Solve the cab mess with free enterprise

James Gashel

April 09, 1991|By James Gashel

I DEPEND on cabs. I am legally blind. According to Sharon Maneki, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Maryland, there are over 3,000 blind people in the Baltimore metropolitan area. Also, the federation has its national headquarters here. Blind people can tell you horror stories about canceled appointments, missed trains and planes and hours spent waiting for taxis that never arrive.

But we are not alone. Anyone in Baltimore who regularly uses taxis will tell you that cab service here is terrible.

It doesn't have to be. On March 28, a hearing examiner for the Maryland Public Service Commission made a courageous move for the citizens of Baltimore when he turned down a proposed 20 percent rate increase in taxi fares. I'm not arguing that taxi drivers should be denied the increase. They should have it, and maybe more. But taxicab riders should receive better service for their money. This was the essence of the ruling issued by the state's hearing examiner, O. Ray Bourland III. Now we can only hope that the PSC itself will echo Bourland's courage and reject the appeal expected from the taxi companies.

Taxicab service for everyone in this city can and must be improved. But higher rates alone won't do the job. The cab companies themselves must be willing to take steps to improve service if they want to maintain their favorable and regulated marketing position. If they are not willing to improve service voluntarily, and if they do not actually achieve results, then the PSC should lead the industry in a new direction.

I have offered one proposal -- a voluntary "pre-scheduled service" program for customers to use to arrange their taxicab trips in advance. Drivers would receive $2 more for being on time. Customers would not pay this service charge when cabs are late. That seems fair. If a utility company fails to deliver service, the customer does not pay. Not so with taxis. If the cab is late and the customer is embarrassed and inconvenienced as a result, we still pay exactly the same rate. We should stop subsidizing inefficient and poor service.

My idea was denounced by cab company representatives. Sun Cab's president, Joseph Zimmerman, said it was impractical. Is it practical to wait two hours for a cab in front of a grocery store, watching your ice cream melt on a hot day? Yellow Cab's president Mark Joseph said may plan would discriminate against "the poor." I say that inadequate service, especially in neighborhood areas, discriminates against the poor by denying them essential transportation. Who could dispute that Yellow Cab's service favors the hotel and tourist trade? Just drive by the train station or the Hyatt at the Inner Harbor. Besides, the companies' original proposal would have doubled the taxicab rates in Baltimore. What could possibly be more discriminatory against the poor?

The pre-scheduled service plan is not the only possible solution. Consider the drivers. They need more money. But the proposed rate increase would not have given them much.

The drivers almost all rent their cabs, usually for $400 a week or more. They buy their own gas. The drivers I have talked to are as disgusted as I am with the way the cab business here is run, and are ready for a change. They think cab rents will increase as soon as a fare increase goes into effect, and they'll still have to work from 80 to 100 hours each week to earn a decent living. Improving service for the customer (rather than simply raising rates) is actually the best way to help the drivers. The cab company owners, not the drivers, are the people who are unwilling to look at ways to improve service.

Here's another idea: Maybe Baltimore's cab mess could be solved by allowing drivers to own their own cabs. There are fewer than 1,100 taxicab permits in Baltimore, mostly owned by the major companies. The going price for a permit is about $15,000. Drivers, especially those supporting families, can't save up enough to buy a permit, so they are forced to rent their cabs from the companies.

I did a little research into the cost of operating your own cab. Insurance, the largest single expense, can cost up to $100 a week. All cab owners must belong to an "association" at a cost of about $35 a week. Maintenance and car payments could run from $50 to $100 a week. Add $15 a week to cover miscellaneous expenses, and you're still looking at only $250 a week to own and operate a cab. This is much less than the $400-plus each week Yellow charges drivers for rental cabs. Turning drivers into owners would give virtually every full-time cabby in town a $150 a week raise, without increasing the cost to the cab-using public by a single dime.

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