Sharing cabs: been there, loved that

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In case you missed it, New York City has begun experimenting with cab sharing:

…the New York City taxi ride — one of the city’s few remaining redoubts of solitude — will go communal. Up to four passengers will be able to share a yellow taxi ride, car-pool style, along three preset routes in Manhattan.

The flat fare will be $3 or $4 a head, significantly less than the regular metered rates, and riders can ask to be dropped off at most points along the route. The shared rides, which will pick up passengers at designated taxi stands, will be allowed only on weekdays from 6 to 10 a.m.

At first I was skeptical.  There is talk about how the practice of sharing cabs is commonplace in D.C., but that is because cabs there used to operate using zones, with designated fees for the neighborhoods travelled to, instead of meters.  Higher fares and certainty gave incentive to share.  If you know you are going to pay $16 to get anywhere in Logan Circle, it’s easy to find a couple other bums heading that way willing to split the cost.  But it wasn’t universally loved.

Cab sharing seemed less natural in New York because you never knew exactly what the cost might be.  It’s hard enough to fairly split a cab with a friend when your destinations have approximately 68% of the route in common and the fare is yet-to-be-determined.  Imagine trying it with multiple strangers.

But a predetermined route with a flat fare made sense to me after I realized that it wasn’t particularly that innovative.  I first saw it during my semester in South Africa in 2003, where the majority of residents live in townships and slums outside of the urban centers.  Taxis are prohibitively expensive for most people and buses are not that much better.

Entrepreneurial South Africans started cab sharing businesses.  They bought Volkswagon kombis and began running predetermined routes in and out of the city center, picking up and dropping off passengers along the way.  They are creatively crammed in – around 16 riders is pretty standard, but I read about one that managed to squeeze in 38 people!  The fares are a fraction of the cost of any other form of transportation.

As a matter of fact, the practice has long existed in New York.  All day, every day, unmarked Dollar Vans drive recklessly up and down Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn.  They weave in and out of traffic, veer to the curb without warning, slide the door open, out hops a resident from Prospect Lefferts Gardens right in front of the Atlantic Center, and off goes the van.  The whole thing has the appearance of a sting operation in some bad movie.

Formal cab sharing in New York is being piloted on a limited basis.  And now that D.C. started using meters, cab-sharing is only officially available from Union Station.  It seems constraining to try choose the routes.  There doesn’t seem to be much value added by a cab-sharing route running down Park Ave, directly on top of the 6 train, and there may be signs that D.C. riders are still craving the option to share in other areas.

So I say let the practice evolve on its own.  As in Brooklyn and South Africa, the routes where it can work will emerge organically; it actually already happened in Manhattan.  And who knows?  Cab sharing may just become an art.

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Posted on March 3rd 2010 in news

One Response to “Sharing cabs: been there, loved that”

  1. Florence Says:

    they have cab sharing all over latin america too. But it’s not cheaper; it’s slightly more expensive than the bus or subway and cheaper than a taxi you take on your own. I think the idea is that it is a good middle of the road price option that ensures more safety than the other forms of transportation. A Taxi could be a gypsy cab kidnapper taxi, lots of violence on the subway/bus or sexual harrasment for women. i am still not seeing how worth it would be in nyc, unless of course you live on the 4/5/6 and taking the subway is so unbelievably annoying at rush hour that it’s worth it to pay a little extra to not have to watch 8 full subway trains go by before you have to jump (rockstar style) into one if you are every going to get to work.

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