On East 78th Street, Neighbors Tell Taxis: No More Relief!

One might think that yellow cabs, those ubiquitous symbols of New York City, would be welcomed, even embraced, on the Upper East Side. After all, that neighborhood, along with the Upper West Side, accounts for a disproportionate number of taxicab-trip originations, according to a 2004 survey of the New York City cab industry.

But near 78th Street and Lexington Avenue, where some of the few taxicab relief stands in the city are located, neighbors are fed up with what they say are the unhygienic and dangerous behaviors of the drivers who frequent the intersection.

And now they’re taking it up with the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission and the Department of Transportation.

Taxicab relief stands allow cabbies to park their vehicles for up to an hour while the drivers eat, relax or relieve themselves (preferably in a restroom); unlike regular cab stands, which are for passenger pickups only, relief cabstands allow cabbies to leave their cars unattended. The relief cabstands in question sit at the four corners of the intersection of 78th Street and Lexington Avenue, with each one able to accommodate approximately two vehicles each.

On Sept. 21, urged on by City Council member Eva Moskowitz, area residents and representatives from several nearby block associations addressed Community Board 8 at its monthly meeting. Complaints about the cabdrivers and their vehicles varied, but demands were the same: Get the cabs out.

Dr. Steven Rosenfeld, a West 77th Street resident, told the board: “Tonight, we just want to put the D.O.T. on notice about this.” Dr. Rosenfeld said the cabbies littered the sidewalks, dumped their ashtrays into nearby planters and urinated on the sidewalks when frequenting the stand. Several people said the stench was overwhelming.

Christopher Acerbo, a retired New York City police officer and the director of security for the Allen-Stevenson School, a K-9 all-boys private school adjacent to two of the relief stands in question, told the board that “it’s a dangerous situation for the students,” citing the cabbies’ “extremely reckless” driving while parents and students use the crosswalk.

According to residents, the cabstands have been at that intersection for nearly 30 years, when they primarily serviced an “unsavory” restaurant where a Starbucks now stands. But now, with the Allen-Stevenson school growing to over 400 students from its past enrollment of 250 and, some might say, New York City—and especially the Upper East Side—increasingly less edgy and more suburb-like, the cabbies are finding themselves less welcomed in the neighborhood.

According to Abby Wilson, a spokeswoman from Ms. Moskowitz’s office, the Councilwoman received several complaints from area residents about the cabstands. “We put it forth because it seemed like a reasonable thing to do, and because people that lived around there thought [the number of spaces reserved for cabs] was excessive,” Ms. Wilson told The Observer. Ms. Wilson conceded that Upper East Siders likely use cabs more than other New Yorkers. “We do not want to eliminate all of them; Council member Moskowitz does not have a problem with cabstands.”

But taxi representatives told The Observer that there were ulterior motives at work in the attack on the cabstands. “It’s just outrageous,” Bhairavi Desai, the founder of the New York Taxi Workers’ Alliance, told The Observer. “I think these allegations are made against drivers because they are working people of color. I don’t think that if these were a bunch of stockbrokers it would be called loitering; it would be called networking. Drivers work 12-hour shifts; they work up to 60 hours a week. Imagine if you are a office worker and for 12 hours you cannot take a break. To cab drivers, a relief stand is equivalent to the break room.”

Ms. Desai added that cab drivers, who pay around $180 per shift for their leases and gas, cannot afford to pay for parking while on break. “Relief stands are one of the few options that drivers have.”

On a recent afternoon, George Saheed, a cabbie who has driven in the city for 14 years, was parked at one of the cabstands at 78th Street and Lexington Avenue. Mr. Saheed was cleaning out his vehicle—and, it must be noted, disposing of his litter properly—when a reporter approached. When asked if he noticed that some drivers who used the stands were unhygienic, he concurred. “That’s true; it’s the reality,” he said. “It hurts me to say so.” But Mr. Saheed also said there’s a severe shortage of public restrooms in the city, something that he hoped would soon be solved by the recent deal inked by the city with the Spanish advertising conglomerate Cemusa Inc. to install 20 freestanding public toilets in the city as early as 2007.

“From one side, I understand the drivers,” Mr. Saheed continued. “But I also understand the residents.” He added that whenever he needs to relieve himself, he buys a coffee from a nearby restaurant and uses the facilities there. He denied, though, that the cabbies or their driving endangered any pedestrians.

Ultimately, Board 8 voted to ask the D.O.T. to remove half of the cabstands at the intersection and to study the feasibility of relocating the remaining two. In a moment of candor while addressing the full board, transportation committee co-chair Barry Schneider shined some light on the community board’s unwritten plan. “We’ll remove half of them first,” Mr. Schneider said, “and then the other ones once the first ones are removed.”

Allan Fromberg, a spokesman for the T.L.C., told The Observer that, although it’s the province of the D.O.T. to make any decisions regarding the locations of cabstands, “the D.O.T. and the T.L.C. are working together to address [area residents’] concerns.”

Craig Chin, a spokesman for the D.O.T., said that a department inspector would visit the site early next week. If warranted, the cabstands will be relocated. He didn’t say where.

Ms. Desai remains disappointed with the neighborhood residents. “What’s so particularly disappointing is that the area has so many residents that depend on taxi-cab drivers to take them to work, to take them out dining, to take them out to visit family and friends,” she said. “To give drivers a swift kick in the butt is not a very neighborly way to say thank you.”

On East 78th Street, Neighbors Tell Taxis: No More Relief!