Monday, February 14, 2011

New York's Taxi TVs Coming To San Francisco? By John Han

They're already here.  I've now been in a couple of SF taxis that have these.  And I have a feeling more of them, lots more, are on the way. 

They are called “Taxi TVs”… credit card machines positioned in the back seats of cabs that passengers can swipe themselves.  They have small, flat screen TVs that play a continuous loop of news, sports, and weather… and non-stop advertising.  Lots of New York cabs have them.  I wouldn’t doubt that a lot of riders there like them. 

But meanwhile, it’s also a fact that a lot of riders have said they are loud and annoying.  Some have gone as far as saying they are an intrusion of their privacy. 

Here's what one New Yorker said.  

“SPsGhost 3 hours ago - The payment by credit card is the most useful thing this system has brought about. There are other elements of functionality that are probably helpful to have too, like the gps tracking. But the TV's are garbage. Useless, annoying, a waste of money for all involved. They are bloatware. Some marketing hack sold the idea to the TLC as means by which to raise advertising money, but I guarantee you that ad space is worthless. They should just be axed as far a "content" goes and used solely to display the rules and fare information, which is only displayed once and then goes away, and to facilitate the credit card payment.”
(Posted on the New York daily weblog, "Gothemist", February 11, 2011, in the reader comment section of the following article titled, “Survey Says:  Cab Riders HATE Taxi TV”.)
-  New York recently surveyed 22,000 riders in which they were asked what they thought was the worst thing about New York taxis.  What did the survey reveal?  It’s in this excerpt of the article published on the Gothemist…
“Survey Says: Cab Riders HATE Taxi TV”
“According to a recently-released survey [pdf] by the Taxi and Limousine Commission, the second biggest criticism from cab riders is about the Taxi TV, which automatically turns on in the back seat of cabs and, in some cases, never shut off. Only the cost of cab fares is disliked more than Taxi TV—36.8% of respondents cited the fare as their biggest beef, while 31.3% said those annoying TVs were the worst.”
(Click here to go to the “Gothemist” for the rest of the article, and view all of the latest readers' comments on it.)
I'm presuming that as these machines begin to take off here in SF, at least here the taxi driver would be able to control the audio and turn it off, as opposed to New York, where the customer has that control.  I’m hoping that would be the case.  We don’t have partitions dividing us from the customers and the back seats like in New York, so audio would affect us more.
But that still leaves the passengers subjected to the visual and moving ads like a miniature electric billboard in their lap whether they like it or not.  I’m guessing some will like it.  Many will not.  Others won’t care.  

And if they don't want to view it, they can always close their eyes during the ride, look out the window, or put a coat over the screen.  Hopefully there will be a way to turn a knob and darken the screen.

I wonder if New York ever bothered to consider the possibility that when people get into a taxicab, maybe they don't want to be bombarded with big corporate television ads and programming.  Where in the City can one go without being attacked by corporate ads? 

And, if San Francisco wants to follow New York's lead on this, would it consider the same?

According to a recent New York Times article, San Francisco may want to give it a good second look.  Here’s an excerpt from the New York Times…

"City Taxi Commissioner Says He Is Seeking Changes to TV Service in Cabs"
(The New York Times)  By MICHAEL M. GRYNBAUM  Published: February 10, 2011

Can’t stand Taxi TV? Even New York’s taxi commissioner feels your pain.
In a candid assessment of the much-maligned back-seat screens, David S. Yassky, chairman of the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission, said Thursday that he wanted to improve the current batch of yellow cab programming, which riders have routinely criticized.
“I do sympathize with passengers who don’t like the content on the Taxi TV screens right now,” Mr. Yassky said in an interview. “We are not going to be a government censor here, but we want to offer more options to passengers in taxis.”  (NY Times May Require Online Log-In, So You Must Google The Full Article)

Reminder… in this Times article, the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission only mentions that it could be the poor content of the programming that is annoying so many New Yorkers, and therefore its solution is to offer even more programming to its passengers… such as Bloomberg Media? 

However, there is little recognition of the fact that customers have no real choice in the first place but to watch the TV screens lighting up, and sound coming on, every time they get into cabs, and maybe that’s what’s annoying them... the disrespect of their privacy.

