New York taxis nudge customers toward 30% tips

Riders, pay carefully! Taxis in New York City quietly changed the payment screen that appears at the end of a ride. Gone is the option for the traditional 15% tip. Now, the lowest tip option offered to riders is for 20%, and absurdly, a 30% is listed as a reasonable choice.

Well into the 21st century, most New York City taxis were cash-only. When credit card capability finally arrived in the yellow cab world, the in-cab payment screen gave three buttons for tip options: 15%, 20%, and 25%. New York taxi drivers carped endlessly, regularly complaining to their customers that credit card payments require them to give up too much commission, and begging them to use cash instead.

Even though businesses of every stripe must swallow credit card transaction fees and commissions as a cost of doing business, many cabs broke the rules and refused to carry passengers who intended to pay by plastic.

The new screens reflect a minor victory in their complaining campaign. The jump in suggested tip amounts -- now starting above the industry standard -- is meant to placate the city's whining chauffeurs and offset their unhappiness with the system.

It would have been better for customers if taxi drivers had kept the battle over the fare out of the customer's laps. But instead of fighting for their slice of the pie behind closed doors, they're trying to shift the cost of doing business onto us.

Fortunately, to the left of the three suggested-tip buttons, there's also a keypad labeled "Enter Your Own Tip." Customers who use that half of the screen aren't locked into the inflated gratuities. However, just as many restaurants do with large parties, the automatic tip amount is set high in the hopes that distracted customers won't dispute it, and pay more.

Gratuity amounts are not addressed by the official rates set buy the city's Taxi and Limousine Commission. The only statement regarding the matter, from the "Taxicab Rider Bill of Rights" issued by the governing body, says customers may "decline to tip for poor service."

But the new screens haven't eliminated cabbie whining. Some taxis still have the old screens, with 15% tips offered. And just last week, a cabbie refused to pick me up because I wanted to use a credit card. That's contrary to the binding Bill of Rights in New York, but the complaint process is such a pain, most locals don't bother turning them in. But I want cab 6N83 to know that if you ever end up taking me as a fare, I'm going to use the buttons on the left, and I'm going to tip you the amount I really think you're worth.

The TLC did not respond by publication to WalletPop's request for information about the screens.

Update: A week after I contacted it, the TLC finally responded. It says the system "has been the same for years" and was not instituted in response to cab driver complaints. It went on: "Currently, there are three technology vendors that provide options in percentages or dollar amounts dependant on the total fare. For the particular vendor that you highlight in your image, the system offers tip amounts in dollar increments of $2, $3, or $4 in cash for fare amounts that total under $15.00. If the fare amount surpasses the $15.00 fare, then the option transfers into percentages at 20%, 25%, and 30%."

The TLC did not address several important points in my post: why 20% is deemed a normal starting tip amount, why the traditional 15% tipping amount is often not supplied, why there are three different payment systems, and the issue of cab drivers pressuring passengers to not pay with credit cards. It also did not address my experience with cab 6N83. It did, however, suggest that any riders "interested in filing a complaint" can call (212) 639-9675, or 311 within New York City.

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