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    Memo to cab companies: It's all about customer service

    Guest Opinion: One veteran cabbie analyzes the real differences between the old taxi industry and the new rideshare craze.
    A little healthy competition from rideshare companies could do the old school taxi industry some good.

    A little healthy competition from rideshare companies could do the old school taxi industry some good. Credit: Chuck Taylor

    The fighting going on between the Seattle taxi industry and the rest of the rideshare services — Uber, and those cars with the bright pink mustache on their grill — is part of the larger economic battle. Old school businesses try to deliver goods and services at the lowest price with little regard for the wants and needs of their customers. Newer businesses deliver the best goods and services at higher prices with the needs and concerns of their customers at the very top of their “to do” list. 

    The new school is taking the old school to school — and taking their lunch money.

    Take coffee. Seattle invented the two dollar cup. The price is not about the coffee but the experience. In most retail places, a pleasant, helpful and friendly employee is unusual; at Starbucks, it is very unusual when you encounter a taciturn staffer. That isn’t an accident.  It’s the Starbucks business model. 

    The taxi business is not the coffee business. It isn’t like an airline or a bus or any other enterprise that moves people from point A to point B either. Nearly all taxi businesses are cooperatives: Yellow Cab, Farwest and most others are simply umbrella organizations that help owners of individual cabs operate a dispatch service from a central lot and buy things like insurance. The actual cabs are owned by individuals.

    Some owners have one or two cabs. Others have six, seven or eight. A few have a dozen or more. The owners run their cabs pretty much as they like. There are few rules and fewer standards. The umbrella company controls the fleet in the same way one controls a swarm of locusts. 

    When I started driving a cab in 1978, the taxi owners would buy their cars from auction, used. Actually, abused is a better word.  Typically, cars would have over 100,000 miles on them — hard miles, at that — and we would proceed to run them into the ground.  The vehicles survived on average less than a year —  a year of ongoing maintenance. Oil changes every 5,000 miles. Brakes were a constant headache.  I could tell you about a tire “retread” that would curl your hair.

    The only cab owners who made money were the ones who could do the maintenance work themselves. So, the taxi industry was run and operated by mechanics — who, by and large, could care less about customers. 

    Then there are the drivers. The key to understanding the taxi industry (and its failings) is to understand that drivers are not employees. They are not paid by the taxi company. They do not earn an hourly wage, or a percentage, or get benefits like health insurance or 401k plans. They are independent contractors, who “rent” their cabs for the day or night for a fixed amount. 

    Drivers pay that rent and for the gas they use, then keep the proceeds. An average shift might cost a driver around $60. On a regular night you hoped to make $100. About once a year, the taxi gods will smile on you and you will go home with a couple hundred bucks. About once a year, the taxi gods will frown, you won’t even cover your overhead and you will end up paying for the privilege of driving. 

    In a weird reversal of roles, the taxi cab owners needed the drivers more than the drivers needed them. Since driving is a job that has almost no chance for advancement (there is almost no management in the taxi business), there is little the owners could offer in the way of enticement to the drivers. Early on, it occurred to the owners that they could dangle one very valuable thing to the drivers: they could leave them alone. 

    In the years I drove, the supervisor never checked up on me. I was never visited out on the streets to see if I was doing the job correctly. If I screwed up, like not picking up a passenger on time, they might yell at me but that was it. Complaints were rarely acknowledged (the city would later mandate a complaint form, but there is no muscle behind it). In fact, unless it was the police calling, the company ignored all complaints.

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    Posted Fri, Feb 21, 9:18 a.m. Inappropriate

    As you point out, the taxi cab companies have made no effort to ensure they are providing good customer service, which I define as having a GPS, hiring or training competent and professional drivers, and keeping the car interiors maintained. It would be a bonus if the taxis didn't smell like the driver's last meal.

    I don't appreciate being driven to the airport early in the morning by a driver who is barely awake and not staying in his lane on the interstate curves.

    I don't appreciate sitting on scratchy cracked vinyl seats.

    I don't appreciate having to give explicit directions to my house, every step of the way (hello, why aren't you using a GPS?).

    I don't appreciate listening to my taxi cab driver talk on the phone the whole time he is driving. But I also do not want to answer personal questions.

    I don't believe competition will drive prices down. In my experience, Uber costs more than a taxi and there are many reasons why it's worth the extra money.