I casually asked some SF passengers if they thought they might like New York style Taxi TVs and all of their advertising in SF cabs.  Most said NO!  BAD IDEA!  THAT WOULD SUCK!  

A handful said they thought it wouldn’t bother them too much, especially if they could turn the volume down or turn it off completely, and only have it come on when it's time to pay with the credit card.  One person actually said they like New York Taxi TVs a lot and would like to see them here in SF.   

But based on the overall response, the majority saying ‘no’, I could see, that what’s important to riders is they want to be able to pay with a credit card.  THAT’S WHAT MATTERS.  PAYING WITH A CREDIT CARD.  They’re not necessarily interested in TVs or ads. 

It’s the ability to pay by credit cards that most people see the value in.  Most people would rather not have to look at a video screen at their laps with ads flashing at them.  So if SF passengers, for the most part, don't seem to want TV ads in their cabs, then who does?  This excerpt is from an article published in January 2011 in the Media Daily News. 

“Clear Channel Outdoor Sells Taxi Biz To VeriFone”

by Erik Sass, Monday, January 4, 2010, 4:57 PM

“In a major move toward consolidation of taxi-based media in New York City, VeriFone Holdings has acquired Clear Channel Outdoor's Taxi Media division, without disclosing the terms of the deal.
VeriFone said the Taxi Media operation would be integrated with its Media Solutions business, which focuses on delivering digital, place-based, interactive media and advertising to consumers at the point of sale, which includes paid transportation.
The acquisition of Taxi Media gives VeriFone access to 5,000 more taxi cabs in New York City, almost doubling its existing network of 6,500 cabs, for a total reach of 90% of all cabs in the city.
The deal also brings VeriFone the expertise and client relationships possessed by 20 Taxi Media sales reps.”  (READ FULL ARTICLE)

Is there someone tightly woven into SF’s taxi industry that is a vendor and lobbyist for VeriFone to the SFMTA and the City and County of San Francisco, and would like to see these machines sold in as many taxis as possible?  The answer is 'yes', but I won't say who.   

It could be interesting to note that San Francisco's regulations already require all SF taxis to accept credit cards from the public as payments.  The same code also requires that cab companies redeem these credit card payments to the drivers, and prohibits the companies from charging drivers back for the processing fees.  (Transportation Code Division 11, Article 1100 "Regulations Governing Motor Vehicles For Hire" Section 1106(p)(6))

However, cab companies have complained to the City about the ever-rising cost of the fees, with more and more people paying with credit cards.  And it seems San Francisco has been relenting.

In August of 2010, the City put out a draft memorandum informing the public that the SFMTA Board had already authorized MTA Taxi Services Division to waive the prohibition against cab companies to pass credit card costs onto drivers. 

Instead, cab companies could now relinquish their credit card costs, and pass them along onto thousands of non-medallion taxi drivers if the companies could meet a certain criteria.  Included in the criteria was the allowance for back seat credit card machines so long as they could process Clipper cards, amongst other things, and that any ad revenue generated by the machines as profit beyond necessary equipment costs would be split 50-50 with the driver.

But it was only a "draft" memorandum.  Now that some of these machines have already been installed, are the drivers getting 50-50 in ad revenue?


Below are 2008 excerpts from another "Gothamist” blogpost, showing passenger rants about the credit card machines back then, when Taxi TVs were pretty new.  

The full weblog can be viewed here.  For now, here are excerpts from "More Malfunctioning Taxi TV Screens Are Always On", a post by John Del Signore, posted on the "Gothamist" November 2008.  


Ø              It seems that more and more taxi TV screens are losing the "off" or "mute" button, turning NYC cabs into hell on wheels. Incensed reader (and big band leader) Gregory Moore writes:

Ø              I made the very unpleasant discovery this weekend during a $20 cab ride downtown that those hideous backseat televisions are being re-designed so that they can no longer be turned off, muted or have the volume turned down. As I tried to conduct business on my mobile phone, I continued to be barraged with the same horrendous commercials over and over. Please notify your readers to file a complaint with the Taxi and Limousine Commission over this revolting new "innovation".

Ø              "The new forced advertising inside of taxis is no less than being held hostage and made to listen to unwanted noise. Now that the TLC has determined that most thinking riders choose to turn off these backseat televisions, they have made it so that one is FORCED to watch/listen, with no access to on/off or volume. I conduct business from taxis in New York, and this is no less than a violation of my privacy and ability to choose.

