Cabbies Screen Their Calls

March 31, 1994|By Ross Hetrick | Ross Hetrick,Sun Staff Writer

Hoping to alleviate one of the chronic complaints about Baltimore cab service, the city's largest taxi association has installed a $1.25 million computer dispatching system that is expected to dramatically reduce the waiting time for a cab ordered by telephone.

"It's going to change the way people get cabs," said Mark L. Joseph, president of Yellow Transportation Inc. "We want it to be a reliable and critical link in the transportation system," he said.

Long waits for Baltimore cabs have been a sore point for taxi passengers for years. Waits of half an hour to an hour are common and sometimes cabs do not show up at all. But Yellow Transportation,which has 544 cabs in its organization, said its computerized system will cut the average time between the moment a customer hangs up and a cab's arrival to less than 10 minutes. "It gives us a huge edge in meeting customer needs," Mr. Joseph said.

Because of the efficiency of the new system, Mr. Joseph expects to increase the number of calls handled by the company from 3,000 a day to 4,000 by the end of this year. By 1996 he predicts handling 6,000 calls daily. "I think good service is going to create a market," he said.

Mr. Joseph does not expect to add more cabs to meet the goals, since the taxis are now empty 50 percent of the time.

With the new system, which has been in service since March 17, telephone requests are instantaneously relayed to computer screens in cabs in the area from which the calls are made. The first driver responding to the request then sets off to pick up the passenger. During the first two weeks of operation, the average response time from telephone call to pick-up was six to eight minutes, Mr. Joseph said.

In the next month, the in-cab terminals also will be able to take credit cards for payments, he said.

Already in operation in many other metropolitan areas, the newcomputerized system replaces Yellow Transportation's traditional radio service where calls were funneled through a single dispatcher. Besides being prone to backups when there was a flood of telephone orders, the old system, with its singsong radio calls, was often difficult for inexperienced cab drivers to understand.

Competitors, meanwhile, took a wait-and-see attitude.

"I don't see it as a threat," said Daniel H. Setzer, president of Royal Taxi Cab Association Inc. "I see it as a wonderful experiment. It will definitely change the way dispatching is done over there."

Royal, the second-largest cab association with 352 taxis, would probably not adopt the system if it is just a moderate success because of the $2,500 cost per cab for the terminals, Mr. Setzer said. "If it is a wild, runaway success, we will probably be obligated to [adopt it]."

Baltimore's taxi business is a hodgepodge of 1,151 cabs that consist of owner-operated cars, small fleets and leased vehicles. Regulated by the Public Service Commission, all the cabs belong to four associations that provide radio service. Yellow Transportation, which operates under the names Yellow Taxi, Sun, Checker and Fleet Service Associates, has nearly half the city's cabs.

The problem of poor response time, which has simmered for years, came to a boil in 1991 when the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind challenged a taxi rate increase before the PSC on the basis of poor service. As a result, a $1 additional fee was established to be paid to taxi drivers if they arrived within half an hour of being called.

While this initially improved response, service among all cab companies subsequently declined to the former level, according to Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind. "We try not to use the wretched service," he said about Baltimore's cab service. "I just abandoned it." Instead, the 45 workers at the Johnson Street headquarters in South Baltimore use On Time Sedan Service, a company that was formed about 1 1/2 years ago with the help of a federation official.

While Mr. Maurer is skeptical of improvements in the response time, he said he hopes it works. "Maybe we'll try Yellow to see if it does better."

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