Transit Strike Throws Off the Meter of N.Y.

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 21, 2005

NEW YORK, Dec. 20 -- The fate of New York City fell on the hunched shoulders of Sotirios Gavritsas on Tuesday. And frankly, it sort of bummed him out.

"I'm depressed, you know what I mean?" he said, taking a right turn onto Lexington Avenue at 1 o'clock in the afternoon. "I don't like it one bit. I find it very depressing."

You'd think that Gavritsas would be having the time of his life. He's part of the legion of New York taxi drivers, which for now makes him the best hope for the teeming masses trying to cover Manhattan ground. Transit workers walked off their jobs early Tuesday morning, after leaders of their union rejected a final offer from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the organization that oversees the largest subway and bus system in the country.

The first transit strike in 25 years was timed for maximum impact, just days before Christmas, when the city is full of tourists. On a typical day here, the subway and bus systems move 7 million passengers. All of that traffic, for the time being, has been left to fend for itself. A gusher of pedestrians flowed across the Brooklyn Bridge at rush hour. There appeared to be a record number of bicyclists braving the cold.

Great news for the 12,778 taxicabs circulating throughout New York, right? Well, it isn't. Not according to Sotirios Gavritsas, and not according to a half-dozen other cabbies who chatted as they drove around town Tuesday.

"People are scrambling," Gavritsas said in a thick Greek accent, gesturing at a crowd of pedestrians on Lexington Avenue. "Any place else, a strike is okay. But in New York City, it's no good."

It's no good, but it's arguably not as bad as anticipated. There were plenty of complaints, honking horns and gridlock across the city, but why should this Tuesday be unlike any other? The weird thing about the strike, at least after one day, is how unweird it seems. The smart money was on pandemonium. One had imagined a slew of Wall Street commuters wearing hockey headgear and body-slamming each other. That might happen, if this shutdown continues. (The last one went on for 11 days.) But for now, the sound of the 2005 transit strike is more of a low groan than a scream.

"It turns out we're a relatively nice lot," Robin Hafitz said of her fellow New Yorkers. She was sitting in the back of a cab Tuesday, traveling uptown to see a client. She and everyone else seemed ready for a nightmare that hadn't materialized.

Maybe so many people were expecting the worst that lots of them simply stayed home. For whatever reason, at 5:30 a.m. the streets of the Upper West Side were surprisingly quiet. Even at 7 a.m. there were no double-parked trucks delivering milk or seafood or anything else to the grocery stores and gourmet shops that line Broadway. Stranger still, both Madison Avenue and Fifth Avenue were shut down to all but emergency vehicles. It was as if the city had turned those roads into runways for planes that never landed.

The cars, it seems, were all stuck above 96th Street, where cops were stopping them if they did not have at least four occupants, an emergency carpooling rule imposed for the strike. Those restrictions also affected all of the tunnels and bridges into the heart of the city, as well as a handful of major roads -- such as parts of Central Park Drive West, parts of the FDR Drive, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the Henry Hudson Parkway.

"I've been driving for 2 1/2 hours and I've made $35," said Mustafa Sharaf, who was stewing at a midtown traffic light. Instead of driving one fare at a time, and charging by the meter, taxis were encouraged to carry three or four passengers at a time. Every passenger was charged $10, plus an additional $5 each time they crossed one of four zones, D.C.-style.

In theory, that could mean real money. You could drive four people just a few blocks and pocket $40. In practice, though, it wasn't quite a boondoggle. There were, to begin with, those new rules to explain to everyone.

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