Transit New York
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Transit New York

Who’s teaching your cab driver how to drive? In NYC, that’s a tricky question

A student at VTG Institute takes his test. When he takes the exam, it’s only him and Andrew Vollo in the room. (Stevie Hertz)

Every cab and ride-share driver has to pass a multiple-choice exam from the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC). But a lot rides on where drivers get their training.

At Abaan Goog Transportation Education Academy in Queens, 96% of students pass the exam on their first try. At VTG Institute, in Midtown Manhattan, the pass rate on the first try is half that.

TLC Driver Exam First Attempt Pass Rates at various schools, Q2 2017 (via Infogram)

Although the TLC must approve schools, the number has increased from 4, in May 2016, to 16 now. Demand for driver education has surged since 2015, when ride-sharing drivers began having to meet the same training standard as taxi drivers.

The system changed again in September 2016 when the TLC created a single license authorizing people to drive both taxis and rideshare cars. Since then, almost 32,000 people have become qualified, which involves a 24-hour course and getting 70% of the questions right on the exam.

Students can fail the exam for any number of reasons: they might be new to the city and unfamiliar with the geography, they might not be used to taking a test on a computer or they might make mistakes on their timing — or they might not have been taught well.

TLC Deputy Commissioner Allan Fromberg said in an email that the approval process includes “a site visit and a comprehensive review of the applicant’s training materials, insurance coverage, and ADA compliance.” He and others at the agency “consider the TLC Driver License a success, and do not currently anticipate any changes.”

Others were not so certain. Brian Grobman is managing partner of Advance TLC School, where 82% of English-language students passed the test the first time.

“Stop opening up schools,” he said. “Start regulating, start coming around, surprise checks. Send in spies; see what’s going on. We’re getting a lot of students from other schools. They’re not passing, they’re complaining [about bad teaching]”

Left: A teacher at Advance TLC School in the Bronx conducts a map-reading lesson. Grobman emphasizes their investment in Macs and big screen displays, instead of whiteboards. (Stevie Hertz)

Grobman attributes his school’s high pass rate to its custom training materials, which break down the rules into “layman’s terms bullet points.”

“Most of the schools are not doing this… We try to make the course interesting and fun.”

He said while the TLC checks on a school when they open, visits soon drop off. “If you’re going to have TLC-approved schools,” he added, “you have to regulate them.”

Massimo Sarta drives for Uber and earned his license four months ago. He described the process as “a big investment”, particularly taking time off work for the three-day class. Although his teachers were helpful, he had to study outside of class.

The head of VTG Institute, which has the first-time pass rate of 48%, also called for increased regulation. Andrew Vollo, president, said, “If I were the TLC, I would be in every school. Because the stories that you hear about some of the schools … it’s almost frightening.”

Vollo has been teaching taxi drivers since 1984. “Drivers would come to you and they want to give you like, $500 or $600. I have to sit back and say, ‘Guy, listen, I love you but if you do that you’re going to get in a lot of trouble.’ … A lot of these guys are very desperate.”

Andrew Vollo, president of VTG Institute. He’s been teaching people to drive taxis since 1984, but in May 2017 he opened his own school. (Stevie Hertz)

Tests are given at the driving schools, proctored by instructors.

Vollo blames his school’s low pass rate on a string of poor referrals. Many of the students had already failed the test at other schools.

Students can retake the test as many times as necessary in a 90-day period, for a fee ranging from $60 — $75 each time, depending on the school. Vollo reports having a student who took the test “seven times before he could pass.”

The test itself is 80 questions, covering rules, geography, and customer service. The practice test asks drivers questions like where Chinatown is relative to the World Trade Center site, or when drivers can refuse a fare.

Between April and June 2017, schools averaged 73% of students passing on their first attempt.

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Stevie Hertz

Stevie Hertz

Work produced for Transit New York — CJS ‘18