Driven to Insanity
Anyone who’s lived in Boston for even a short while can offer up at least a half-dozen horror stories about the city’s taxi drivers. They’re rude. They never have change. They don’t have a clue where they’re going, but they still barrel down the road like maniacs to get there. Their cars reek of fast food. Then there are all those stickers blaring “BOSTON LICENSED TAXICAB’S ARE SMOKEFREE,” as if the hyphen that should go between “SMOKE” and “FREE” had become disoriented by the stench of fried chicken hearts, doubled over into an apostrophe, and gotten itself wedged in the wrong word. In just the week before I sat down to write this, a cabbie confessed to me that he didn’t know how to get to Kendall Square from the corner of Newbury and Mass. Ave. Another spent the entire trip talking dirty on his cell phone. “Aw, baby,” he cooed, “you’re missing out. You know you’re gonna get it.” It was the first and only time I ever wished my driver couldn’t speak English.
Cabbies are a hot topic these days. The hullabaloo started in October, when the steelworkers union, citing poor treatment of cabbies by passengers and regulators alike, began signing up drivers to push for a fare increase, less harassment from Massport and the cops, and the ongoing “right to refuse” passengers as they see fit. By the end of the first day it had enlisted more than 500 of the city’s 5,400 licensed drivers. The following month, City Councilor Mike Ross, taking up the cause of beleaguered riders, held a hearing on an NYC-style taxi passengers’ bill of rights, which would clearly notify passengers that they do not have to put up with the aforementioned annoyances. This, in turn, prompted union organizer Donna Blythe-Shaw to urge city council President Maureen Feeney to hold a hearing on a possible taxi drivers’ bill of rights, which would protect cabbies from the predations of drunken, savage customers.
The fight roils on, and it has the makings of a classic Massachusetts stalemate: a firebrand union, howls of victimization emanating from both sides, rising costs for the citizenry. But maybe a stalemate is the best anyone can hope for. Because, rather than fix the problem, the solutions being bandied about would only make things worse for us all.
Let me pause here to say that I’m part of the problem. I once yelled at a cabbie because I suspected he was trying to give me the runaround (he wasn’t). Another time, after my bachelor party, I had to rudely order one to pull over so I could attempt to crawl out and puke in the street like an animal, an effort at which I was only partly successful. And though I’ve had some great cabbies—like the guy who used his dome light to perform a hilarious sci-fi skit at 3 a.m. one Saturday, or “The Englishman,” who I’ll get to later—I still thought to rattle off all the bad ones first. That’s the thing about being deeply prejudiced.
So, difficult as it may be to accept, let’s start by assuming not all cabbies are crazy and trying to rob you, and that many are, in fact, consummate professionals. Now, with that out of the way, let’s look at the factors that create the bad ones. The “union”—cabbies are independent business operators, so it’s actually just an association backed by big labor—has been successful in drawing attention to the rotten conditions that drivers work under. But the real problem isn’t that the cops, who oversee the local taxi industry, are mistreating cabbies. Nor is it the absence of myriad bills of rights, or that fares are too low (actually, they’re among the highest in the country). The problem is that the way the taxi industry works in Boston is so thoroughly broken that it ends up screwing over cabbies and passengers alike.
Years ago, cab drivers owned both their vehicles and their medallions, the city-issued licenses that allow drivers to put a taxi on the road. The same went for those who had whole fleets of cabs, which they’d maintain themselves and rent out to drivers on a daily basis. Over time, the value of the medallions would go up, and, as it did, the owners could tap that equity to invest in repairing or replacing their vehicles.
Things soured over the past decade, as the forces of raw capitalism ran amok, driving the price of a medallion up to $377,000—putting it out of reach of smaller operators, and consolidating many in the hands of a few. (At present, one guy, Edward Tutunjian, owns 346 of Boston’s 1,825 medallions.) Medallion owners also began leasing out their licenses, rather than their vehicles, and stopped buying cars or paying for upkeep, which made it possible for them to run their operation with just a desk and a phone. Meanwhile, drivers had to start buying and maintaining their own cars, and no one but the medallion owners could save up any money, because all the equity was in the licenses. A completely untenable sharecropper situation was born.
Thanks to this setup, drivers have to work brutal hours just to cover costs, often doing so at considerable risk to their health and safety. The experiences of Bernie Allen, a.k.a. “The Englishman,” provide a vivid example. A garrulous former chemist and sneaker engineer, he started driving a cab in the mid-’80s to help fund a startup business. Since then, he’s been robbed three times, dragged from his car and beaten nearly unconscious, and had a gun put to his head (the last in a month during which he also had seven passengers run off without paying). Massport suspended him from Logan for several months after he broke the decidedly fascist rule that forbids cabbies in a particular lane to step out of their cars while waiting for a fare. Allen’s offense: leaning on his hood eating a sandwich in 90-degree heat—because a state law prohibits cabbies from running their cars, and by extension air conditioning, for more than five minutes while waiting for a fare.