Ø              "I made a list of all the advertisers that participate in this "innovation" and am going to actively boycott their products, starting with WNBC. Absolutely the worst invasion of privacy I've been forced to be subjected to. I plan to ask the driver if there is an on/off button before entering a cab and will refuse to ride in a cab that does not have one. This is absolutely shameful, in light of rising taxi fares. You should all be ashamed of yourselves for thinking this was acceptable."  
(Excerpt from the Gothamist blog titled, "More Malfunctioning Taxi TV Screens Are Always On."  By John Del Signore in News on November 11, 2008 1:28 PM)


ü       "This happened to me TWICE this week! I hit the off button, and it just stayed on.. no option for mute or off... It seemed to me more like it was programmed to do this, and not a malfunction."

ü       "Those are the worst additions to cabs ever invented. It's happened to me too - specifically when they just continue to turn themselves back on every 30 seconds."

ü       "I don't watch TV at home, because its so bad. This way you HAVE to watch, its just so lame."

ü       "This blows - a friend of mine is prone to carsickness as it is, and when we weren't able to turn off the TV during one late night cab ride, we had to cover it with our hands so she wouldn't barf. O_o"

ü       "Had one last Thursday. A couple of hard punches to the lower right-hand corner of the screen did the trick."

ü       "Yesterday I just missed the red off button by less than an inch and that was it -- I was in taxi TV hell for the rest of the ride. It never came back on while the stupid thing droned on and on.  Taxi TV = worst invention ever"

ü       "Fuck advertising. They'll be pumping this shit directly into your eyeballs while you sleep before long.  It's no surprise that the "off" buttons are oddly not working.  Simple remedy? You can buy a whole box of 8.5" x 11" label paper at Staples for a couple bucks. Always carry a couple in your bag.  When it fails to turn off, turn it off yourself.  The cabbie will likely thank you."

ü       "nothing like paying to watch commercials.  first it was the movie theaters, now its the cabs."

ü       "This has happened to me several times and it is infuriating. Next time, I'm getting out of the cab."

ü       "I got in a cab the other day with my baby - and the TV wouldnt Mute or go off either... It wouldnt let me even lower the volume!!!! "

Before San Francisco moves forward to greatly expand back seat TV screens for its taxis, it should listen and learn, and consider what much of New York's public rider-ship has already said in the past, and still seems to be saying.  

There has been little open discussion about this.   But ask around.  You may get some anecdotes that taxi based media corporations and cab companies don’t care if passengers have to put up with their ads.  After all, they are not here to give us TAXI SERVICES.  Taxi companies are "taxi related" businesses.  They make money from leasing vehicles and from revenue from ads on the cabs, (and also from driver tips.  See Ed Healy's blog).  They have already been gearing for some time to get these machines put into more and more cabs. 

One can’t help but ask whether or not this has the public ridership’s best interest in mind.  Because if that were the case, why wouldn’t San Francisco just stick with its original transportation policy requiring all taxis to take credit cards?  And if rising processing fees were the issue for companies, then let companies reduce their costs by half, by making companies and cab drivers split the fees 50/50.  I could live with that.  That would be one way to do it.  That would seem straightforward and fair to me.  Neither side would have to pay 100 percent of the cost.  No such negotiations though.  Instead, we may simply be moving to yet another lopsided policy favoring big business and companies. 

(Note:  As far as being able to turn the TVs off, click here to read about it.   The "off" buttons allegedly malfunction a lot, according to some New Yorkers.  Read what they have said so far.  Also, NY cab drivers apparently get none of the advertising revenue.)


  1. From Bud Hazelkorn

    John, Tried to post this email via google account but didn't seem to take. Can you post it? Thanks for covering this and for your excellent blog. Good work, Bud

    Thanks for this excellent post, John. These are absolutely disgusting noisemakers that cheapen San Francisco life even more. It destroys the driver-passenger connection and creates yet another head-banging distraction for both. It also creates a physical hazard for passengers in smaller cabs. We at Green Cab will be voting on a resolution to outlaw them at our company. I strongly hope it will pass. At no other company do drivers have that ability so they're forced to eat it. Another example of de facto employee status. One solution I highly recommend to drivers is to vandalize them. Make them more expensive to operate than they're worth. Bud

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