A Utica Ave. Subway? Dollar Cabbies Say No Thanks

Utica Avenue Subway Stop on 3,4 Lines

A commuter headed down busy Utica Avenue in Brooklyn doesn’t have the option to take the subway, because there isn’t one.  But that could change.

On Wednesday Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled his updates to former mayor Bloomberg’s environmental plan, newly renamed OneNYC. De Blasio’s plans focus on addressing income inequality in the city, and one of his objectives is to fight poverty by expanding transit lines that will help New Yorkers get to jobs faster.  As part of OneNYC, the city will conduct a study to explore expanding the subway south along Utica Avenue, which the plans describe as one of the most heavily populated areas in the city without direct access to the metro. Utica is a major road that passes through Crown Heights and Flatbush in Brooklyn.

But while de Blasio hopes to lift New Yorkers out of poverty by improving subway access to jobs, some Brooklynites worry that a new subway line would take jobs away: Utica Avenue’s “dollar cab” drivers.

On the corner of Utica and Eastern Parkway a group of West Indian men smile and ask passersby if they need a taxi. The drivers earn a living making $2 from each ride they give.

“There is not that much transportation out there. There are industries that have come up to address it,” said Council Member Jumaane D. Williams, who represents neighborhoods along Utica Avenue. “Because of the lack of transportation we have livery van services that try to pick up the slack where transportation is not adequate.”

Livery vans, or dollar cabs, offer passengers a ride along Utica Avenue to as far as King’s Plaza for a $2 flat rate. The drivers can be found soliciting potential passengers on Utica street corners. Some dollar taxis are licensed in the same way as other car services. However, according to The New York City Taxi & Limousine commission, livery cabs are not allowed to pick up passengers on the street – they must be dispatched through their base. Other dollar cab drivers are unlicensed, but have gained enough community trust for locals to seek their services.

The subway will take away money from undocumented immigrants, said Ismael, one of the dollar cab drivers on Utica. (Because not all of the drivers are licensed, or have immigration documents, they spoke to New York City Lens using only first names.)

“We have to survive some way, somehow and this is what we do to survive,” said another dollar cab driver, Tony. “We got mortgages just like anybody else. We got kids that we send to school and this is how we feed our kids. You put a subway now, that’s going to take away a lot.”

Other community members along Utica support the dollar cab drivers.

“A new subway line in lower Utica? I don’t think I would like it,” said Gerard Gilchrest, who owns his own marketing company, which distributes flyers for other businesses along Utica. “New York City is congested enough. And we already got the dollar cabs.”

“I’m a supporter of the livery vans so I wouldn’t want anybody to lose their livelihood,” said Council Member Williams. He wants to make a pathway that would make it easier for dollar cab drivers to get licensed and insured. And he wants to make sure that a new subway line in his district wouldn’t exacerbate the negative effects of gentrification or change the character of the neighborhood.

But, Williams is glad that transportation is being addressed in south Brooklyn. Transportation issues in south Brooklyn “aren’t even talked about,” said Williams.

And he concedes the subway would have some fans.  A new line “would be very rewarding for people who don’t have access to a train readily in Brooklyn.”