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New York’s Cosmopolitan Cab Fleet Adopts Tougher Rules

December 24, 1990

NEW YORK (AP) _ Cab driver Claude Jacques learned English and his way around New York at the same time.

″One time this guy asked to go to ’The Garden,‴ said Jacques, who arrived from Haiti 10 years ago. ″I start going to Central Park. The guy screams, ‘Madison Square Garden, man 3/8’ No tip from him.″

But those were more freewheeling days. Now before new cabbies hit the streets, there are classes to take and tests to pass.

With the city’s cab fleet becoming increasingly international - 91 nations and at least 72 languages represented among drivers at last count - officials have made the license requirements more challenging in an attempt to improve service and stem passengers’ complaints.

On Nov. 1, the English language test was made more rigorous to simulate real-life conversations. The mandatory 40-hour course has been expanded to include city tours and geography lessons.

The final exam, enlarged nearly threefold since the mid-1980s, now covers questions on how to maneuver through obscure neighborhoods and the channels of city bureaucacy. The failure rate is now close to 40 percent, up from about 10 percent before the revisions.

″We’re dealing with the whole city here,″ said Jack Lusk, chairman of the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission. ″Without standards, it would be crazy.″

Of the 40,000 licensed cabbies in New York in 1984, two-thirds were born outside the United States, according to a taxi commission study. The percentage is likely close to 85 percent now, some experts say.

Lusk said the changes were made, in part, to halt criticism that cabbies did not know enough of the city or failed to fully understand English-speaking riders.

″The image of the New York cabbie as the cigar-chomping philosopher who talks about sports and politics is way out of date,″ said Paul Herzich, a director at Federated Employment & Guidance Service, which operates the taxi commission’s two training schools. ″They’re an endangered species.″

About 6,000 applicants a year pass the English test and enroll in the two schools. An American-born student is an oddity, said Herzich.

One recent taxi school class included three Haitians, two Pakistanis, two Egyptians and a Moroccan.

″OK, who can tell me what famous buildings are on East End Avenue?″ asked teacher Bob Schneider, a former cab driver.

The students flip through their maps of upper Manhattan. Schneider didn’t wait for an answer.

″Gracie Mansion, the mayor’s house,″ he said. ″By the way, you can always pick up good fares there at night.″

Jean Bruny, a 32-year-old Haitian, jotted down the tip. He lost his job when the machine factory were he worked relocated to Pennsylvania.

″Hey, I need work and I need money,″ Bruny said. ″If I pass the test, I’m on the road. I’m my own boss.″

With the U.S. economy apparently recession-bound, some cab industry experts foresee a return of some native New York drivers. These days, a full-time driver can bring home up to $600 a week.

″The taxi drivers are like a barometer of political, economic and social unheavals,″ said Anne Morris, director of the Center for Logistics and Transportation at the City University of New York Graduate Center.

″It seems the tougher the times in a country, the more we see immigrants from those countries looking to become cabbies.″

Presently, there is an influx of drivers from Pakistan, India and other Asian countries with high unemployment and struggling economies, said Ms. Morris, who has tracked the city’s cab industry since the early 1980s. Before the fall of Haitian dicator Jean-Claude Duvalier in 1986, Haitian cabbies dominated the newcomers.

″For many, driving a cab is the first step toward the American dream,″ she said. ″It’s a modern immigrants’ story.″ She said the Persian Gulf crisis could lead to a rise in cabbie applicants from Yemenis, Filipinos and other others who fled jobs in Kuwait.

But life behind the wheel in New York is not easy, said Lusk. Twenty-one percent of the cabbie don’t renew their license after the first year - some worn out by the long hours or moving on to other professions.

The taxi commission says more than 40 percent of the foreign-born cabbies have at least two years of college.

Sherman Appel is a hallmark to cabbie longevity. For 32 years, he has cruised the streets of his native city. Above his cab’s visor, he keeps a copy of a creased Daily News article on New York high school graduates who went onto fame.

The foreign cabbies remind him of his parents, Russian Jews who emigrated just after the turn of the century.

″Years ago, you came to this country and worked in a factory,″ he said. ″Now, they come and drive a cab - different time, different jobs.″

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