Julie Jacobson/AP

Hail to the ladies: NYC's first women-only taxi service

SheRides smartphone app offers women passengers female-only taxi rides, but not everyone is happy about it

With her black hair pulled tightly into a bun and bright pink lipstick that matched the Pashmina scarf wrapped around her neck, 65-year-old Dinorah De Cruz eased her Acura SUV onto Park Avenue just as the city’s Friday rush hour began. Originally from the Dominican Republic, the mother of two has been a livery driver in Manhattan for more than 16 years. But De Cruz said it wasn’t an easy industry to break into.

“There is a lot of machismo. This is a job that many men say is just for them, and that women can’t do it. But I don’t think so, because you’re not carrying the car, you’re driving it,” she laughed, changing lanes among the city’s sea of yellow taxis.

De Cruz said she retired two years ago, but decided to get back behind the wheel this fall to help offer a different kind of ride as part of SheRides, a women-only taxi service that only employs female drivers. The service, also known as SheTaxis, is the first of its kind in a city where 98.9 percent of yellow cab drivers are men, according to the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC).

Although women have been driving vehicles for hire in New York City since the 1940s, they are still few and far between. A 2014 TLC study found that there are currently only 536 female yellow taxi drivers, compared to 49,500 men. Among all vehicles for hire, including limousine and black car services, the share of female drivers – 4 percent – is slightly higher.

SheRides founder Stella Mateo – an entrepreneur and the wife of Fernando Mateo, founder of the New York State Federation of Taxi Drivers – said such a disparity is a big part of why she decided to start her company with Tamika Mallory, a civil-rights advocate.

“It’s a movement to empower women,” Mateo said. “We deserve equal rights, equal pay and equal choice.”

She said the idea came to her after struggling to find safe rides for her own two children.

“When my girls were growing up, I had to shuffle them around to after-school programs in between work, and if I had had the choice, you know with that mother instinct, you always feel a little more comfortable with your kids riding around with a woman,” Mateo said.

SheRides – like Uber and other location-based ride services – works via a smartphone app that lets passengers hire available livery drivers, confirm their trips and pay via credit card so drivers don’t have to carry cash. SheRides uses licensed livery drivers, but not yellow or green taxis.

The service officially launched in New York on Oct. 29, after Mateo said she was forced to postpone its start while she recruited more drivers. Mateo hopes to attract more than a thousand drivers in the coming months, and said demand has so far been high.

De Cruz is one of about 300 drivers currently working with the service. She said having female passengers in her car also makes her feel safer.

“We are the same sex, so we have the same strength. It’s not the same as if a man gets in my cab late at night and he wants to attack me. If it’s a woman, I can defend myself. But I am not worried about that kind of abuse with this new service,” she said.

2014 study examining the taxi industry in 20 of the largest U.S. cities found that driving a taxi is one of the most dangerous jobs a person can have. Between 1996 and 2010, the average homicide rate for taxi drivers was 7.4 per 100,000 workers, according to the study, which was published in the Journal of Crime Science. To put that in perspective, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that police officers experience a homicide rate of 6.7 per 100,000 and on average there are 0.37 homicides per 100,000 workers of any type.

Paired with a few recent incidents in which Uber passengers claimed their drivers kidnapped them, some women are welcoming the opportunity to use SheRides.

New Yorker Yana Aranova, for example, often works late as a bartender and waitress. She said she was once threatened by a cab driver who said he’d lock the doors or drop her in the middle of the highway if she didn’t pay an extra charge that she disputed, so she now hires a female driver after her late-night shifts.

Dinorah De Cruz is one of about 300 drivers currently working with the SheRides taxi service that caters to women.
Martijn Hart/Al Jazeera

When De Cruz pulled up to the curb at 23rd Street and Park Avenue, Aranova waved her smart phone in her hand, recognizing the pink scarf SheRides drivers wear to identify themselves.

“It gives me peace of mind,” Aranova said. “I feel safe, I feel comfortable, knowing that if I had a couple of drinks with my girlfriends and I am a little tipsy or a little drunk, I am going to get home safe. I am not going to get attacked by a female driver.”

SheRides does not allow men to call the service, but they can travel in one of its cars as long as they are accompanied by a female passenger. That’s the element that New York City’s Human Rights Commission said it doesn’t agree with.

“Under the NYC Human Rights Law, it is illegal for a public accommodation — a provider of goods and services — to deny service based on a protected class or to express a preference for one protected class over another,” New York Human Rights Commissioner Patricia L. Gatling told Al Jazeera in a statement.

“Drivers who refuse to transport individuals based on their gender or other protected classes are violating the NYC Human Rights Law and may be subject to substantial penalties,” Gatling added.

Male taxi drivers have also expressed frustration with SheRides.

“They are creating discrimination in the city. I think women are secure with a male driver. The city and the police already have too much control of the driver,” said Harpreet Singh, a taxi driver who has worked in the city for 15 years. “If they have this idea, then maybe European people will only go to European drivers, and Asian people want Asian drivers, and that’s a big thing to create in the city.”

But as De Cruz dropped Aronova off at the restaurant where she works, she expressed her confidence that women will support their fellow women and use the service.

“I know that once they try it, the majority of the women who see us behind the wheel, they will never stop calling,” De Cruz said.

Marisa Taylor contributed to this report.

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