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The Issue Behind the Cab Issue

January 23, 2000

Los Angeles city and county officials have ordered a crackdown on so-called bandit taxicab drivers, those who aren't licensed or franchised to operate here. Fine--it's about time. The bandits often overcharge or endanger their customers.

But neither the City Council nor the county Board of Supervisors should expect wild praise from nondriving Angelenos, who might respond, "OK, but now what are you going to do to help me get where I'm going?"

Enforcement is just one part of the problem: Slipshod policing has allowed bandit cab operations to flourish, even to the point of rogue fleets replete with telephone numbers and radio dispatch equipment. Equally important are the fundamental reasons why bandit cabbies are able to ply their trade with such success.

It starts with a poor overall transportation system and the disarray of its commitments. The local rail system can't take these people where they need to go. All transit agencies are getting religion about better bus operations, but much work remains to be done.

This leaves the taxi system, and Los Angeles is decidedly cab-poor and fare-exorbitant, a particular issue for a city with a weak transportation system.

Here's what ought to happen. Los Angeles must waive its too-strict limits and allow far more legitimate cabdrivers and companies to operate. The proposed new limit of 2,303 cabs is ridiculously low. Some other major cities have two to five times as many cabs and have an effective mass transit system, such as New York's go-anywhere subway or Chicago's El trains.

Ask those Angelenos who must ride the buses what they yearn for, other than more buses, and the answer will probably be their own car, even if it's a rusted-out exhaust factory. That's because of the freedom that personal vehicles provide and because of Southern California's ingrained drive-free-or-die philosophy.

The answer isn't solely up to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board. Every local elected official must press for better short-run bus options, such as shuttles. Give people the kinds of transportation options they deserve and bandit cabdrivers will have fewer victims to prey on when they troll the street for desperate fares.

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