GPS: savior or failure of the taxi industry?

(written by Intro to GIS student, A. O.)

We all know what GPS is. It is not the aim of this post to present the benefits of such a system but rather objectively consider the ramifications the use of GPS will play in the future of various industries. Consider the taxi industry. In recent times just the talk of making such implementation mandatory led to the city wide strike of thousands of cab drivers in New York City (NYC). Because of this – and for the fact that the image of a yellow taxi cab is synonymous with NYC – I will focus on the ongoing debate of GPS in the New York taxi industry.

In NYC there are 13,000 taxis currently in operation. If the GPS program was implemented, all cab owners will have to install a $5,000 system which includes a GPS tracking device, a credit card reader, and a touch-screen TV. The professed goal is increased user satisfaction and overall industry efficiency. (There are other objections are being made about the some of the devices, such as a 5 percent surcharge being removed on all credit card transactions), but I’m not considering these.)

GPS has become a mainstay in private automobiles. The ability to enter/utter a location and have directions returned to you is not only nifty, but also very useful and a great time saver. So why would taxi drivers object to having such a technology present in their cars? Well, the GPS system currently proposed is not the same as those we find in our cars today. It is actually just a tracking device that enables those in high places to see where all cars currently are, where they have been, and how long each fare was. As Bhaivari Desai – the executive director of the Taxi Workers Alliance (TWA) – points out: “[the GPS] is simply being used for tracking…They’re not navigational, cannot be used for dispatching, and serve no purpose to the driver or the public.” Bill Lundauer – also from the TWA – said: “It’s like we’re under surveillance. Not only are we under surveillance we have to pay for the dubious privilege.” So is New York’s Taxi & Limousine Commission (TLC) wrong to press for the installation of GPS in taxis?

Allan Fromberg (TLC) claims that GPS facilitates activities that drivers already and could assist passengers in finding lost items.

“Right now the first thing a taxi driver does is write something on a clip board. That information will now be electronically transferred [to the system],” …”GPS is used to facilitate an electronic trip sheet and to facilitate the return of lost property without the [passenger’s knowledge] of a medallion number. Of our 88,000 passengers [that lost something last year] the majority don’t know what cab they were in. With the vehicle location system we’ll be able to triangulate—take a snap shot in time—of several cars in the vicinity of a drop off,” to narrow down which car the passenger was riding in when the item was lost.

It all sounds good but couldn’t this be implemented within a ‘normal’ GPS system – one better aimed at the needs of the drivers? I think the technology exists to make this a worthwhile venture but once again apparent lack of foresight has led taxi officials to miss the mark with their current proposal. If tracking taxi drivers is their main goal then let’s just hope that – as proposed by Bhaivari Desai – this isn’t just a ploy to track the whereabouts of Muslim drivers.

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