New rulebook leaves cabbies speechless

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The Independent Online
A friend from England who used to live in New York City returned for a visit this week and was shocked by what he found. Gotham, he observed, had become nice. It was possible to ride the subway without fearing for your life, the streets were cleaner and the homeless had gone from the doorways and parks.

Actually, it does not take an outsider to notice the changes, most of the credit for which has gone the way of the city's mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, and his "quality-of-life" policies. New FBI figures published last week showed that the downward trend in violent crimes in the Apple far from slowing down is actually accelerating. Notwithstanding a recent rash of grizzly assaults against women, New York is now one of the safest cities in the United States.

But for still more vivid proof of the transformation, consider what is happening to the fleet of yellow cabs. Hail a taxi here and be prepared for a hair-razing journey spiced with general discomfort and rudeness from the driver. Right? Not any more. Mr Giuliani has determined that taking a cab in New York should be an advert for caring and polite service.

What you should expect is spelled out it in a Magna Carta of rider's rights now displayed in each of the city's nearly 12,000 yellow cabs. It decrees: "You have the right to: Direct the destination and route used; any destination in the five boroughs; a courteous, English-speaking driver who knows the streets in Manhattan and the way to major destinations in other boroughs; air conditioning on demand; a radio-free (silent) trip; smoke and incense-free air; a clean passenger seat area; a clean trunk".

The Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC), which oversees the taxi industry, has gone into high gear trying to ensure that the promises can actually be delivered. New drivers must now take stringent tests, which include an assessment of English-language skills as well as multiple-choice questions on 47 preferred polite phrases for use with customers, such as "Please let me take your bags, sir (madam)" and "I'm sorry you don't understand. I will try to speak more clearly".

This summer for the first time, every cab is obliged to offer air conditioning. All spring, operators struggled to install units that now deliver supposedly cool air to the back seats, often via cumbersome arrangements of flexible tubing emanating from somewhere alongside the driver's feet.

And then there is the disembodied voice. It was just as I was marvelling at the orchestral sounds from the tubing at the end of a cab ride this week when I was frightened almost out of my skin by the grating and extraordinarily loud screech of a woman's voice from behind my head. "Please remember to take all your belongings when leaving this taxi and please get a receipt from the driver". "What was that?", I asked in surprise.

This driver had not gone through the civility test, it seemed, because he refused to answer. Or perhaps his sense of humour had been eviscerated by the torture of listening to this voice a hundred times a day. What I have since learnt is that this is one more innovation imposed on the yellow cabs by the TLC - for a test period the recorded voice has been installed in 500 of the city's cabs - and, more than any other, it is causing furious controversy in the taxi-driving community.

Many drivers are understandably insulted by the intrusion of this tape- recorded gimmick and are vowing to oppose, in court if necessary, any attempt by the TLC to make it obligatory city-wide. "It's a pain in the ass," raged Zevadia Levy, a 63-year-old driver. "I'm supposed to thank customers for riding my cab and ask if they want a receipt anyway. I've been doing it for 25 years".

But there is another problem with the voice: no one can agree on whose it should be. The TLC has promised to come up with standardised voice for all. But should it be neutral, as ethnically traceable as that of a midwest airport announcer's? Or should it have a typically New York accent? East Brooklyn working class drawl, or clear Ivy League clip?

The best solution would be to ditch the recordings altogether, which for those of us taking cabs all the time are going to become a major irritation. Like my London visitor, I salute Mayor Giuliani for what he has done for this city. But let's not go too far. Not everything about the gruff, sometimes threatening side of its personality needs to be obliterated. Otherwise it would not be New York. Save the taped voices for Disneyland.