For the first time in the annals of taxi history, new data can confirm what generations of New Yorkers have long known in their bones: Just as the afternoon rush is about to begin, the taxicabs disappear by the hundreds.
From 4 to 5 p.m., the traditional hour for cabs to change shifts, the number of active taxicabs on the streets falls by nearly 20 percent compared with an hour before, according to a city review of GPS records taken from thousands of cab trips over the past year.
In fact, the number of cabs that pick up at least two fares during that taxicab witching hour is the lowest of any hour between 7 a.m. and midnight, the data show. This vanishing trend turned up in the data regardless of time of year or day of the week. ...
The explanation for the 5 p.m. dip is steeped in the history and economics of the taxi industry. Many taxicabs are used by two drivers a day, each working a 12-hour shift. To ensure that each leg is equally attractive, taxi owners schedule the shift change in the middle of the afternoon, so each shift gets a rush hour.
But the switch can’t happen too early, either: a 2 p.m. changeover, for instance, would require a day driver to start his 12-hour shifts in the wee hours of the morning. And cabbies say the midafternoon offers brisk business not evident 12 hours later, when fares mainly consist of late-night revelers.
Hence, the 5 p.m. compromise. When the changeover became standard, its timing did not pose a big problem for passengers. Many taxi garages were situated on the far West Side of Manhattan, requiring cabs to make only a short trip to 11th Avenue before heading back to Midtown with a fresh driver.
But in the 1980s, as commercial rents rose, taxi fleets began migrating across the East River, particularly to Long Island City, Queens. The 5 p.m. shift change now included a journey over the often-packed Queensboro Bridge, not to mention the return slog to the city.
--Michael Grynbaum, NYT, on the source of a Manhattan annoyance