    Posted Fri, Feb 21, 12:07 p.m. Inappropriate

    A couple more points of interest in the Taxis vs. TNCs debate.

    1) 25% of Lyft drivers in Seattle are women, while the traditional taxis drivers numbers are less than 1%. So when the taxis industry talks about protecting the immigrant class, lets expand on the issue and call for expanding diversity in the work place. Also 35% of Lyft drivers are people of color, so that shows a more balanced mix than traditional taxi companies.

    2) Public Safety: With app based rides, both the driver and passenger are more easily tracked. Reducing risk in any altercation. Also, with no cash being handled in the transaction, this too helps reduce potential for crime. Lastly, with ability to track the oncoming vehicle, people who might be impaired with alcohol are less likely to make the bad decision to drive. Any tool in the reduction of drunk driving in our communities should be a top priority.


    Posted Tue, Feb 25, 8:41 a.m. Inappropriate

    "Public safety"? Really? Uninsured cabs are better for public safety?


    Posted Fri, Feb 21, 3:56 p.m. Inappropriate

    I don't have a strong interest in this issue. However, I do want to see ALL vehicles for hire adequately insured. And I do NOT appreciate full page anonymous bullying ads in the Times.

    Anecdote re: "The fastest, most direct route was never the most lucrative." Maybe in Seattle in 2014, but in NYC in the early 70s when I hacked, it was not. Not only did many if not most fares know the most direct route since they were regular users, but I preferred to get to their destination as fast as possible so I could get my tip and another fare as quickly as possible. No shortage of flags most places most times most days. I guess times have changed and/or Seattle is too slow.


    Posted Sat, Feb 22, 8:44 p.m. Inappropriate

    After having tried to book an early morning cab to the airport the evening before, I was told to call again in the morning, an hour before pick up time. What follows is my 5 AM conversation with the Brand X cab dispatcher, a true story.

    Me: Hello, I...

    Dispatcher: Address!

    Me: xxxx xxxx Avenue.

    Dispatcher: Phone number!

    Me: xxx-xxxx. I'd like a cab at 6:00.

    Dispatcher: Our cabs can be up to 45 minutes late!

    Me: That' s why I am calling an hour ahead.

    Dispatcher: (Speaking slowly, so that I'll get it) Our...cabs...can...be...up...to...45...minutes...late.


    Dispatcher: Look, I don't care what anyone told you. I'm just trying to get you where you need to be when you need to be there.

    Me: Well, what if I ask you to send out a cab now, it arrives at 5:30 and I am not ready?

    Dispatcher: You NEED to be ready.

    Me: Just send me a cab at at 6:00.

    Dispatcher: OK. (hangs up)

    The cab rolled up just as I was frantically calling a friend to ask for a ride. Haven't taken a cab since.


    Posted Sun, Feb 23, 8:04 a.m. Inappropriate

    To be fair, I have seen some changes to the taxi industry in Seattle. For whatever reason, when I've ridden in a Prius taxi, it has generally been in very good, if not excellent, condition. In contrast, most of the crown vics are beaters - they sway from side to side, bounce and rock, and move just about every way but forward.

    I have no idea if the ownership model has changed. Maybe the Prius' are better only because they are newer? Maybe more drivers own their own taxis?

    With the TNCs, as Falkenbury stated, the drivers own their own cars and care about the service to the customer. The taxi industry, in it current state, can hang on for a few more years with enough regulation. But eventually it must change and provide better service, if it is to survive.

    Or, we can just wait till driverless cars are available.


    Posted Tue, Feb 25, 9:03 a.m. Inappropriate

    The last time Seattle took Dick Falkenberry's advice on transportation - we got the Monorail fiasco. Four initiatives - the last one to kill the zombie.

    Just like the Monorail, the business model for UberX/Lyft/Sidecar is a pipe dream. The whole notion of a part time owner/driver is just not economically viable. It is not a bug that the TNC vehicles are uninsured - it is a feature. A driver who works 16 hours a week is not making enough money to shell out $4K a year for commercial insurance plus 0.55/hr for Workmen's Compensation. Add to that the fees for licenses.

    The taxi industry came up with a way to accomodate the part timer. It was the leasing arrangement that Falkenberry described.

    Posted Thu, Feb 27, 3:55 p.m. Inappropriate

    Memo to the Government: Enforce the law.

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