New York cabbies are now asking: paper or plastic?

City outfits some taxis with credit-card meters, in a move that highlights the convenience New Yorkers expect as their urban right.

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Hailing a taxi in any other city isn't quite the same.

New York is famous for its fleet of yellow cabs, which crawl through Manhattan like a swarm of cantankerous hornets. No matter the time, on any given corner a commuter in a rush can summon one of the thousands of lemon-colored sedans with an outstretched arm. Cities like Boston or Chicago or L.A.?

Fahgedaboutit.

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It's this kind of convenience that most New Yorkers have come to take for granted. Grocery and video stores should deliver, even right to the door of a sixth-floor walk-up. The local deli should bring a corned beef on rye straight to our office desks.

Now, as cabbies jockey for a faster lane on Broadway, they'll be able to add another hand gesture to their repertoire: the credit-card swipe. This past month, the city has been trying out a new meter that'll allow New Yorkers to forgo handing over that $10 bill for the trip from Times Square to the Upper West Side. Before, if fares asked if they could use credit cards, the taxi driver might just cast an askance glance into the rear-view mirror, as if to say, "You tawkin' to me?"

A few hundred of the 12,187 taxis in New York have been equipped with these charge-friendly meters, and city officials will be carefully noting customer response over the next few months. Currently, yellow cabs' cash-only policy may be costing them business, since many travelers just call town cars or other liveries that accept credit cards. This is especially the case in longer trips to one of the region's three airports.

"We need to do it," says Michael Levine, vice president of Ronart Leasing Corp., a 246-cab fleet. "There's no reason why a business traveler shouldn't be able to use a credit card when he comes in. I go traveling all over the place, and I don't want to be paying cash and carrying those little receipts around in my pocket."

Indeed, not only business travelers, but everyone from stodgy Wall Street investment bankers, dressed in Armani, to Silicon Alley entrepreneurs, in black Prada and body piercings, like to track their business expenses on their Amex or gold card. Cash is just too well, inconvenient.

While some cabbies aren't even aware of the pilot program, others can see the advantages. "Sometimes it's better if you use the credit card," says Fritz Charles, a Haitian immigrant who's been driving a cab since '92. "Once when I took a guy to Kennedy [Airport], I pulled up and he gave me his credit card. I tell him, 'No, I can't take that,' so he had to run into the airport to get to a cash machine. I just kept the meter running."

According to Mr. Levine, his drivers have had no complaints with the new meters. "And it's always safer to have credit rather than cash, as far as the drivers are concerned."

The meters will cost $550 to $950 per cab, officials say, and about $9 a month for the cellular network that will transmit credit-card approval. Plus, there's a 25 cent transaction fee and credit card percentage from each sale. For individual cab owners, who pay more than $250,000 for a taxi medallion, these costs can be prohibitive. "We hope it will expand throughout the taxi industry because it makes good business sense," said Diane McGrath-McKechnie, chairwoman of the Taxi and Limousine Commission. "But there's no thought at this point of making it mandatory."

For now, hailing a cab with a credit-card sticker on the window is as likely as finding a New Yorker not in a rush. But who knows? In the future, when a harried commuter jumps in the back seat and barks, "Ninety-sixth and Broadway, and hurry!" the taxi driver will just smile and say, "Will that be cash or credit, buddy?"

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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