By Stephen McKinley
Under the tangled girders propping up the No. 7 subway stop in Woodside, Queens, there is a small block with a big problem. To the casual eye, 61st Street simply looks bustling. But the merchants and traders of the block have said that their working lives have been made miserable by the constant stream of gypsy cabs on the street, many of which stop on the block while waiting to pick up fares.
The result: gypsy cab gridlock. The storekeepers say delivery trucks cannot get on to the block without honking and arguing with the cab drivers, who also sit in the cars with their engines idling, causing another problem — pollution.
These were the complaints aired at a meeting in Shane’s Bakery on 61st Street last Thursday. Shane Moynagh, the Bakery’s owner, who is originally from County Cavan, called the meeting because, as he put it, the situation has become “a complete disaster.”
Attending the meeting were merchants and local residents, as well as local representatives, among them Council member Eric Gioia and Assemblywoman Margaret Markey. As voices were raised in anger, Lincoln Towncar engines purred outside.
“It’s like a wagon train,” Moynagh explained to the group of about 15, many of whom nodded in agreement as he spoke. “It’s like a wagon train coming down 61st Street on to Roosevelt Avenue, then they split both ways, go back up to Woodside Avenue again, circle around on to 61st Street.”
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“They double park,” he continued, “and that leaves only one lane of traffic open.” Often, he said, the street is at a complete standstill.
What makes the block so attractive to the cab drivers is the confluence of the subway, the Long Island Rail Road and many bus routes, putting Woodside’s 61st Street right at the heart of a major commuting hub. At rush hour, a stream of people come on or off the trains and buses, bound for work in the morning, or, in the evenings, for homes in parts of Queens that are not served by public transport. The cabs clearly have a ready market.
“The existing laws are not enforced,” one resident said. “The number one law being broken here is that these guys are not allowed to pick anyone up off the street. That’s only for yellow cabs.”
But yellow cabs are rare so far outside of Manhattan, leaving the field free for the illegal Towncars and their drivers, and 61st Street has become their hunting ground in Woodside: it is illegal for such car services to solicit fares on the streets, according to city regulations.
Merchants described how the drivers appeared to work in packs. When one car moves out, another is very quickly moved in to take its space, making 61st Street a kind of holding pattern for taxis. The merchants and residents threw suggestions out to each other.
“What if everyone put three or four calls a day into the precinct?” asked one woman. “If the police got 10 calls a day, or even 15, then they’d have to do something.”
Neither the police nor Taxi and Limousine Commission representatives attended the meeting, although the 108th precinct had earlier apologized that no one would be able to attend the meeting.
Peter O’Donnell, who described himself as a local activist and long-time resident of the area, asked Assemblywoman Markey and Councilmember Gioia what they could do.
“Are we going to have to break the law ourselves?” he asked. “The law isn’t being enforced. The 108th precinct has no concern.”
“If the block became a no-standing block, would that be OK?” asked Markey. The group talked among themselves and agreed that yes, that could be one solution. The meeting broke up with the resolution to draft a petition and seek to change the signage on 61st Street, making it a place where cars could park and trucks could deliver produce, but the taxis could not lurk.
Across the street from Moynagh’s bakery is Toucan Tommy’s bar, run by Tommy Markey. As the meeting broke up, Markey took up the complaint as well.
“We call the police department every now and then,” he said, “and they come along, and the cabs all go. But within 10 minutes, they’re back.”
After the meeting, a police officer responded to the merchants’ concerns.
“If people didn’t get into livery cabs at that location, the cabs wouldn’t be there,” he said, suggesting that even though prowling for customers is illegal, the cabs were clearly providing a necessary service.
“We are down on manpower,” the officer went on to admit, “especially since Sept. 11.” He added that because crime had been falling in the 108th precinct, manpower levels in policing tended to fall as well, in line with established New York crime-fighting practices: police resources are focused on areas where crime is high or rising.
Responding to the 61st Street complaints for the Taxi and Limousine Commission, the commissioner and chair, Matthew W. Daus, said that the TLC was attacking the problem aggressively.
“We were in Woodside as late as yesterday,” he said Tuesday, “and we handed out 180 summonses and seized five vehicles.” He also pointed out that the TLC uses the same crime statistics method as the police department, Compstat, which targets resources according to a rise in violations.
“Enforcement issues are ongoing,” he added. For the city, deputy commissioner for Public Affairs Alan Fromberg said that the TLC was acting “even as we speak.” But he also pointed to a lack of manpower as a reason why the 61st Street merchants rarely saw a TLC representative on their block.
“We have a limited number of inspectors,” he said. “But we are attacking the issue from a number of different fronts.” As an example, he said that the TLC had made the airport at La Guardia more amenable for yellow cab and livery cab drivers, suggesting that this would take cabs away from pressure points like 61st Street.
For Tom Ryan and Heather Strafer, who both work at local community group Woodside on the Move, the response was woefully inadequate. The final resolution of the meeting held in Shane’s Bakery was to start with a petition, which on Monday, Strafer said, 13 of the 16 merchants on the block had signed, and the other three had said they would sign as well.
With this unanimous voice, Strafer said the petition would be sent to Markey and Gioia to reiterate the problems expressed at the meeting — and the petition would call for the signage on 61st Street to be changed so that livery cabs would not be allowed to stop and wait on the street.
“We’ll also heighten awareness,” said Strafer, “make people aware that hailing these cabs is illegal.” Although prosecution is extremely rare, under TLC rules, it is illegal for a person to hail any taxi other than a yellow taxi in New York.
Strafer said that the group who met in Shane’s Bakery planned to meet there again on the last Tuesday of the month, and take their concerns to the Community Board, which would be meeting later the same evening.
None of the cab drivers on 61st Street were prepared to speak about the problem, but Strafer said she had spoken to drivers in the past.
“Some are understanding, some are very nice,” she said. “Some really do feel sorry about the situation; others are like, ‘hey, too bad.’ But some are abusive. I’ve even seen some of them urinating on the street. Hopefully with the petition there will be some action in the next week or two.”
A city official familiar with the habits of the TLC offered a gloomy prognosis. “It can take upward of a year for them to change signage,” he said.
On Tuesday morning, there were fewer cabs on 61st Street than usual, but mornings are one of the quieter times of day. Across the street on Roosevelt Avenue, a police officer was taking notes but he refused to say whether he was inspecting the 61st Street situation.