By Kevin Donoghue
It has been nearly two years since a former member of the Portland School Committee was arrested for skipping out on a $4.65 cab fare — a 1.1-mile ride that would go for $5.20 today. As chairman of the Portland City Council’s Transportation Committee, I can take the blame for raising taxi rates. The rate hike seemed like a reasonable concession, given the occupational hazards. (City officials stiffing cabbies only added insult to the injury of rising fuel prices at the time.) But once my committee’s recommendation finally appeared on the Council’s agenda last June, I had to recuse myself from the vote.
I was about to start driving for ASAP Taxi.
I had never thought much about the taxi business and had rarely called a cab, save for a couple times when sidewalks were impossibly icy or upon returning home on a train. I became curious, however, when layoffs left the city with a transportation office of one: Judy Harris, who’d donned several hats in the erstwhile Department of Ports and Transportation, including that of taxi administrator. Her policy insights into this long-neglected aspect of our public transportation system made me want to learn more about the trade and try it for myself.
I answered an ad on Craig’s List, “Portland Taxi Driver Wanted” (job-67810045), and received a call from ASAP president Steve Kuntz, a former driver for ABC. After I disclosed the nature of my interest, he agreed to let me try nights starting June 18, provided I could pass the background check and be issued a taxi driver’s license by the city. After paying the requisite fees and being deemed no threat to public health, safety, or welfare, Judy issued me an official license. Bollard editor Chris Busby issued me a warning to get a firearm.
I didn’t get rich driving cab, but I did get to play with the power locks. Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptors are fiercely powerful vehicles with equally fierce implications for gas mileage. The new rates went into effect in July — though our meters were not changed until August — but even after that, rising fuel prices quickly erased any benefit. Being a successful cabbie meant learning to run the meter as much as possible while running the engine as little as possible.
Taxi fares are calculated by adding 30 cents for each tenth-mile atop a base drop fee of $1.90, a formula that places a higher value on more frequent, short trips than less frequent, long trips. The ideal scenario is to string several short trips together, effectively having your fares buy the gas.
The night shift usually started around 4 p.m. and ended around 4 a.m.. If I were not immediately dispatched for a job, I’d head to the taxi stand in front of Gritty McDuff’s, hoping to get a fare to a hotel near the Maine Mall and then another fare back to the Old Port. Otherwise, I’d handle the late afternoon/early evening rush between Mathew’s Pub and Rockin’ Rickey’s Tavern.
The Old Port to the Maine Mall: $19.90, probably $25 with tip; Mathew’s to Rickey’s: $3.40, probably $5.
Because most trips either begin or end on the peninsula, busier nights favor staying within city limits rather than risking a drive back in from the suburbs with an empty back seat and a black meter.
Most drivers lease their cabs from companies with several vehicles and a central dispatch. ASAP is a relatively new company with a growing fleet of old cruisers and a growing base of regular customers, upon whom drivers can rely for fares shift after shift. The stronger the base of regulars, the higher the lease rate. Many other drivers own and operate their own taxi cab, but most of them do so without the benefits of an established brand or an efficient dispatch, so they have to try their luck on the stands. Independent drivers may wait hours out at the jetport for a fare, maybe just for $10. Any driver who lasts in the business does so by building up a strong base of repeat customers.
I did not last in the business, though I did get a few regulars among my friends. However, most needed a ride exactly when and where the others did: 1 a.m., in the Old Port. (Last call may be the only time every cab in town has its meter running.) Although the taxi stand is in front of Gritty’s, congestion caused by fights outside the Cactus Club and curbside parking that turns the travel lane into a taxi stand made it hard to drive up Fore Street. I would have to make my way along Fore with the doors locked until I identified my passenger, or arrange ahead of time to meet the fare a block away, so we could get away easily and safely.
Some of my fellow drivers reported having been assaulted on the job one or more times. I’m happy to report that I retired unharmed, aside from a handful of skipped or shorted fares. I did, however, experience some assaults on decorum, like when a couple bouncers at The Big Easy tossed some poor fellow in my back seat who could neither sit up nor utter a phrase. I was eventually able to get him out of the cab and up the stairs to his home in South Portland.
Weeks later, I was dispatched to The Grill Room and found the same fellow headed to Riverton. He must have remembered me, because he paid $80 for a 4-mile ride that costs $13.90.
Night shifts mainly involve driving people with disposable income to, from and between their favorite watering holes. Many of those who take cabs during the day do so because it is their only practical option. They may not be able to afford car ownership, or they may not be physically able to operate a car. I have driven a mother to four different towns connecting job one, childcare, home, and job two, and I have driven an elderly man around the corner from his home so he could avoid climbing a hill. A rate hike may mean a little more for drivers, but it also means a little less for people in those circumstances.
Taxis are part of our public transit system, running when and where buses often do not, and their drivers perform a valuable public service, keeping the public safe and connected. Few passengers can afford to pay more in taxi fares, and few drivers can afford to earn any less. Some cities have addressed this issue by limiting the number of cabs permitted on the streets. Because the city has the authority to set rates and issue licenses, that could be done.
I do not suggest we limit the number of cabs, creating some kind of taxi cartel that locks entrepreneurs out of the market. We have already seen the folly of that approach with the bars. Rather, I suggest we raise the standards a taxi must meet to pass the city’s inspection. This would encourage the retirement of older vehicles and their replacement with newer vehicles that offer increased comfort for passengers and increased fuel economy for drivers. To be sure, higher standards will increase the costs associated with getting into the taxi business, but there are already too many cabs on the road and our passengers are already paying too much.
When the Transportation Committee reconvenes this winter, I expect it will consider reforming inspection standards, establishing a taxi board for quality assurance, adjusting rates based on trends in fuel prices, and introducing a discount for disabled passengers. The committee will also likely consider updating the management plan for the taxi stand along Fore Street, perhaps by creating a new taxi stand on Commercial Street, and it will investigate whether it’d be feasible to entice somebody to reintroduce a taxi on Peaks Island.
That’s a job with its own occupational hazards, but I would venture there’d be fewer skipped fares on the 1.1-mile ride to Back Shore.
Portland City Councilor Kevin Donoghue lives on Munjoy Hill. His district includes the East End and islands.