Yellow Cabs and Subways: Everything Old Is New Again


“It’s so satisfying hailing a yellow cab,” said Jelani Wiltshire of Staten Island. “Sometimes they pull an entire U-turn to get you. Or they are like, ‘Let me stop traffic just to pick you up.’”

“Getting in one feels like a win,” he added.

Mr. Wiltshire, 23, works for Classic Harbor Line out of Chelsea Piers, serving drinks and snacks to the people who buy tickets for group rides or who rent out the boats. To get to work he takes the Staten Island Ferry into downtown Manhattan and then, often, a car to the pier.

Before the pandemic, he used ride-hailing apps. “Uber was so common and so convenient,” he said. But recently, prices have soared for the services. And New Yorkers like Mr. Wiltshire have noticed.

“There was one night when Uber was going to be $35 and take 10 minutes to come,” he said. “I thought, ‘Why don’t I take a yellow cab?’” The entire ride was $25, including tip, and Mr. Wiltshire’s driver was chatty and inspiring, he recalled. “He told me he was studying in school and trying to become a teacher,” he said. “This total stranger opened up to me.”

It’s an experience many New Yorkers, zoned out and noses in their phones, took for granted prepandemic, while taxi drivers suffered financially because of overinflated medallion prices, as well as competition from shiny new transit options. Mr. Wiltshire is a convert. “I think I’m only taking yellow taxis now,” he said.

As the city reopens, old-school transportation is being embraced again, from the yellow taxi to the subway. It’s almost like it took a pandemic for many to believe — after years of steadily more expensive app-controlled S.U.V.s, e-bikes and scooters — how affordable, efficient and sometimes even pleasant the old-standby modes of getting around can be.

“We are absolutely seeing an increase in passenger demand and ridership,” said Aloysee Heredia Jarmoszuk, the commissioner and chair of the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission. “Taxis are operating between 15 to 22 rides a shift now. Pre-Covid, because of the oversaturation of the market, some shifts were seeing only 11 rides a shift.”

Oversaturation is definitely not a problem for the remaining New York cabbies, who will take all the nostalgic business they can get. The pandemic forced many drivers, already in dire situations, to stop working, resulting in far fewer taxis on the streets.

“Now, roughly half of the fleet is in operation,” which translates to about 100,000 vehicles, said Allan Fromberg, a spokesman for the commission, who added that he was optimistic about the near future. “Each week, as passenger demand increases, more taxis are in operation.”

So it makes sense that the lucky few yellow cabbies out there are doing better business. Taxi trips have grown over 48 percent in the last three months, and “are capturing more market share today than they were prior to the pandemic,” Mr. Fromberg said.

The subway, once the butt of many a commuter’s ire, is also getting some love. With virus numbers down, ridership is up. Between April and May, the number of riders increased by at least 500,000, according to Shams Tarek, a spokesman for the M.T.A. “We are thrilled,” Mr. Tarek said.

Many New Yorkers — perhaps with a tinge of amnesia when it comes to packed and smelly cars, construction delays and trains at standstills in dark tunnels — are thrilled to have their system back. “I’m trying to pinch those pennies,” said Nico Masters, 26, an account manager who lives on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and uses both the subway and taxis frequently. “Honestly, it all comes down to price for me.”

With a girlfriend in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, and a side gig as a carpenter in Red Hook, Mr. Masters would often depend on ride shares, but those were canceled during Covid and have yet to return. Over the past year, he would occasionally jump into an Uber or Lyft, but in recent months, he noticed their rates increasing. One day it dawned on him to try a taxi. “It was glorious,” he said.

Ms. Heredia Jarmoszuk said the commission was now looking into why cabs are significantly cheaper than car services like Uber (a few years ago it was the other way around). “The anecdotal experience from some passengers is that yellow taxis are now more affordable,” she said. “This is actually something we have to watch. We have to make sure our drivers are earning a livable wage and are competitive.”

Mr. Masters said price will remain a priority for him. “If Uber does come back with Uber Pool, I guess I will have to go that route,” he said. But in the meantime, he is treasuring his taxi rides. Like Mr. Wiltshire, he loves the rush — practically retro these days — of flagging one down. “You just lift up your hand on the street, and bam, you’re whisked away,” he said. “With an Uber or Lyft you know exactly when they are coming.”

Subways, in the meantime, are returning to their sardine can status as more people become vaccinated and return to the office. A spate of recent attacks has unnerved some New Yorkers, but it’s unclear whether crime in the subways has actually worsened. Most riders seem grateful to be back underground.

Alison Rand took the subway again for the first time in May for her daughter’s birthday, traveling from their home in Flatbush, Brooklyn, to Chinatown in Manhattan. “The convenience of hopping on the subway and getting across the city in no time, it’s so easy,” she said, seemingly surprised by the efficiency of it all.

Of course, some New Yorkers didn’t need time off from the subway to appreciate it, nor, as essential workers during the pandemic, could they take a break. Jamie Smarr, who works for a company that develops affordable housing, never stopped taking the train, even during the shutdown.

“I grew up in the South, where you can’t do anything without a car,” Mr. Smarr said. “So I have an instant appreciation for getting somewhere in 30 minutes without one.”

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