I am headed out in mid-morning to a business meeting downtown on Broadway to which I am anxious to arrive as planned. I exit my apartment building and walk a few hundred feet down West 59th Street to 9th Avenue. A truck is sitting at the curb, so I move to the left, toward uptown, on 9th to hail a cab. There is one right there and I hop in.
He immediately turns right on West 59th. Taxis and Ubers often do this to go downtown on 11th Avenue that is often less congested than 9th, so the turn is not completely unexpected. I am a bit surprised when the driver stops on 59th to consult his phone regarding the route to take to Broadway, but maybe he’s just checking traffic flows.
I settle into the minimalist back seat area left to the passenger from the thick divider that separates the front and back of many New York City taxis and houses various electronics central to a modern taxi service. I pull out my trusty phone and, as often happens, fall into the magical reverie of news and other things that it delivers wherever I am.
Then, something tells me that we aren’t moving as I had expected. I look up. Instead of turning downtown on 11th Avenue, the taxi has turned right on 10th, right on 62nd and is back on 9th Avenue but further uptown than where he picked me up initially! We have been moving for about 10 minutes, there is $5.00 on the meter and I am further from my destination than when I got into the cab!
I ask the driver who at first seems oblivious to my presence but then acknowledges that, yes, we are back on 9th but he’s going to turn east on West 60th. Now I get it. We have circled around multiple blocks so he can enter Broadway at Columbus Circle that happens to house the subway station that I could have walked to and been at my destination by now. We drive through Columbus Circle. The meter now reads $9, just to get as far as West 58th and Broadway that is .2 miles from my apartment! We have driven .9 miles to get to Broadway!
Fortunately for me, the rest of the ride went fairly quickly with the usual dodging, swerving and mutual horn honking that accompanies a taxi in a hurry. The final tab turned out to be $10.80. I resisted the urge to leave a tip, something I hate to do. This was, however, too much to bear. Do I look that much like a tourist ready to be taken for a ride? I suppose it’s possible although I have been approached many times since arriving in this great city by people who were obviously lost or at a loss to navigate the street grid.
It happens even on the subway. I was really impressed the first few times that someone, anyone, would approach me to ask directions, often in a foreign language. A few days before I had taken the subway back to Columbus Circle from somewhere and observed a late-middle-aged couple in the belly of the Columbus Circle subway station clearly unclear as to how to get out and where to go. I offered to help, with a smile to assure them I wasn’t a hostile. They seemed to have German accents and said they were looking for the Plaza Hotel. I said, “You mean THE Plaza Hotel? That’s really a fancy place.” They looked at me like I was an idiot, with no apparent interest in a conversation about their taste in hotels. They just wanted directions. I gave them and left them to their fate. When I emerged from the elevator into the Circle, there they were stepping off in the direction I had indicated. The scales of injustice were balanced.
This story has no moral, though I think it helps explain the popularity of Uber, Lyft and the other ride-hailing services in this city. The cars are generally more comfortable and, in my experience, you don’t generally get the “drive around” because the fee is set before you start. Well, maybe there is a moral. Pay attention!