Detractors have long cast a yellow taxi ride in New York as something of an urban surrender — a necessary expense when the subway is too crowded, the walk is too cumbersome, the burden of car ownership in the city is too much to bear.
Four months after cab fares increased by roughly 17 percent, it is perhaps not surprising to learn how New Yorkers have been greeting the news: They will always ride, it seems, but they do not have to be happy about it.
According to data compiled by the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission, overall ridership has remained remarkably stable since the increase, falling just 1.67 percent compared with the same period in 2011.
A review of tips for cabbies, however, introduces a wrinkle. For riders who pay by credit card, tips have fallen, as a percentage of the fare, to 15.5 percent. An earlier review by the commission found that credit card tips exceeded 20 percent in fall 2009. Data from October and November of 2010 and 2011 placed average credit card tips closer to 17 percent. Data is not available for tips made in cash.
“Some people know about the hike, and just don’t like it and just don’t tip,” said Chrishna Sooknanan, 27, a taxi driver from Flatbush, Brooklyn. “People see the 50-cent surcharge from the M.T.A. and figure it’s a tip.” (The surcharge went into effect in 2009 to aid the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which is perennially short on cash.)
David S. Yassky, the city’s taxi commissioner, cautioned that any change in tipping patterns might have more to do with math than rider resentment. In purely monetary terms, average tips are up 8 percent to $2.29, from $2.12, on fares paid by card. It is the tip percentage that has fallen, because fares have increased at a far greater rate.
If passengers are accustomed to tipping, say, $3 on their daily rides, Mr. Yassky reasoned, they might continue to do so even as the fare rises.
“It’s behavior staying the same,” he said. “That drop is just an artifact of the pre-existing behavior.”
But there may be another explanation. Perhaps drivers’ tips have become less tethered to the metered fare itself. (Just as deliverymen might expect the same fistful of $1 bills whether they are carrying $10 worth of food or $50 worth.)
Graham Hodges, a taxi historian and former driver, said the question of how to define cabbies within the service industry had long influenced tips.
“There’s always a tension of whether to perceive the cabdriver as an independent-business man who has costs like you and me, or as a servant,” Mr. Hodges said. “I think people would like to see the cabdriver as a servant” — someone perhaps more entitled to a tip — “but they’re unable to.”
Expanded use of credit cards may have also changed the dynamic. During the period studied this year, 49.9 percent of riders used cards, compared with 38.7 percent for the same dates in 2010 and 44.1 percent in 2011.
“There’s simply less human interaction: you swipe the card and you’re out the door,” said Bhairavi Desai, the executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. “If you’re paying in cash, you make eye contact with the driver. You feel more compelled to give them a better tip.”
Mr. Yassky noted that most credit card users ignore the suggested tip amounts on the back-seat monitor, which lists options for tips of 20 percent, 25 percent or 30 percent. He said the amounts that riders put in themselves sometimes exceeded the suggested totals.
“I was shocked when I found this out,” he said. New Yorkers, he concluded, “don’t like to be pushed around.”
Interviews with taxi riders yielded myriad justifications for tipping decisions: Drivers choose the wrong route. The economy is weak. Fares are too high as it is.
Others insisted they would never dream of shortchanging drivers but offered tales of less virtuous friends.
“They’ve started to skimp on tips,” Kira Shalom, from Hell’s Kitchen, said of her clan. “It was a protest — ‘If I have to pay more for this fare, he’s getting less.’ ”
Francesca Mixco, 29, from Astoria, Queens, allowed that she had become “horrible” to cabdrivers, tipping “maybe a dollar” on a typical ride. She should know better, she said. She is a bartender.
Some expected tips to rebound, as a percentage, once the novelty of the new fares had worn off. Emma Hulse, 30, from Washington Heights, said she had begun tipping 20 percent, rather than 25 percent, in a bid to keep her final fare closer to what it was before.
“You kind of set up in your mind what it’s going to be,” she said. “You still want to be around that certain mark.”
But Ms. Hulse said she had taken to using livery cabs more often as a way to get home — a service with fares that are more open to negotiation.
“I guess I do tip less,” she said. “And I get in a lot more arguments.”
By MATT FLEGENHEIMER