Cabdrivers from Los Angeles to New York have become a coast-to-coast fleet of Rodney Dangerfields. From tourists and business travelers alike, they get no respect.
Boston and New York have too few cabs to meet the demand. Seattle has too many. City after city has declared war on unlicensed "gypsy," "outlaw" or "bandit" drivers who are taking business away from licensed cabbies.
In the District of Columbia, a confusing rate structure has thrown the cab regulatory system into a tizzy. Residents and visitors alike tell of long waits--sometimes stretching into hours--after telephoning for a cab, wild rides and muddled brains in figuring fares.
There are moves afoot in some cities to dress up drivers with either uniforms or dress codes. At the same time, passengers are dressing down drivers for rudeness, shabby cabs and--the cardinal sin of cabdom--not knowing their way around.
"We've got problems with drivers who don't know what they're doing. In some cities, anybody can buy a cab and put it on the road," said Steve Sheehan, editor and publisher of Boston-based Taxi News Digest, a 4,000-circulation magazine.
Sheehan, a cabby for 15 years who still drives on occasion, said there is little incentive to be a cabby anymore.
"You work for 12 hours, through the worst traffic conditions in the world. You get no respect from the industry, from your passengers, from the other drivers on the road. You're a loner out there by yourself," Sheehan complained.
"You get beat up, you get shot at, you get no protection. You get a crummy cab to drive, it breaks down and you lose money while it's being fixed," he added.
Cab regulations vary from city to city, and so do rates. The passenger who pays $3.40 for a three-mile ride in Baltimore will have to shell out $5.65 to travel the same distance in San Francisco.
Boston, a booming city whose hotel and office space and convention business have increased 50% since 1980, has the same number of licensed cabs it had in 1940. There are only 1,525 medallions issued in Boston. The Police Department's Hackney Division will decide this fall whether to recommend an increase.
"During peak hours, between 3 and 6 p.m., when a lot of businessmen have to leave the city, they find it difficult to get a cab. The cabs are caught in the same gridlock as the rest of the traffic," said Capt. Donald Devine, head of Boston's Hackney Division. "It's no different than going into a restaurant and having to wait 20 minutes because the tables are full."
In New York, where hailing a cab is an art form, the number of licensed taxis has not changed in 50 years. There are 11,787 yellow medallion cabs in the Big Apple, making an estimated 800,000 trips a day, 200 million trips a year.
The City Council recently approved legislation to add 1,800 more cabs to the fleet. The city's Taxi and Limousine Commission has 18 months to study the impact and make a recommendation to the council.
In July, a minimum dress code went into effect for New York cabbies. It requires a shirt with a collar and sleeves, hemmed pants or jeans or shorts no higher than mid-thigh. It bans cut-off shorts and open-toed sandals. It is similar to rules Boston imposed a year ago.
New York's major fleet owners are considering summer and winter uniforms for cabbies. In Chicago, Checker Cab Co. President Jerry Feldman would be happy to see cabbies in uniform.
"Once people put on a uniform they act better. They look better and drive better. I'd love to see them in the same uniform as a bus driver," Feldman said.
In Dallas, the biggest cab problem is outlaw drivers--those who have been fired from companies but who continue to work using stolen decals.
"Business is slow. Our economy is slowing down. There has been a lot of turnover among these companies. By working as outlaws, the drivers make a lot more money, and they are hard to catch," said Rick Ramirez, investigator with the city's Transportation and Regulation Division.
Dallas implemented an education program two years ago to improve its cab system. Drivers must pass a written test and attend nine hours of classes covering the use of maps, city regulations and public relations.
"We still have a problem with rudeness. We're trying to get cabbies to be aware of the importance of courtesy, but it takes time," Ramirez said.
In Dallas, a car-driving city with lots of new streets and subdivisions, a chief complaint is drivers who do not know their way around.
"Some of these guys from Nigeria can't read a simple map, much less the English on street signs," Ramirez said.
As Joshua Miller, a salesman who relies on taxis to get to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, explained: "More often than not, I end up doing the navigating. I say, 'Turn here,' and, 'Turn there.' These guys don't know their way around."