Mo Feeney’s Back on the Cab Issue

1214331765Boston’s cabbies are in a lousy position these days. On one hand, they’re getting absolutely killed by high gas prices. As I wrote in the magazine a few months ago, many of these guys are living hand to mouth as it is, and when the cost of gas jumps, they get crushed.

On the other hand, their call today for a fare hike to offset those costs is dangerously short-sighted. Boston isn’t like New York. We have no taxi culture to speak of. Cabs are already far more expensive here than in the rest of the country, and if they get any more costly, people will just stop taking them and start taking the (amazingly) better-smelling T.

The city’s cabbies will be making more money per quarter mile, sure, but at the same time fighting over a dwindling number of toddling drunks, disoriented tourists, and any other poor bastards left with absolutely no alternative.

Back when I wrote that column, the city’s cabbies were being (sort of) unionized and starting to get a little unruly. City Councilor Maureen Feeney was proposing a taxi driver’s bill of rights, and Councilor Mike Ross was proposing a taxi passenger’s bill of rights. Neither, I suggested, would work, because neither attempted to get to the root of a decidedly knotty economic problem, and neither got anywhere.

In a good development, Feeney just issued a press release pushing the BPD, which regulates the cab trade, to create a commission to look at overhauling the taxi industry in Boston. That hasn’t been done in nearly 20 years.

“The taxicab industry has been described as ‘sharecropping on wheels’ with drivers forced to pay thousands of dollars in fees before they can earn any salary,” she wrote to Commissioner Ed Davis. “This system penalizes both drivers and passengers. It is time for a comprehensive look at our taxi cab system in Boston. I ask you to strongly consider establishing a commission to review the taxi cab industry in Boston and recommend reforms to address the serious concerns raised both by passengers and by drivers.”

It’s obviously a first step—suggesting that someone consider thinking about something—but the situation is becoming critical, and the current system is untenable. If Boston is able to figure it out, it’ll be the first city in the country to do so, even if I have absolutely no idea what that might be.

I’m totally talking sci-fi out of my ass here, I’ll admit, but maybe something like this would help: The city (somehow) mandates GPS in all cabs, and institutes a central phone number that riders can text when they need a taxi. When the text comes in, the hackney bureau, functioning as dispatcher, instantaneously sends word out to the nearest available cab driver (regardless of the company), who then accepts or rejects the call.

This would save riders a considerable amount of time, thereby making taking cabs easier, and arguably, more attractive. Personally, I don’t mind paying for a cab from time to time. What I do mind is having to try really hard to get one to come and charge me $12 to go four blocks.

I have no clue what to do with some of the other issues, but, if such a thing is possible, this would at least have the effect of encouraging people to take cabs again.