Hailing a Cab May Be Easier, but the Ride Remains Unchanged

Can you see Holly Golightly stepping outside her East Side apartment and using a smartphone app to call a cab?

The Day

Clyde Haberman offers his take on the news.

Didn’t think so.

Played by the incomparable Audrey Hepburn in the 1961 film version of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” Miss Golightly was, and still is, the gold standard of taxi-summoning — the Heifetz of hailing, the Flaubert of flagging. She put fingers to lips and created a whistle so loud that the sound could have carried across two postal codes. Her neighbor, a fellow she insisted on calling Fred even though his name was Paul, couldn’t hide his admiration.

“I never could do that,” he said wistfully.

Most of us are no good at it, either. Fingers are rarely used for whistling. They are far more likely these days to be found tapping icons on tiny screens. This reality has now led to a new app for smartphones that is supposed to help taxi seekers connect with taxi drivers and arrange for pickups.

This program is the brainchild of a San Francisco company called Uber, a name that sounds awfully Nietzschean but does suggest a certain self-assurance.

The service went into operation in New York on Wednesday, but not without questions being raised about whether it is even legal under existing regulations. It also generated a robust online debate on this newspaper’s Web site between technophiles and technophobes, people with strong opinions who sounded as if they’d rather chew glass than share a cab with one another.

One thing that this app is incapable of doing is to make the taxi ride a more pleasant enterprise than the tribulation it all too often is.

This is not to pick on New York cabbies, the overwhelming majority of whom are foreign-born, a hard-working bunch navigating a city that bursts with people bearing an outsize sense of entitlement like a shield.

Granted, it would be nice if all drivers tossed aside their cellphones, as regulations require, and concentrated fully on the road. But as a group they don’t deserve the calumny routinely heaped on them, descriptions that are usually invalid and often border on racism, about their supposed ignorance of the city and the cabs’ bad smells.

To read the tabloids, you would think that only two types of taxi drivers exist in this city: sinners and saints. They are either gouging riders, especially tourists, or they are great souls who move heaven and earth to reunite a passenger with the wallet or the suitcase or the invaluable cello — remember Yo-Yo Ma’s misadventure in 1999? — that was left in the cab.

Reality, as usual, lies at a point distant from either of those extremes. But it doesn’t alter the fact that the experience is rarely pleasant.

One is tossed about like a rag doll in vehicles rattling with worn shock absorbers along pockmarked streets. Interaction with the driver is usually nonexistent. Some riders may welcome their time in this isolation bubble. But the encounter is dehumanizing — people thrown together with neither of them acknowledging the other’s existence.

The plastic barrier between the cabby and the passenger is typically so clouded that it is difficult, sometimes impossible, to read the driver’s identity card, assuming he has even posted it. The television screen on the back of the driver’s seat is a blaring annoyance that can resist attempts to shut it off. Air-conditioning in the passenger compartment is often more aspiration than fact.

Ideally, a cab ride should provide a feeling of mild luxury, one worth the price. It rarely does that. And now the entire exercise costs more than ever, with higher fare rates for yellow cabs that went into effect on Tuesday. Sure, drivers deserve more money. But the ride remains largely joyless, a situation that may not be appreciably improved even with the advent of new taxicabs promised by the city.

Too bad there’s no app to correct that.

On reflection, though, it is highly probable that if Holly Golightly were in a modern setting she’d carry a smartphone, like everyone else. She could still whistle piercingly for a cab. But maybe there’d be a different sort of app, something to help her keep track of all the money slipped to her for those trips to the powder room.

E-mail Clyde Haberman: [email protected]

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