yorkers have been delighted this fall by the florid colors coursing through the city streets.")

This kind of approach to business as usual in Gotham is one more reason why, if Murdoch and his Journal play their cards right, the newspaper field is still wide open right here in Times Land.


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