N.Y.C.'s push to protect its cabbies

City is spending $5 million on measures like bulletproof partitions and emergency cellphones to safeguard livery cabdrivers.

In Diego Yepes's tiny Bronx garage, a handful of employees are frantically cutting, gluing, and attaching a bulletproof partition into a non-medallion cab. Nearby, an anxious driver is staring at them.

Mr. Yepes used to get a partition order every week or two.

Today, the waiting list has 550 names, and livery drivers - cabbies who often operate out of their own cars - have to wait for about a month to get a partition built.

"Since 1996, I haven't had business like that," Yepes says.

Partitions separating drivers from passengers is just one of the ways New York is struggling to cope with a rash of murders in the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn, where the livery cab fleet operates.

The city has assigned 300 officers from the Street Crime Unit to protect livery drivers, and the number of decoy cabs driven by police has also risen. Officials have also helped outfit cabs with $600 infrared cameras and donated 911-cellphones to drivers.

"This carnage has to come to an end," says Fernando Ferrer, Bronx borough president. "These are crimes against the working people of our own community."

Every day, 29,000 livery cabs provide service in areas of New York where yellow taxis don't operate for economic, safety, and sometimes racist reasons. The drivers often use their own cars and serve the communities where they live, some of which are considered dangerous at night.

But in many low-income neighborhoods, livery cabs are often the only means of private transportation for residents. "Community is the key word," says Harold Morgan of the International Taxicab and Livery Association. "Livery cabs are community cabs. They serve their neighborhood. You don't find that in other cities."

Chicago also has had problems with its taxi system. Southwestern and northwestern parts of the city are often underserved because medallion cabs stay in safer, more profitable areas.

"We have found that communities outside of the downtown areas and the airport had trouble in getting cabs," says Connie Busceni, spokeswoman for Chicago's department of consumer services.

In New York, the same city agency, the Taxi and Limousine Commission, supervises both yellow and livery cabs. But the status of the two industries differs extensively. The livery cab industry is hardly regulated compared with the tightly controlled yellow-taxi business.

In "no other place in the country has most of the city been served by livery cabs" as opposed to taxis, says Bruce Schaller, a transportation consultant in New York.

Unlike other cities throughout the United States, New York yellow cabs are not equipped with radios and only pick up passengers on the streets. By contrast, livery drivers - who operate on a flat fee, rather than a metered system - are forbidden from accepting street hails and are supposed to operate only through a radio dispatcher. In reality, they often pick up patrons in the street.

The New York Police Department says seven of the nine killings occurred after drivers picked up street hails. None of the victims had bulletproof partitions in their cars.

In 1997, the Taxi and Limousine Commission mandated bulletproof partitions in yellow cabs. Since then, no yellow-cab driver has been killed. The partitions were optional for livery cabs. In the wake of the killings, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani pledged $5 million for partitions.

"Partitions are going to make the livery cab industry better and safer," says Fernando Mateo, president of the New York State Federation of Taxi Drivers. "It is going to make the industry less vulnerable and save lives."

The partitions won't come too soon for Leonardo Sanchez, a driver who used to roam the streets of his own South Bronx neighborhood at night. On April 16, three passengers he picked up in the street pulled out a gun and placed it against the back of his head. He says he's grateful they only stole $75 and his CD player.

"Thank God I'm still alive," says Mr. Sanchez, a Dominican immigrant. "Now I am working during the day. It has become too dangerous at night."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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