“This job here is one of the most stressful you could ever imagine,” Allen said as we drove around town for a few hours one Sunday, in the middle of a 22-hour shift. He cited a week last July in which he drove the cab for 90 hours and made $900, and that was before he paid for gas, rent on the car, and the weekly $500 fee that goes to the medallion owner. “I was left with $316,” he said. “I made about $3 an hour. Goddamn that was hard work. And, you know, you don’t want to get in the cab the next week. You’re destroyed.” If I had to pull hours like that, I, too, would be slamming on the brakes intermittently, in the hopes of bouncing a customer’s head off the plexiglass divider.
All the aggravations might be a little easier to cope with, for passengers and drivers alike, if our cabbies went into the job well trained, which, of course, they do not. In London, taxi drivers study for an average of four years before they get their licenses. Here, they attend a 12-hour course, take a quick test, and they’re good to go. The BPD’s Hackney Unit recently added a rudimentary reading-comprehension component to the screening process, and now requires applicants to have had a valid U.S. driver’s license for two years, but the regimen still hasn’t been fully adapted to the changing demographic of Boston cabbies, many of whom are immigrants with poor English skills. Hackney says it licenses a total of 15 to 20 drivers a week like this. And you wonder why your driver doesn’t know how to get to the Common from the State House.
Despite the deep-seated economic forces at play, the cab union has so far been focusing on fairly small stuff. When I spoke to Donna Blythe-Shaw, the union organizer, one of the first things she complained about was the Hackney mandate that cabbies wear collared shirts. Then it was Hackney’s unquestionably silly insistence that the inside of each taxi’s trunk be painted white, and the rule requiring drivers to get a new car after six years. Those are all superficial, though. Drivers wouldn’t necessarily consider the collar rule harassment, nor object so strenuously to the trunk-color nonsense, if they were making a decent living. And if the medallion system were somehow made more equitable, buying a new car every six years wouldn’t be as financially crippling.
But even if the drivers succeeded in eliminating some of the smaller annoyances they endure, there would still need to be a quid pro quo so that it’s not the customer that gets soaked, as per Massachusetts custom. Hackney licensing chief Mark Cohen suggested that, in the short term, pushing owners and owner-operators to buy more hybrids to save gas, and use GPS and other technologies that cut cabs’ response times—and potentially add a few more fares a day for the drivers—might be a start. While we’re at it, there’s a rule in New York City that requires owners to buy cabs stretched 7 inches, to allow for more legroom. Maybe we can phase out our current fleet of mobile veal cages and implement something similar here.
In exchange, we could look into programs like those in San Francisco and New York that help cabbies get access to decent healthcare, which could improve their quality of life and build up the kind of good faith that could be tapped while negotiating solutions to the thornier economic problems. But no one’s really pushing anything like that. Instead we get the proposed riders’ bill of rights, which does nothing but punish drivers for being poorly trained, and a drivers’ bill of rights that is equally useless—because, frankly, a sticker telling drunks not to spit at the driver isn’t going to stop them from spitting at the driver. (Surely Bostonians have a better understanding of the nature of drunken savagery than that.) And you can’t do what the union wants and hike the fares to keep up with rising gas prices—as they did with a 50-cent surcharge in 2005—because that will only punish the rider without improving service (see: the MBTA).
Cohen acknowledged that the medallion issue is at the real core of all this discontent, but also said his department hasn’t figured out what to do about it. He did point out, however, that in the past year or so Hackney drove down the number of leased medallions by cracking down on abuses by owners—like overcharging lessees, or selling a medallion while a lease is still active without making restitution—which would seem a positive step, even if it was a long time coming. He even said he’d be willing to back the cabbies in some of their disputes with Massport, if they’d only stop throwing muck at him.
Meanwhile, the rhetoric is just getting hotter—which is rather ominous, considering the recent cab strikes in New York and Washington. Blythe-Shaw said of Cohen, “I heard that he referred to me as his toothache. I would have preferred an abscess, quite frankly.” Cohen responded that saying such a thing is “sad,” adding, “There’s more to it than the working man versus the evil empire.” When you start hearing exchanges like that, it makes you hope that the T has enough Silver Line buses and Blue Line cars to service the airport for a few days. Possibly in the very near future.