More than half the city’s yellow cabs are now fitted with devices to accept credit cards for payment. Drivers fought the credit card plan with an unexpected fury — and it was at least partly responsible for their decision to go on strike twice.
But just because taxis have the devices, it doesn’t necessarily mean riders can use them — they may have to resort to some gentle and not-so-gentle arm-twisting to be allowed the privilege.
Many cabbies, it seems, will use the card swipers only sullenly, and only after a resistance that can be as ingenious as it is misleading. Excuses range from, “There is a minimum cab fare for credit card use” to “The device doesn’t have to be activated until the new year” to “It’s too short a ride.” (Not true, not true, and not true, say city officials.)
The Taxi and Limousine Commission, which regulates yellow cabs, has received hundreds of complaints in recent weeks about cabbies refusing credit cards.
Matthew W. Daus, the taxi commissioner, said on Tuesday that cabbies had twice refused to take his credit card.
“At this point, there is no excuse; whether drivers feel that it’s wrong, it’s done,” Mr. Daus said Friday. “The law is the law.” He added that after his Tuesday remarks were publicly reported, credit card volume jumped by 15 percent.
In an informal survey this week, a team of five from The New York Times, with each member attempting about 20 trips, fanned out into Manhattan, boarded cabs and tried to use credit or debit cards (the transactions are the same) to pay the fare.
Of the 92 tries (winter weather cut some attempts short), 47 trips, or about half, were successfully paid for with plastic.
Some transactions were far from cheerful. When a reporter pulled out a credit card to pay a $3.70 fare for a ride of a few blocks to 81st Street and Columbus Avenue, Honore Didia, 48, frowned.
The machine does not work, he exclaimed. Really? Looks fine, the reporter said. Well, Mr. Didia averred, go ahead.
“There are areas,” Mr. Didia said, almost hopefully, “where the thing doesn’t work.”
As the reporter waited for the receipt to be printed out, Mr. Didia muttered, “If you don’t have cash, you shouldn’t take a taxi.”
Thirty-five of the cabs that were approached, or nearly 40 percent, didn’t have the high-tech devices installed yet and couldn’t take cards if their drivers wanted to.
Henry Esaie, 41, from Queens Village, doesn’t want to. He does not have a credit card reader on purpose and has hired a lawyer to fight the city-ordered installation.
But Mr. Esaie is not optimistic. “I’m just buying time,” he said. By Jan. 31, the city hopes to have the devices in most, if not all, of New York’s 13,100 yellow cabs.
Nine drivers whose cabs were equipped with the new devices could not or would not complete the transaction, no matter what. And a 10th, after completing the transaction by credit card, said there was a 35-cent transaction fee for credit cards, which is not true.
Some of the 10 drivers’ excuses seemed genuine. Enrique Rodriguez-Torres, 72, looked baffled when the touch-screen for credit card payment did not appear. After several swipes, a bill printed from the meter but the device did not accept the credit card.
So Mr. Rodriguez-Torres had to ask for cash. “I hate this computer,” he said.
What is at issue is a bit tangled. In 2004, the taxi commission negotiated an agreement with the medallion owners, the ones who have city licenses to operate cabs.
In exchange for higher fares, the operators agreed to the installation of “technology enhancements.” In the back seat of every cab would be a television screen the size of a dictionary that provides video entertainment for passengers.
Linked to global positioning satellites in space, the screen would also provide an electronic map of the cab’s approximate location in the city and record the beginning and end of each trip. It eliminates the need for the cabby to do so with paper and clipboard.
But mostly city officials wanted a cashless option for paying the fare. More than half of all consumer payments in the nation are paid with credit or debit cards, officials said.
Moreover, passenger tips may increase, as they do in restaurants, if consumers don’t handle cash, the officials argued.
When the cabby starts the credit card process, the backseat television turns into a touch-screen display, like a bank A.T.M. The passenger looks at the fare, taps O.K., enters a tip if so inclined, and swipes a credit or debit card through a card reader, which is also in the back of the cab. The cabbie has nothing to do except hand over the receipt.
Many of the drivers were furious. The electronic devices would break down, they said. The 5 percent processing fee that goes to the credit card company and others would bleed them dry. Passenger tips, already scant, would wither in the anonymity of the touch-screen displays.
The New York Taxi Workers Alliance, the drivers’ group that called the strikes in September and October, plans to release a report next week detailing problems with the credit card machines, including blind spots in the city where the devices can’t link to satellites.
Bhairavi Desai, the alliance’s executive director, said the installation cost of $3,000 or more for the machines is passed along to the driver through higher lease payments for the cab.
“The whole technology is economically disastrous for the drivers,” she said.
Cesar Soto, 49, agreed. Unmarried, diabetic, and a cabdriver for 25 years, he lives with his mother, Gladys, in Washington Heights. He has a figure of a praying mantis, a symbol of hope in his native Dominican Republic, taped to his meter. “It’s the color of money,” he said.
In the 1990s, Mr. Soto said, he could take home $700 or more a week. But with the slowing city economy after Sept. 11, 2001, then higher cab fares in 2004 that drove many riders to buses and subways, he is lucky these days to take home $400 a week.
The 5 percent credit card fee — 50 cents subtracted directly from every $10 paid to the driver — was the last straw, he said.
He went out on strike twice and would do so again, Mr. Soto said. When a reporter and photographer entered his cab earlier this week, he immediately tried to discourage the use of a credit card.
Armed with newspaper articles and statistics, he said most riders were sympathetic. “They usually pay cash when I explain,” Mr. Soto said. He allowed the credit card payment, but his machine ran out of paper, sending him sputtering.
Reporting was contributed by John Eligon, Kate Hammer, C.J. Hughes and Jennifer Mascia.