They are anonymous yet intimate.
From the inside, minutes in real-time could seem like hours on end. From the outside, they may resemble an eccentric assemblage of metal and paint. Their drivers are utter strangers. Yet for a short drive, they remain in control of our lives.
They see us in moments of jubilation and distress, in times of comedy and tragedy. On the way to a first date. On the way home from a night at the bars.
They are taxis. And whether speeding down the hills or creeping over the gorges of Ithaca, they are staples of Cornell life.
To one Cornell senior, a five-minute cab ride made her re-evaluate everyone. “We were heading home from a night out and our driver told us to lift our arms up in the air. ‘We’re on a roller coaster,’ he shouted. And then we were speeding down a narrow, bumpy Ithaca street. ‘We’re in the party-mobile,’ he said. I wasn’t sure we were making it home.”
To a Cornell junior, a cab ride made her expand her horizons. “I once took a taxi with a driver who wouldn’t stop talking about how everything is better when you’re high. He went on and on about how he loves spending time high with his family. He told us that we should all try it because it just makes everything better ... we were all thinking, ‘Even driving a taxi?’”
To a Cornell freshman, a cab ride made her fear for her life. “We were going out to dinner for my friend’s birthday, and we called two cabs. Only one showed up. We finally couldn’t wait any longer, so all 15 of us piled into this one van. It was snowing outside, and the cab was heading up a hill. When we got to the top, the driver said, ‘Uh … guys? When we get to this turn, would you all mind leaning to the left?’”
With over a mile’s distance between the dorms of North Campus and the high rises of Collegetown, taxicabs have become crucial catalysts of Cornell’s upperclassmen-underclassmen social scene, so much so that many students can recall the infamous cab dispatch’s phone number from memory.
LIFE FROM THE OTHER SIDE
When an average student steps into a cab at 2 a.m. on a Saturday night, he or she probably doesn’t give much thought to the man or woman behind the wheel. What did it take for him or her to get there?
The process of becoming a cab driver is fairly straightforward. Drivers must obtain a Class E license from the DMV and be certified by the Ithaca police department after a background check, physical examination, fingerprinting and photograph.
In a college town like Ithaca, the weekends generate a lot of business for Taxi services.
According to Ralph Sirico, owner and operator of A-Plus Taxi, his company receives more calls than it can handle on a weekend night. Nonetheless, he has witnessed a decline in business of late.
“I’ve noticed lately that kids aren’t partying as hard as they used to,” he said. “It’s not only the economy. At the end of the month, a lot of people don’t have a lot of money. Even the kids.”
Steve of Ithaca Dispatch made the same observation.
“I think the number of parties has probably gone down a little because of the bad economy.”
“Our business on a Saturday or Friday night is generated by parties at Cornell and kids acting responsibly and calling a cab [instead of driving],” he said. “There’s been a dip in business this year between midnight and 3 a.m.”
Conveniently easy to remember, (607) 277-7777 connects to the Ithaca Dispatch, which fields Yellow Cab, Cayuga Taxi and University Taxi. With 20 cars and approximately 50 drivers, Ithaca Dispatch is the largest local taxi company.
“A lot of people watch Taxi Cab Confessions and they think you get the juicy stuff all the time. That doesn’t really happen.”
Steve did have some stories to share, though.
“One New Year’s Eve I transported six female impersonators for 25 miles. That was an interesting ride.”
Though Steve considers most of his passengers to be reasonable, he does not linger over the ones who aren’t.
“The good thing about it is that if you have a real jerk in the car, they’re only there for five to 10 minutes and then they’re gone,” Steve continued.
Some of those customers are inevitably Cornell students. While Steve appreciated them for their business, Paul Marion, another driver for Ithaca Dispatch, portrayed an honest and critical perspective.
“It is a tragedy for Cornell students that they are as brilliant as they are, but [they] are also incredibly spoiled and immature, as they come from privilege,” Marion said. “They are what I call pseudo-intellectual.”
In Marion’s opinion, some Cornell students — not all — lack common sense. He pointed out that those same students will go on to hold important positions in the future.
“That’s not new, nor is it unique [to Cornell],” he said.
