Plenty of cabs, not enough drivers

Robin Miller

January 11, 1991|By Robin Miller

I LISTEN to all these taxicab experts, not one of whom drives a cab, and I laugh. I'm just a cabbie, not a taxicab expert, but I have a few ideas of my own on how we can improve cab service in Baltimore. Here they are:

First, I'd charge at least $2 every time I responded to a call less than 30 minutes old and didn't get a paying fare for my trouble. Or, if I couldn't collect, I'd want the company to put that address in its computer so the next driver could get the money. And if the people weren't there a second time, I wouldn't send them any more cabs until they paid up. This would eliminate all problems with radio call service, because radio calls would become profitable for the drivers. They aren't now because too many people call three cab companies, or call and then go out on the street to try their luck hailing without canceling their cab order first.

Second, I'd raise meter fares -- but not too much -- and eliminate all the add-on fees, like 25 cents for radio calls, 50 cents after 9 p.m. and even the infamous 30 cents for every mile driven outside the city limits. I'd rather get $1.90 for the first tenth of a mile and $1 for each additional mile, and do without the other stuff. Simpler is always better. And, while I need a raise, I want meter rates to stay low enough that almost anyone can afford to ride. If I only wanted to haul tycoons, I'd drive a limo, not a cab.

Third, I'd put a poster in every cab, explaining the concept of tipping. Not everyone in Baltimore follows this custom. Teach more people to tip, and racial discrimination complaints against cabbies would disappear.

Fourth, I'd like to see more cab permits in the hands of working drivers. Maybe we need to issue non-transferable permits to experienced drivers with clean records. By doing so, we'd build a solid corps of professional drivers with a true stake in the business. By making the permits non-transferable, we'd keep out the absentee owners and profiteers and make the cab business more profitable for the drivers. The cab companies could raise their association fees (now around $35 a week per cab) to compensate for the loss of rental income, and they could put their energies into giving better customer service instead of trying to rent cabs.

I know none of this is going to happen, but I like to dream. In reality, I don't think anything is going to change except the meter fares, and I expect them to go right through the ceiling. As a result, service will improve -- for the few people who will still be able to afford taxis.

Most Baltimore taxi passengers aren't business people or rich tourists. The people I see day in and day out are ordinary working folks trying to make a decent life for themselves in the face of some very tough odds. They can't afford to pay $8 for a ride that now costs $4.50.

On the other hand, I'm having trouble feeding my kids. So what are we going to do? Price cabs so high the people who need the service most can no longer afford it, instead of trying to lower the cost of operating a taxi and trying to make more efficient use of the driver's time? Probably.

Mark Joseph, president of Yellow Cab, says Baltimore has plenty of cabs. Mark's right. We have plenty of cabs. We have a shortage of drivers, not cabs. He says the best way to attract more drivers is to expand the convention center and have back-to-back conventions year 'round.

Dan Setzer, at Royal Cab, tried to get Baltimore to recruit drivers for him. He wanted Mayor Schmoke to tell our unemployed citizens about the fine career opportunities available in the dynamic taxicab industry. The idea didn't fly because, when asked how much money a driver could earn, or what benefits Royal offered, Setzer had nothing to say.

The Public Service Commission recently trotted out an economist who claimed we could attract more drivers if cab rentals were lower. He thinks cab companies are conspiring to keep taxicab permit prices at their current $13,000 level, so drivers can't afford to own their own cabs and will have to go on renting taxis for too much money. Maybe the man has a point. A single cab can generate from $5,000 to $7,000 in annual profit for the owner, assuming he can find and keep a reliable driver.

Are the owners entitled to this money? Of course! They're risking their investment capital, and are entitled to a good rate of return. We drivers risk nothing but our lives, not something precious like money. But I don't think it's a conspiracy. Baltimore doesn't have a shortage of cab owners.

Only drivers are scarce.

Robin Miller drives Checker Cab No. 548.

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