Feature: Hell Called. It Wants Its Cabs Back.

When the Parking Authority took over Philly cabs five years ago, we were supposed to get a cleaner, safer, friendlier experience. But many city taxis are still junkers, and the drivers are often surly and clueless. Why are we being taken for such a ride?

SPEEDY WAITS FOR ANOTHER FARE to get in the backseat and tell him where to go. His is the last cab in a line of about a dozen outside 30th Street Station. A fog of tailpipe steam drifts between bumpers, occasionally cut through by a homeless man in tatters, begging. Speedy and I have been riding together for more than two hours, and the November night outside is growing long and turning cold. He motions that he wants to show me something.

Fumbling through the scattered ephemera of his dashboard, he pulls out his cell phone and brings up a photograph on the screen. It’s of Jamaica, the country of his birth, and he allows the image to sink in, glowing in the silent dark of his cab like a tiny pixelated flame. White sand and impossibly blue water, a few wind-bent palm trees, waves breaking against the paradisial shoreline.

“That’s my beach,” he says, touching his finger to the small, grainy photo. “I live right across the street from this.”

Brought from Jamaica to West Philadelphia by his parents at the age of nine, Speedy — or Gresford Speid, as his license reads — started driving a cab at 18, maybe 19; he can’t recall exactly. Taxis offered Speedy the type of freedom he says runs in his blood. And for a while, he tells me, “This business was a joy, a pleasure.” Back then, 20 years ago, driving a cab meant independence and more than a modicum of pride. Back then it was possible for him to go home at the end of the week with more than $1,000 in his pocket.

Speedy says driving a cab in Philly “is now torture.” The freedom, the adventure, the pride — gone. These days, he says he’s lucky to end most weeks with any profit at all, and it’s been this way for five years now.

That’s how long the Philadelphia Parking Authority has controlled cabs here. I hear Speedy’s lament echoed again and again by other drivers, who are universally frustrated and angry.

And there’s another problem, one that became obvious to me on a recent weekend in the taxi capital of America, New York City. My girlfriend and I slid into the backseat of a shiny yellow car parked outside Penn Station — into a backseat with room — and my eyes immediately landed on something arresting: a bright, recessed monitor positioned in the middle of the cab’s divider. When I touched the screen and it came to life, I giggled like a little kid.

During a dozen or so rides up and down Manhattan, I found this toy in every backseat, and like some naive, wide-eyed bumpkin, I played with each one — checking weather forecasts, monitoring our present location on Google Maps, and even watching a Vampire Weekend video to pass the time. It was, frankly, awesome.

Taking my next Philly cab was like finding coal under the tree on Christmas morning. It was an old, cramped Crown Victoria with the same old mysterious odors, and warnings and notices pasted on a divider an inch from my knees, and no glittering monitor. I was back in Philadelphia, and I just had to accept it.

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  • Ron

    The increase cost of the taxi medallion is the reason that small medallion owners can not invest in better vehicles. The State gave Mr. Abitol $900K to buy 50 vehicles, if the State gave each medallion owner that money, it would easier to take Mr. Abitol’s position. From what I know, Mr. Abitol is the reason that the industry is failing in Philadelphia. His hope is that the PPA will put in place, harsh regulations that would put small owners out of business. Mr. Abitol would like to create a monopoly in Philadelphia. He was raned out of New York City because of cheating drivers and medallion owners. Nick was taking in by this guy.

  • Jack

    Interesting story. I had no idea how the medallion system worked or how hard it is to be a cabbie. That doesn’t mean that I’ll enjoy crappy service or rude behavior from the drivers. For me, it’s a

  • Alex

    I hate to burden your with some facts. As it’s correctly pointed out, medallion owner collects $400.00 per week. Multiply it by 51 weeks and subtract insurance cost ($5000.00) and PPA fee ($1800.00). How much this crazy rich medallion owner gets? It’s $13600 a year. How would you afford a new car that has to be retired at 200K miles when average 12-hour shift gross is $180.00? What insurance company will sell you a full coverage for a Philly taxi and how much would it cost?
    This is a business that’s no different from any other. PPA has installed a computer in every cab 3 years ago. It knows exactly how much every driver makes per shift. You should publish that data and enlighten us on the ways to turn a profit riding you in a brand new car for $9.00.
    And in case your journalistic career doesn’t take off, you could always become the first WASP cab driver. As a token of appreciation for this article, Simon Abitbol will lease you a brand new cab for $200.00 a week after you pass your driving test with the PPA. They might even skip language proficiency test in your case.

  • Margo

    Got in cab and asked him to take me to wells Fargo center. Said he didn’t know where it was. I said you know eagles games, phillies, flyers? Broad street? Nope. No idea. Mind you he pickedbme up in center city! I then proceeded to give him blow by blow directions. I finally joked when we arrived, ‘is this your first day? Yes was his answer! Crazy. Second week. Cab picks up co-worker at 30th street. He then is picking me up at 22nd and chestnut. Get a call from co-worker, they are at 20th and market. Cabbie doesn’t know where 22nd and chestnut st. Unbelievable. What training. There is none!!!!!

  • Amy

    These same issues exist in NY & every other city that has a medallion system-they have managed to do a lot better. The medallion owners need to be responsible for keeping their cabs & drivers up to code-e.g., there is a code provision for leg room & no cab meets it. And that’s before we get the smells, the dirt, the drivers talking on the phone, the lack of change, the no idea where they’re going. These cabs are our first ambassadors for visitors to our city. PPA must do a better job. Fining owners is the way. Take some of those parking people off the street and make them ride in cabs and cite them.

  • Simon

    Simon Abitbol is doing a good job generating “public outrage” ahead of hearng for the new PPA regualtions. The goal is to drop the medallion price and buy them all from the small owners fleeng the market.
    The state should take over the cab industry and make it part of SEPTA.
    The cab driver would be a dream job.
    There will be no more old dirty cabs,immigrant drivers talking on the phone in a language you
    don’t understand. Instead, You will get well trained American drivers that could retire at 55,
    new cars with great smell and affordable fares. Let’s do that and worry about economics later.
    That’s the way to win the future!!!!

  • John

    Simon Abitbol is doing a good job generating “public outrage” ahead of hearng for the new PPA regualtions. The goal is to drop the medallion price and buy them all from the small owners fleeng the market.
    The state should take over the cab industry and make it part of SEPTA.
    The cab driver would be a dream job.
    There will be no more old dirty cabs,immigrant drivers talking on the phone in a language you
    don’t understand. Instead, You will get well trained American drivers that could retire at 55,
    new cars with great smell and affordable fares. Let’s do that and worry about economics later.
    That’s the way to win the future!!!!

  • Kevin

    Just want to share a little story about an experience I had this weekend- I left my blackberry in a cab on Friday night (or lets say early Saturday morning). When I realized the next morning, I immed