On the Mean Streets of New York, It's Civility War

Mayor wants cabbies to take drug tests and pay $250 for speeding. They plan a traffic-snarling protest.

Like a stern, unbending patriarch, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is determined to whip the city's unruly yellow cab drivers into shape.

He's proposed stiff fines for reckless driving and rude behavior. It's prompting indignation among the city's 12,000 cabbies - and a battle like nothing the Big Apple's ever seen.

Call it the Yellow Kamikazes versus the Mad Dog Mayor - yet another bout in the Mayor's determined fight to turn this roiling metropolis into a bastion of civility, cleanliness, and charm. He's gone after jaywalkers. He's roped in the loiterers. Now he has taken on the cabbies. And Round 1 definitely goes to the mayor.

Three weeks ago, when he threw down the gauntlet (stiffer fines), the cabbies were shocked at their severity.

The plan hikes penalties for things like driving too close to another vehicle, running a red light, or speeding above the city's 30 m.p.h. limit. Three such safety violations and a cabbie loses his hack license - for good. It also institutes drug tests, and if a cabbie ignores or curses a customer, it'll cost them $150.

"This isn't about raising revenue for the city, this is about changing their behavior," says Deputy Taxi Commissioner Allan Fromberg, noting that accidents involving taxis jumped more than 40 percent.

But in the eyes of cabbie Victor Solarte, the city's gone too far. "Some cabbies are nasty - bad drivers" says Mr. Solarte. "But why should we all have to pay for them?"

Like most New York cab drivers, Solarte is an immigrant, working a grueling entry-level job with little pay, no benefits, and brutal hours. He's behind the wheel at 4 a.m. every morning and cruises the city's streets until 4 p.m., every day, seven days a week.

"This is a regular job. This is rice and beans. I take care of my three kids with this," says Solarte, who came from Colombia almost 20 years ago.

Last Wednesday - in an unprecedented show of solidarity for an industry with no union and workers from 85 different countries - all but 200 of the city's 12,000 cab drivers went on strike. The breadth of the action took officials by surprise. But the bigger shock was how the city reacted.

TRAFFIC, which is usually snarled with yellow cabs, honking horns, and fed-up pedestrians, flowed smoothly and quietly. The air was remarkably clear of smog and the sun shone brightly on the often-empty pavement. It felt like Sunday, all day.

In fact, it was so pleasant, Mayor Giuliani suggested that maybe the city should get rid of the cabs all together.

"That's fine for him, he's got a permanent car service," says Upper East-Sider Rachel Kovar, who had to walk to work.

Buses and subways were clogged with some new, confused, and well-dressed riders. Some were clearly uncomfortable with being stuffed like sardines into subway cars - something most New Yorkers take for granted.

But even the disgruntled, like Ms. Kovar, admit to enjoying the city without taxis. "It really was nice without them," she says.

To add insult to injury, over the weekend the mayor decided to allow private liveries (limos and vans) to pick up passengers for the next 60 days - a move that will cut further into the cabbies' paltry take-home pay.

But they're not giving up. On Thursday, thousands of them plan to drive in a caravan from Queens to City Hall at the height of rush hour to show their displeasure. The mayor is threatening to pull their hack licenses - even put them in jail - if they tie up traffic.

Nonetheless, Solarte plans to join the other cabbies in this show of solidarity. But he also thinks their strategy has to change: "What we need is a good lawyer and somebody up top with political power."

And to really civilize the city's streets, more may need to change than the cabbie's habits and the Taxi Commission's rules.

The average impatient taxi passenger may have to be reined in as well. "If a cabby does go only 30 m.p.h., I don't tip 'em," says one very typical New Yorker, "because they're not going nearly fast enough."

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