comscore The best route, once-sacred cabbie wisdom, takes a back seat | Honolulu Star-Advertiser

The best route, once-sacred cabbie wisdom, takes a back seat


 NEW YORK >> The trip from Kennedy Airport to La Guardia is a straight shot on the Van Wyck Expressway, with a little jog on the Grand Central Parkway at the end. Canal Street may be the shortest route from the Holland Tunnel to the Manhattan Bridge, but traffic can make it feel like the longest. And all even-numbered, one-way streets in Manhattan run west-to-east, except for the handful that do not.

Knowing how to get around the five boroughs of New York City – understanding not just the geography, but the nuances of timing and the endless exceptions to every rule – is part of driving a yellow cab here. And as part of their training, New York cabbies have long had to face a rigorous set of geography questions on the 80-question test they must pass to get a license. Landmarks and popular destinations were on the test, but so were less familiar streets and alternate routes. It was not quite “The Knowledge,” the test London cabbies spend years preparing for, but even drivers from the city found it daunting.

Now those questions have disappeared, happily for future test-takers, perhaps not so much for those who will be riding in the back seats. As of the past few weeks, the only geography that remains is in 10 questions that involve navigating the city with a map.

Allan Fromberg, a spokesman for the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission, which administers the test, said technology was a big reason. Test questions can cover more safety issues and less geography, now that drivers can navigate the city with the help of global positioning systems. He called it a “practical modernization” of the commission’s educational curriculum, a “catching up to the times.”

But some taxi industry experts see another motivation, one arising from a growing threat to the industry.

In recent years, online car services like Uber and Lyft have taken hold in New York City, as they have elsewhere, and those services require neither a hack license, nor that their drivers be tested by the city on geography. The appeal of driving a yellow cab has apparently diminished. The numbers of drivers seeking to climb behind the wheel has dwindled over the past year, according to the owners of taxi fleets, despite the city’s reports that the number of hack licenses has remained constant.

Eliminating the geography questions, some argue, could encourage more aspiring cabbies to apply. Indeed, pass rates have increased up to 20 percent in recent weeks.

While Fromberg called the culling of the geography questions a “small modification,” critics, including perhaps the toughest critics of all, passengers, say it will result in some drivers starting out behind the wheel knowing less about New York than the tourist in the back seat equipped with a guidebook and a smartphone.

“If I got into a cab and the driver didn’t know where Penn Station was, that’d be ridiculous,” said Carolyn Baker, a lifelong New Yorker who has been taking cabs for more than 50 years. “I mean, would you hire a chef who never fried an egg?”

As for relying on online maps, she said, “I don’t want the driver using GPS while they are driving and put my life at risk.” (Using a GPS device when a cab is not standing or parked is currently prohibited.)

Stanley Wissak, 87, an owner and dispatcher for 55 Stan, a large yellow-cab company in Long Island City, Queens, said he was more worried by a lack of drivers than a lack of geographic knowledge, because, “with GPS, you don’t need to know where anything is anymore.” He said new drivers have been difficult to find in recent months, and many shifts had been left unfilled.

Asked if he would prefer a driver who used a GPS unit or one with a good grasp of city geography, Wissak looked at several cabs sitting idle in his lot and said, “Right now, I’d take them both.”

Some instructors for the cab driving test are also alarmed. “I think it’s stupid that a New York City cabdriver can get his hack license without knowing where the Empire State Building or the Chrysler Building is,” said Efim Vitomsky, who runs a taxi training institute at Kingsborough Community College.

Another instructor, AJ Gogia, has curtailed the lively geography lessons at his Queens school, AJ Yellow Taxi Tutors, during which he would spend days drilling students on locations of major Manhattan destinations as well as obscure streets in Queens.

“I told them, ’You don’t need it anymore,’” Gogia said. “If you don’t know where something is, tell the passenger, ’The TLC never tested me on it, so it’s not my problem.’” The new test is much easier, Gogia said, because students can simply study the city’s manual of rules.

Fromberg called the criticism a “very unfair characterization,” explaining that the remaining 10 map-reading questions were a good assessment of a driver’s geographical know-how.

The commission, he said, is developing a new training and licensing curriculum with more emphasis on safety, accessibility and customer service. Training centers would be instructed to teach GPS navigation, he said, and a revamped test could include geography questions. “The chance that a licensed cabdriver is not going to know where major tourist attractions are is slim to none,” Fromberg said.

Half of the 80-question test, 30 questions on English-language proficiency and the 10 on map reading, is unchanged. Of the remaining 40, up to 25 questions may have covered geography, Gogia said, with the remainder covering rules. Now they all pertain to rules and regulations, students who have taken the rest in recent weeks said.

Fromberg said geography never accounted for a majority of the 40 multiple-choice questions, but declined to characterize the mix, because he said it fluctuated constantly.

The commission requires new applicants to take a defensive driving course and register at one of several privately operated taxi-driver schools, which offer either a 24- or 80-hour class, depending on how much preparation a student requires. Students must then pass a test, given on Friday mornings at several school locations in the city.

While some recent applicants said they had a decent working knowledge of the city’s layout, one aspiring driver who took the test on Friday said he had found it easy despite his complete lack of driving experience in New York City. Asked if he could pilot a cab to prominent Manhattan locations such as Penn Station, Times Square or Grand Central Terminal, the applicant, a recent immigrant from Bangladesh now living in Briarwood, Queens, said, “Absolutely not.” He asked that his name be withheld because he feared angering the taxi commission.

“Honestly, I don’t know how to drive there,” he said. “I’d need the passenger to tell me, or I would have to use the GPS.”

Kimberly Kendall, who runs a taxi training institute at LaGuardia Community College, said the school has stopped teaching geography and no longer offers the 80-hour course, which many non-native New Yorkers opted for, largely to learn geography.

Mario Chauka, 33, of Corona, Queens, who works for Lyft, said that in the 10 years he has been driving livery cars in New York City, the difficulty of the hack license exam had been a reason not to take it.

“I always thought that being a yellow cab, you have to be a professional, but I think I’d even know more than a new driver starting out now,” he said.

Seth Goldman, 55, a Brooklyn native with 30 years of experience in a yellow cab, was skeptical about leaving drivers to navigate by GPS, which he refuses to use.

“You can’t lower the bar so much that new drivers don’t know where they’re going,” he said. “When you don’t know the city, it’s a big disadvantage. If this means new drivers aren’t going to know where Radio City Music Hall is, that’s unforgivable.”


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