Taxis in the US

What you should know

Taxis (cabs) are inexpensive in the US compared with many other countries and are plentiful in most cities (except when it’s raining, you have lots of bags, or you’re late for an appointment). Taxis are usually easily distinguishable, and most often are painted bright yellow.

Many taxi drivers in US cities are recent immigrants who speak little English (a knowledge of Spanish often comes in handy), take circuitous routes (because they’re lost or because they’re crooks) and often charge whatever they can get away with (so make sure the meter is working). You should take a street map so that you have some idea of whether you’re taking a direct route or are being given the grand tour. Don’t hesitate to tell the driver if he is going the wrong way or point out on a map where you want to go (New York City cabbies have been known to give passengers a blank look when asked for the Empire State Building or Grand Central Station).

Most taxi drivers are supposed to take English and city-knowledge tests, although you would never guess (English is the second language of more than half of New York City’s cabbies). New York cabbies have a reputation for being among the rudest and most aggressive drivers in the world. Many Americans’ vision of hell is hurtling from pothole to pothole in a New York cab during the height of summer (naturally without air-conditioning), with the lunatic driver attempting to run down pedestrians and push other vehicles off the road while roundly cursing everyone and everything in sight in a foreign tongue. However, spare a thought for the much maligned taxi driver, who’s in constant danger of being mugged or even murdered.

Taxi dispatchers

At US airports and major railway stations there’s often a taxi ‘dispatcher’. His job is to get you a taxi, advise you on fares and help prevent you being swindled by cab drivers (or bogus cab drivers). At some airports and rail stations, fares to popular destinations are posted on notice boards. At smaller railway stations there are often taxi telephones. At many airports you can arrange to be picked up by a limousine (limo), a monster stretched car with three or four rows of seats. Make sure you get the price in writing, unless you’ve just won the lottery, although in a few areas, most notably around Chicago, limos can be an economical alternative to taxis to and from the airport. Minibus shuttle services are also available at most airports; like taxis, they take you exactly where you want to go, but the fare is lower as it’s shared with your fellow passengers.

Taxi tariffs in the US

In some cities, e.g. New York, taxis have their tariff posted on their doors. When the cab is moving at more than 9.6mph the meter clocks distance and when it’s stopped or moving at less than 9.6mph, the meter clocks time. This method of calculating fares is standard throughout the US and conforms to federal standards for taximeters. At night (between 8pm and 6am) and all day Sundays there’s a surcharge of 50 per cent. Baggage that can be carried by one passenger is usually free, although some companies make a charge.

In addition to what’s shown on the taxi meter, you can be charged tolls (trunk, bridge and ferry) and specified surcharges, such as a night or Sunday surcharge. Special rates may apply to some destinations, usually posted in cabs. Cabbies expect a tip of 15 per cent and aren’t happy when it isn’t forthcoming (and usually tell you so!).

How to hail a cab

To hail a cab, just raise your arm (there’s no need to yell ‘Taxi!’). Taxis are obliged to stop if they’re on call, usually indicated by a light on the roof, e.g. ‘ON CALL’ (signs vary from city to city). A licensed cab must take you anywhere within the city limits or their official area, and a driver may not ask your destination before you get in and then refuse to take you (so don’t tell him where you want to go until after you get in). Most cab drivers won’t take you to dangerous areas at any time. Get the driver to repeat the destination so that you’re sure he knows where you want to go (although this doesn’t guarantee that he won’t get lost or take you somewhere else). In some areas a driver may be forbidden by law to get out of his taxi (e.g. to help you with baggage) as a security measure. Passengers always ride in the rear of a taxi (this is to protect the cabbie rather than the passenger).

There are unregulated radio cabs or ‘livery cars’ in all towns and cities that can be hired by pre-arrangement only. Some companies may not respond to your telephone call unless you’re already known to them. Some radio cabs are limousine standard and although fares are usually higher than regulated cabs, they’re generally clean, comfortable and air-conditioned. Limousines can be rented by the hour, day, week or month and are the best way to travel, provided someone else is paying or you’re a millionaire. You should avoid ‘gypsy’ or ‘pirate’ taxis, particularly at airports, as they’re meter-less, unregistered, unlicensed and uninsured, and often crooks (even worse than licensed cabbies). If you’re desperate and all you can find is a pirate taxi, always agree the fare in advance.

If you have a complaint about a taxi, note the cab number which is displayed on the roof, the outside of the passenger door, on the dashboard, or on the rear of the front seat (or all four). Also note the driver’s licence number (usually posted inside the cab, e.g. in the rear or on the dashboard next to the driver) and the name of the taxi company. This information should be listed on a receipt, which must be provided on request.

This article is an extract from Living and Working in America. Click here to get a copy now.

Further reading

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