When the city rolls out its share-a-cab program this fall, the solitary taxi ride — and its private, if jerky, moments of contemplation — will yield to the more intimate world of communal travel.
Those seeking a preview of this new regime would do well to seek out its little-known antecedent: a small taxi stand on the far Upper East Side, where Yorkville dwellers pile in four to a car and pay $6 each for a quick, if squished, trip to Wall Street.
The stand is the only one of its kind in Manhattan sanctioned by the city. And after two decades, the peculiar arrangement has given rise to an unspoken and unusual etiquette of cab-taking, a set of customs that may now spread well beyond its origins at York Avenue and 79th Street.
For starters, yammering is out.
“We don’t speak to each other,” said Tobi Stern, 61, who shares a cab on weekdays to her job at an insurance company near John Street. “Once in a while you get a neighbor or somebody you know, but you don’t get into chitchat.”
Indeed, evidence gathered this week suggested that to enter a shared cab is akin to a vow of silence.
Cellphone conversations, bane of the confined commuter, are verboten. Travelers plugged in iPod headphones, flipped through rumpled copies of The Wall Street Journal, and prodded the glowing screens of smartphones. Few acknowledged their fellow passengers, save for the universal motion to scooch over.
“Everybody seems to know the rules,” said Glenn Caldwell, 26, as he zipped down the F.D.R. Drive toward the insurance company where he works. “People are considerate.”
Still, keeping close quarters with a group of harried commuters has its challenges. A few months ago, Mr. Caldwell recalled, a cabby missed a turnoff at the Brooklyn Bridge, prompting the man sitting inches away from him to “freak out.”
“He said he was late for a meeting. They just kind of screamed at each other,” Mr. Caldwell said of the driver and his fellow passenger.
Shared rides also upend the traditional hierarchy of taxicab seating arrangements. Riding shotgun is suddenly preferred.
Ninetta Dafnos, who works in the financial sector, arrived at the stand on Wednesday to find a taxi already halfway filled. She strolled past to the next cab and hopped into the passenger-side front seat. Her trip was delayed, but she said she didn’t mind. “I like to sit here in the front all the time,” she said.
The taxi stand began about 20 years ago — nobody involved seems to know exactly when — after residents, stymied by a formidable walk to the Lexington Avenue subway line, complained that cabs in the area were scarce.
It quickly became popular among Wall Street types, attracted by a quick commute — 10 minutes, with no traffic — to the financial district. (The stand sits around the corner from an on-ramp to the F.D.R.) The price has crept up over the years — it started at $3.50 a person — but most still consider it a bargain.
Matthew W. Daus, the chairman of the Taxi and Limousine Commission, said the stand inspired the city’s contingency plan during a brief cabdrivers’ strike in 2007, the last time a citywide cab-sharing program went into effect. That in turn led to the current set of proposals, which would create pickup points at Penn Station, Grand Central Terminal and other high-traffic areas.
Mr. Daus said that a code of conduct would be placed in taxicabs that participate in the pilot program, perhaps obviating the need for any impromptu social rules.
Not all involved, however, believe that the stand’s patrons are strict followers of Emily Post.
“It’s been a disaster,” said Betty Cooper Wallerstein, doyenne of the East 79th Street Neighborhood Association, the community group that spearheaded the cab stand in the late 1980s.
Ms. Wallerstein explained that the stand was intended to serve all of the neighborhood’s residents, regardless of destination. But the Wall Street crowd quickly elbowed out the competition.
“There were fights,” she said the other day. “People said that they were pushed by the Wall Streeters when they tried to get in line.” Drivers refused to accept fares to other areas. Enforcers from the city were called in, to little avail.
The cabdrivers who regularly work the stand said they do not mind waiting for passengers, a process that can take more than an hour, if it means $24 in fares to Wall Street.
The biggest problem, they say, is that there are fewer Wall Streeters than in the past.
“This place used to be packed at 6,” said Mohammed Choudhry, who has been working the corner for 10 years. “Now no one shows up until 7:15.”