MANN: Let it ride

Thanks to the government, you now can sit in a yellow car with complete strangers. This week, New York City is launching a one-year pilot program for giving people cab rides at discounted rates ($3 or $4 per passenger) from three select locations. The goal of the share-a-cab program, which is limited to weekdays (6 to 10 a.m.), is to “save money” for passengers, make more money for drivers and (of course) “help the environment.” These things are to be achieved by putting New Yorkers who do not know each other in cars together.

The disturbing part about this news is that it is being presented as news. Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan said, “Group rides are a sign of the times” - an accurate statement if by “the times” she means “the automotive era.” Matthew W. Daus, chairman of the Taxi and Limousine Commission, said, “Group rides are smart policy,” as if he and his pals had come up with the idea of car-pooling.

Typically, when the government interferes in an industry, politicians give people something that was never theirs to give or they permit something that should not require their permission. In keeping with this tendency, the share-a-cab program highlights a glaring contradiction in the city’s transportation methodology: Whereas subway riders often have little choice but to sit next to strangers, only now are cab riders being afforded the same treat.

The problem is not just what the government allows people to do. It’s also what it gives them.

“As a taxi rider, you have the right,” states the New York City Taxicab Rider Bill of Rights, to the following: “a safe and courteous driver”; “a knowledgeable driver who speaks English”; “air conditioning or heat on request”; “a noise free trip: no horn honking or radio”; “working seatbelts”; “a clean taxicab: interior, exterior and partition”; to “be accompanied by a service animal”; “a driver who does not use a cell phone while driving”; and to “decline to tip for poor service.”

All of these things are lovely, but they are not “rights,” properly defined. Whether or not you approve of the goodies themselves, you do not deserve them merely on account of your ability to sit in a car.

Passengers would not be helpless if the government stopped making demands on their behalf. Businesses have an automatic incentive to please their customers, without whom they do not make money. New York cab companies, on the other hand, have an incentive to please the government, without which they could not exist in the first place.

Regulation of the taxicab industry, despite its inanities, goes unquestioned. In New York City, there are hundreds of pages of taxi-related rules that drivers and owners must obey and - even worse - presumably read. Page 26 of “Chapter 1: Taxicab Owner Rules” states: “An owner shall equip the taxicab with a taximeter subject to the following conditions: (1) It shall be of a make and type acceptable to the Commission.” It is with exactly that sort of conveniently broad authority that the taxi regulators operate.

The Taxi and Limousine Commission may not say what it means, but it undoubtedly is mean about what it says. In, for instance, “Chapter 3: Taxicab Specifications,” the tiniest details are not spared:

• “There shall be no coathook on the right-hand side” of the backseat of a cab.

• “There shall be an outboard armrest located appropriately for the driver and each outboard passenger.”

• “The upholstery and trim shall be vinyl.”

• “A taxicab may not be equipped with power adjusted seats.”

• There must be 43 inches of legroom and 37.5 inches of headroom in the backseat.

There is no room for creativity. “The exterior shall be painted taxi yellow,” and cabs are not allowed to have “rigid hood ornaments,” which might slaughter pedestrians. As if “taxi yellow” were not specific enough, there is this instruction: “Samples of paint color and code are to be submitted to the Commission for approval.” Ten years into the 21st century, the politics of color are still with us.

And yellow is always the theme, even on dark days. One driver was ticketed for talking in his cab about his brother-in-law’s death - even though (a) he didn’t have a passenger and (b) he wasn’t driving.

Being fined for failing to sit down and shut up is almost worse than a thought crime. Rather than telling people what to say, the government punishes them for saying anything.

“If they’re going to keep on doing this, I have to get another job,” another driver said. “They’re taking money left and right from drivers.”

In an ideal world, the Taxi and Limousine Commission would shut up as well as down. That would be some real TLC.

Windsor Mann is a writer living in Washington.

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