When important clients of Waverly Press ask the Baltimore company's receptionist to call a cab for a ride to the airport, Karen Murrell calls several cab companies in succession, asking for taxis right away in the hopes that one, at least, will respond quickly.
Willy Gilliard, who owns a cab in the city, says that half the time he responds to a phone request the customer isn't there when JTC arrives, and that plenty of times he's seen three competitors pull up at the same address with him.
A coalition of customers and taxi companies has developed a plan to stop the cycle. On one hand, they want to increase the incentive for taxis to respond quickly; on the other, they want to let taxicab companies fine customers $1 when they call for a cab and aren't there when it arrives.
Naturally, it will be difficult for cabbies to collect $1 from customers who aren't at home, so the companies are proposing to keep computerized lists of people who've stiffed them. Customers would have to pay their past fines or risk being denied taxi service.
Details of the plan are outlined in documents filed recently by consumer and taxi representatives with the state Public Service Commission, which must first give its approval.
Under the proposal, the state would increase the current 25-cent charge for responding to a phone request to $1. If the cab didn't show up within 30 minutes of the promised time, however, the $1 fee would be waived. If the delay were caused by the dispatcher, not the driver, the cab company would pay the driver the waived $1.
If the customer wasn't there when the cab arrived, a $1 fine would be imposed.
The proposal does not spell out an appeals process or specify what might happen in the event that a bogus call is made in somebody else's name.
The plan, which will likely be considered by the PSC sometime next month, "is a beginning step," says James Cashel, director ++ of governmental affairs for the National Federation of the Blind.
Mr. Cashel, one of two consumer representatives who helped hammer out the proposal, said that while many customers might think 30 minutes is too much leeway, "30 minutes would be an improvement" over current response times.
"I hate the idea of saying that people in the neighborhoods will have to pay more than tourists and business people," who can flag cabs on downtown streets, Mr. Cashel said. But, he said, "Poor service has engendered poor practices among consumers. have to break the cycle. This will only help."
Mr. Cashel added that many customers will feel that drivers ought to be penalized more than $1 for showing up more than half an hour late. "But this is not quite like Domino's Pizza," he said. "From the consumer's point of view, the economics are a little fouled up. But I don't know what else to do."
Mark Joseph, owner of Yellow Transportation Services, said yesterday that having consumers and cabbies each face a $1 fine will help solve the problem, and that a half-hour is an appropriate amount of leeway.
"We take a call in earnestness. But we're downtown and you live in Federal Hill, and all of a sudden there is a traffic jam," he said. Though $1 may not sound like much, it will be enough to bring drivers to homes, he predicted.
"For a driver who answers 20 calls a day, that's $20 a day, or an extra $100 a week. That's a major incentive," he said. Besides, he added, drivers don't want to alienate customers.
Noting that Yellow Cab has been in business here for 82 years, Mr. Joseph said, "We're not going to be in business for 82 more years" if customers lose faith in the company.
Mr. Joseph also argued that complaints about taxi service in the city are unjustified.
"Our on-time performance is very high. . . . People may ride cabs 20 times and be on time. Then the 21st time they are late, and they remember that one time and say cabs are always late."