Los Angeles has become one of the easiest places in the country to drive a taxi--illegally.
While tough licensing and franchising rules make it hard for newcomers to break into the business legally, lax enforcement has helped create a flourishing illicit business that operates openly, brazenly and, sometimes, dangerously.
City officials say this is the year they will begin to destroy the bandit taxi business. But they acknowledge that their efforts in the past have done little to keep unlicensed taxis off the streets. As a result, Los Angeles and its patchwork of neighboring cities are flooded with thousands of taxis, including entire outlaw fleets, that operate without transportation licenses and the background checks that go with them.
In some cases, they also operate without registration, insurance or even driver's licenses.
That was the case Nov. 27 when the driver of an unlicensed, uninsured cab picked up three brothers and one of their dates and tried to slip around a Blue Line crossing gate in Compton. All six people in the cab--the four customers, the driver and his girlfriend--died when a train crushed the cab. The driver, police discovered, had had his driver's license suspended for drunk driving, although an autopsy turned up no evidence that he had been drinking before the crash.
That incident served as a wake-up call, prompting the Los Angeles City Council and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to demand a crackdown. So far, though, it has not led to any major reforms, and bandit taxis operate with near impunity throughout much of Los Angeles and neighboring cities.
As of Jan. 1, investigators with the city's Department of Transportation have the power to impound bandit taxis, which they couldn't do before. The department hopes to use that tool, as well as other new tactics such as lawsuits against bandit companies, to finally put a dent in the bandit business. Investigators have also begun to work more nights.
But licensed drivers say the efforts are not enough.
"It's going to take more staff, more money," said Anthony Palmeri, a member of the board of both L.A. Taxi and Yellow Cab Co. He would like to see the LAPD take over enforcement.
Like most big cities, Los Angeles limits the number of taxi licenses. But it is the only large municipality that awards franchises to a limited number of companies--10 at the moment--based on the idea that larger firms offer better service. The city plans to put the taxi franchises up for competitive bid this year for the first time in more than 20 years.
To some transportation experts, the proliferation of bandits is a sign that cities are not licensing enough legitimate cabs.
Los Angeles licenses a maximum of 2,084 taxis; that figure will soon go up to 2,303. By comparison, there are 12,187 licensed taxis in New York and 6,300 in Chicago. Both cities have far more of a tradition of taxi travel, but even such cities as Dallas, Atlanta, Miami and San Diego have a higher proportion of taxis per capita than Los Angeles.
Ryan Snyder, a transportation planning consultant and occasional lobbyist for the taxi industry, wonders how the city came up with the figure of 2,303. "If there are a couple thousand illegal taxis out there, I'll bet the market is bigger than that," he said.
Most Angelenos don't rely on taxis regularly. But there is a substantial market for them among the poor, who can't afford cars; the elderly, who may not be able to drive anymore; and the drunk, who believe it is not worth the risk to drive under the influence.
Given the clandestine nature of their business, no one knows how many bandits there are. City investigators estimate that there are 1,500 to 1,900; taxi industry officials put the number as high as 4,000.
According to Snyder and others, the bandits serve parts of the city--especially poor neighborhoods with high crime rates--where legitimate cabbies are reluctant to go.
"Most drivers don't want to come to a neighborhood where their life will be in danger," said one driver, a Nigerian immigrant who gave his name as Abodun. "And that's the case, really."
Others insist that the bandits simply siphon off business that legitimate taxis could and would handle--and at a fraction of the cost, because the bandits don't have to pay for licensing and, often, forgo the substantial cost of insurance.
"I'm not ready to concede that they're filling a public need," said Tom Drischler, the city's new taxicab administrator. "They're cherry-picking, and if they went away tomorrow, no one would miss them."
There actually are two kinds of bandit taxis. Perhaps the greatest number are licensed cabs that operate in cities where they aren't licensed--say, a Gardena taxi that picks up a passenger in Los Angeles. City officials don't like the practice--each city claims it does a better job of licensing than anyone else--but they acknowledge that these drivers are not the gravest threat.