Marion has been around the block a few times. He was born in Ithaca, and he entered the transportation business in 1974 after getting out of the military.
According to Marion, the business has changed within the last decade.
“The Cornell and Ithaca College influence, that’s always been a big piece of the pie. That hasn’t changed. But the business remained static until about ten years ago.”
Ithaca Dispatch has recently started charging higher rates to reap a profit, according to Marion.
Terry Ecker, who has worked for Green Hornet Taxi for six months after seven years also believes that Ithaca Dispatch milks its customers for all they are worth.
“They try to keep a monopoly,” he said. “Ithaca Dispatch has a contract with the Ithaca airport. They really rake [in] the students when it comes to pricing.”
Green Hornet Taxi is a smaller, independent service, with three vehicles in circulation and six drivers. They stay competitive by offering lower rates than Ithaca Dispatch, according to Ecker.
Ithaca’s taxi services offer students an option for safe transportation, but they are not the only option.
Across the country, colleges and universities have explored and exposed their students to late-night modes of transportation other than cabs. By developing safe ride programs through which students can anonymously call a car that will drive them home from a local venue for free, the institutions have built an infrastructure that caters to the lifestyle of generation Y.
Citing the University of Virginia, University of Michigan, Princeton University, Yale University and Northwestern University as schools that have already built such a system, Sanjiv Tata ’09, president of the Residential Student Congress, said that Cornell is on the outs in its lack of such a program.
Especially today, as the worsening economy pressures today’s generation to spend wisely, dollars earmarked for cab rides may be among the first cut from personal budgets.
“Students are partying less this year than they have in previous years,” said Steve, a driver for the Ithaca Dispatch Company. Having worked in Ithaca for nine years after owning a taxicab company in Rochester, Steve has noticed a slight decline in late night rides from his Ithaca customers.
“Now more than ever we need to develop alternative ways of late-night transportation,” Tata said. With approximately 2.1 million college students reportedly driving drunk annually, and with about 1,700 yearly alcohol-related deaths from unintentional injuries including motor vehicle crashes, many claim that the necessity of universities to offer affordable and safe methods of late-night transport for students is especially crucial.
“It is a priority for both the student body and the University to offer safe transportation for students who might be engaging in high-risk activity on a campus which is complete with high-risk terrain,” said Ryan Lavin ’09, president of the Student Assembly. “Given the diverse terrain and the geographical scope [of Cornell], sometimes its not the safest thing for a student who has been drinking a bit to stumble back to their residences late night when it’s dark and he or she is under the influence,” Lavin previously told The Sun.
TCAT’s Blue Light Buses are free for those with a Cornell I.D. from 6:30 p.m. until 2:30 a.m. daily, but students are still left to meander around Ithaca’s dark streets late at night as they walk home from the bus stop. “The safe ride program would offer door-to-door service at a time when students would need it the most,” said Tata.
In late 2008, a group of students organized for the cause: to build a safe ride program at Cornell. Resolution 18, which was co-sponsored by Tata and Lavin, was presented to the S.A. in September. It called for a safe ride program that would be run by student volunteers. The program would train and pay student drivers, supply the vehicles and cover all insurance expenses.
It would be available Thursday through Saturday nights, from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m.
While originally expected to be up and running by fall 2009, budgetary constraints have been the primary reason behind the delay in its inception.
“As of right now, we won’t be able to implement it until next year due to budgetary concerns. We have to grapple with cuts in certain areas and we have to make sure that [Residential Student Congress] programs we have now can be sustained,” said Tata.
While skeptics of the safe ride initiative like Allen Bova, director of risk management, claim it “facilitates attendance at alcohol events” and “enables bad behavior,” the students and the administration are building an intermediary plan that would capitalize on Ithaca’s readily available resources.
“We have contacted TCAT to figure out if there might be a better way to look at the different routes, or publicize the routes students could use late at night,” Tata said, who also described negotiations the students had had with local taxi companies. “We have also been discussing a system that would serve more places than the buses, but less than taxis,” he said.
Tata is optimistic that the program will make headway next year and expects it to be functional by fall 2010 at the latest.