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Bringing a touch of New York to L.A.

DiMassa is a Times staff writer.

The line at the taxi stand outside the Biltmore Hotel was six cabs deep Monday morning, even though there was space for only two cars. Sam Onumonu’s car was the third one in line. The stand, said Onumonu as he leaned forward in his seat, was packed for one simple reason: It’s one of the easiest places for a driver to get a fare in downtown.

“There aren’t too many people flagging us down,” he said. “It happens only when there are people with young kids, or something going down. You’re better off staying at the cab stand.”

Five months ago, the city rescinded regulations that made it illegal for cabbies to pick up passengers in bus zones and red zones or along busy streets when no-parking regulations are in place. The change allowed cabbies in downtown and Hollywood to pick up fares without fear of getting ticketed -- even in no-stopping zones.

The idea was to bring a piece of New York urban life to Los Angeles’ revitalizing urban core. But like so many things about New York, it turns out folks in L.A. didn’t like it.

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Officials said they are having a hard time persuading people to use the service -- and persuading drivers to leave the safe confine that is the hotel taxi stand.

Through the boosters’ eyes, downtown is both a residential neighborhood and a destination for both tourists and suburbanites, who might be lured to the area for cultural events or the sports-entertainment zone located around Staples Center. And in an area with limited mass transit options, they think hailing a cab from one location to another should be a quick way to get around. Like they do it in Manhattan.

So on Monday, officials decided to relaunch the taxi program -- this time, with a news conference, free lunch for cabbies and even a few L.A. Kings Ice Girls.

Standing in the middle of the newly inaugurated L.A. Live plaza, Carol Schatz, president of the downtown business improvement district, looked out at a dozen taxi drivers who had been corralled for a photo op as part of the relaunch.

“You all are going to promise me -- you are going to cruise,” she said, elongating the last word into three syllables.

“Cruising is good!”

The civic aspirations of leaders who spoke Monday seemed to follow a traditional line: New York, Paris, London: In all of these cities, it is easy to hail a cab. So why shouldn’t it be in L.A.?

L.A. Live managing director Lisa Herzlich said that being able to hail a taxi “will be even more important than ever before, as downtown becomes a major tourist destination.”

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After the news conference, a steady stream of cabs pulled up along the curb across the street from Staples Center, and Councilwomen Jan Perry and Wendy Greuel and others handed out free boxed lunches -- sandwiches, chips, potato salad and an apple -- to their drivers.

“Do you like turkey?” Greuel asked one driver.

“We have vegetarian!” Perry sang cheerily. “It’s not all about the meat!”

In addition to plying drivers with a free lunch, officials are trying to alert potential customers to the rules with a series of signs posted along downtown thoroughfares. More than 600 of the signs -- with a graphic of a figure hailing a cab and instructions on how to hail a cab -- were installed in the last week as a reminder to pedestrians that they can hail a taxi “any time, anywhere downtown (except bus zones).”

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Downtown resident Rebecca Morley said she had noticed that she never saw cabs cruising the area but didn’t realize that there was any issue until she saw the signs posted around her neighborhood.

“I just thought cabbies were lazy,” she said.

Morley, who does not own a car, said she liked the idea of being able to hail a cab. But she said she worried that if she were using one to go, say, to a bar in the Industrial District, she wouldn’t know how to get home -- because cab drivers are mostly being encouraged to cruise downtown’s major streets.

But cabbies are skeptical about the hailing approach. They would always prefer a long fare rather than a short one. And many believe the long trips -- to LAX, the Westside, the Valley -- can be found at hotels, not from the couple waving from outside that trendy eatery.

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Back at the taxi stand, driver Joseph Sohn said that he had noticed the signs posted around downtown and said he felt as if the push “was going in a positive direction.”

“I think a lot of people are afraid,” he said. “It would be nice if people knew how to hail a taxi.”

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cara.dimassa@latimes.com

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