Seattle taxi study dishes out tough love for cabbies

A new study commissioned by the Seattle City Council paints a harsh picture for cab drivers.
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A full house at the Seattle City Council taxi meeting.

A new study commissioned by the Seattle City Council paints a harsh picture for cab drivers.

The number of limos and for-hire cars in Seattle is booming, customer service among cabbies stinks and taxicab capacity is maxed-out on Friday and Saturday nights. Those are the results of a recent study commissioned by the City Council to examine Seattle's taxi industry, which were announced to a standing-room only committee meeting Tuesday night, packed with taxi, for-hire and rideshare drivers. 

“We’re facing a very new, rapidly growing market,” explained study author James Cooper of Taxi Research Partners, as he presented the results. While some of the public comments delivered near the end of the meeting touched on the study results, most focused on the simmering conflict between cabbies, for-hire drivers and rideshare companies like Lyft and UberX.

The controversy centers mostly on whether rideshare companies and for-hire drivers should follow the same rules and regulations as taxicab drivers, who the city requires to pass criminal background checks, submit fingerprints and to pay a $231 personal licensing fee.

While the study found the local rideshare market is growing fast, it did not include any statistics about the number of rideshare vehicles currently operating in the city.

“We were never asked to share any data,” said Veronica Juarez, Director of Government Relations for Lyft, after the meeting. “This study was started before we came onto the playing field.”

Cooper's study did find a big jump in the number of limos and for-hire cars working in Seattle though: The number of limos increased from about 600 to about 1,100 between 2011 and 2013 and for-hire vehicles doubled between 2010 and 2012.

For-hire drivers pick up customers who call in advance and if they stop for a fare that hails them on the street, they risk getting a ticket.

Despite the growing number of limos and for-hire cars on city streets, the number of trips per taxi, per day hovered around 20 between 2005 and 2012. This stability might suggest that, rather than siphoning-off taxi passengers, limos and for-hire are attracting some customers who weren’t taking cabs in the past.

Near the end of the nearly two-hour Power Point presentation, the consultants slammed traditional Seattle cabbies for their poor customer service. “Expectations are low, but service is worse,” Cooper said.

Compared to rideshares, limos and for-hire vehicles, taxis scored the lowest in four of the six customer service categories measured by the study, including ease of booking or hailing a ride, promptness of arrival, vehicle appearance and driver courtesy. Cabs scored second to last in the route knowledge and willingness to take credit card categories. Customer satisfaction ratings were based on “secret shopper” data from 55 people who took covert trips in taxis, limos, for-hire cars and rideshares and then rated their experience for the study authors.

“The industry itself has to come together to weed out some bad apples,” said Ray Mundy, the other consultant who presented the study.

Rideshare services had the highest ratings for driver courtesy and willingness to take credit cards. Limos topped the other four customer service categories.

The report also emphasized the lopsided demand for taxis throughout the week. Seattle taxis average between four and five trips per hour between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. on Saturday, but less than one trip per hour on weekdays.

The air in the Council chamber was thick and stuffy by the time the presentation gave way to public comments. Several commenters were among a block of about thirty for-hire drivers and supporters in bright green shirts. “Because you gave them a monopoly they don’t have to clean their act,” for-hire driver Abdullah Yousef told the council committee, in reference to traditional taxi drivers. “They don’t have to clean themselves.”

“We did not bring our cars and block the streets,” Yousef added, referring to the August 4 protest where cabbies blocked Fourth Avenue to protest illegal pickups by for-hire drivers and rideshares.

One cabbie blamed the poor customer service reviews on the high lease prices some taxi drivers pay for vehicle licenses. “That’s why they’re giving a hard time to customers,” argued taxi driver Abadir Abdala.

Abdala said he leases a taxi vehicle license from Yellow Cab of Seattle for $595 a week. Originally from Somalia, he has lived in Seattle for 14 years and said he often works 12 hours a day, seven days a week.

“You get a short trip for five or ten dollars and you have to pay one hundred, you get mad,” said Adan Mohamed, another driver, who argued that the city should shut down Lyft and distribute more taxi licenses. “I have three kids and I can’t take off a day.” Abdala said.

“This is a conversation about those who are making a little extra money for a trip to Brazil and those who are making money for their families,” Dawn Gearhart, the business representative for the Western Washington Taxi Cab Operators Association said during the meeting.

Dara Jenkins, a Lyft driver, disagreed. “I’m driving for my healthcare,” she said after the meeting. “That’s not a trip to Brazil.” Jenkins, who was born in Eugene, OR and has lived in Seattle since she was seven, said she drives her 2003 Accura MDX between five and six hours per day during times when her pet-sitting business hits a slump.

Juarez, the Government Relations Director for Lyft said that high license fees could torpedo the rideshare service here in Seattle and said she wanted the city council to be more open-minded about Lyft’s business model. “Fifteen hundred dollar licensing fees aren’t scalable in the long-term,” she said. “I’ve been really disappointed about the unwillingness to have a conversation about anything but regulation.”

One way to fix the weekend taxi shortage without threatening taxi drivers' ability to make a living during the week, Mundy suggested, might be for the city to allow for-hire vehicles to pick up customers who hail them on the street on weekend nights.

But Cooper acknowledged that could be tricky. “A Friday night from ten to two license is tough to enforce,” he cautioned.

Councilmember Mike O’Brien acknowledged that the council would have some tough choices in the coming months.“There’s a policy question back on us,” he conceded. “How are we going to shape this industry?”


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