Is There a Solution to the Philly Taxi Problem?

City Hall hearing puts spotlight on problems with tourists, riders with disabilities. But the power to make needed changes rests in Harrisburg.

Two things that were apparent during a Tuesday committee hearing at City Hall: First, there’s just not a lot of love for the Philly taxi system— even among the people who work and earn their livings from it.

Second: Fixing the problems might be a long way off.

Other cities provide better, cheaper, greener cabs with better-paid drivers, said Councilman David Oh, who chaired Tuesday’s meeting. “Somewhere in this mix there’s a better formula for us,” he said.

The outlines of the problem will be familiar to anybody who has taken a Philly taxi recently: The 1,600-car fleet hasn’t increased in size since the early 1970s. And the cars themselves can be old, environmentally unfriendly, and often under the control of surly, argumentative drivers.

“A Philadelphia taxicab is often the first and last impression a visitor has of the city,” Ed Grose, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association, told the committee. “It is a problem.”

Those problems were acknowledged by David Alperstein, director of the Greater Philadelphia Taxi Association, which represents medallion owners and operators, dispatchers, and taxi companies. “Depending on the luck of the draw, a visitor can either end up in one of the best taxicabs in America, or something approaching a jalopy,” he said.

The other critique: With just seven wheelchair-accessible cabs, Philadelphia is badly underserving disabled Philadelphians, and missing out on opportunities to bring tourists with disabilities to town for tourism or conventions. (Juneau, Alaska, with a population of around 30,000 residents, was said to have more wheelchair-accessible taxis.) That number needs to rise, quickly.

“This is a civil rights issue,” said Councilman Dennis O’Brien. “If we don’t do it, we’ll be told to do it.”

Jim Ney, director of the taxicab and limousine division of the Philadelphia Parking Authority, said some improvements had been made in recent years. The cars — while still largely limited to a fleet of relatively cheap old Crown-Vics — are newer, and outfitted with GPS technology to provide quick rides and accurate meter readings. Every car, he said, includes a credit card reader and the ability to print receipts.

“The changes I just noted were resisted almost universally by the taxi industry in Philadelphia,” Ney said.

In the meantime, the cost of a medallion to operate a taxi has increased roughly tenfold in the last decade, to $500,000. The rising cost had been hoped to filter out owners disinclined to invest in machinery or better workers. “The huge increase in medallion cost has not resulted in improved taxicab service,” Ney said. “Yet.”

Grose acknowledged the improvements, but added: “We’re now at a point where we have to take it a step further.”

Ronald Blount, president of the Unified Taxi Workers of Philadelphia, argued that the problems are even more widespread: “Even if you put [passengers] in a Maserati, [it] doesn’t matter if the driver is living in poverty,” he said, arguing that today’s drivers have little money — or security — after they’ve paid the medallion owner for the opportunity to work a shift, bought their own car, and paid their own insurance.

One point of large agreement: The problems can be solved with competition. Ney said the state had authorized his agency to issue 15 new medallions a year for 10 years for wheelchair-accessible cabs, which should bring gradual relief on that front.

But others said more medallions, more quickly, is what’s needed.

“More medallions mean more competition, more incentive for medallion owners to improve their product,” Grose said.

Whether Tuesday’s cries for relief will be heard, however, is an open question: Philadelphia’s taxis aren’t regulated by City Hall, but by the state government in Harrisburg.

“That is a thing. There’s not a lot we can do directly,” Oh said afterward, saying the hearing and other attempts to galvanize stakeholders would have to do for now. “For whatever reason, and I don’t know the reason, there has not been a lot of movement on what I’d consider a logical thing.”

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.

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  • Philly Joe

    Philly cabs are always a gamble. More than half of them have the check engine light on, or are otherwise mechanically questionable. The drivers do seem to be less surly about taking credit cards than they used to, which is an improvement. But with cabs this old and fares as high as they are, how are drivers living in poverty? Where is the money going? Bring on the competition.

    • Will

      To the owners, not the drivers.

  • Jack Cotter

    Competition though? Do you actually check what cab service you’re using when you get into one? I call for cabs so infrequently that I don’t remember which one I used last. 90% of the time I just stand on the corner and take the first cab that comes by. No one’s going to look in the window and say “oh your car looks old, I’ll just wait for the next one.”

  • Joe

    One word… UBER! Cabs in this city are awful. Typically driven by people who are rude and inconsiderate. I have been left in old city by drivers because where I wanted to go wasn’t far enough for them. Time for the cities corruption around taxis and parking to end enough is enough every city resident pays for this corruption.

  • Everything Peacock

    Everything Peacock agrees with Joe. If you are still wasting time and money dealing with Philly cab drivers you need to sign up for Uber NOW. Get a $20 ride free of charge by signing up here…

  • matthew brandley

    In a city with such a great mass transit system why would anyone want to take a cab with such rude drivers?

  • B. H. Obama

    If you like your taxicab, you can keep your taxicab.

  • pietrof

    Spend the first 15 seconds of your ride talking to the cabbie like a human being and you’ll be surprised how you stop getting stuck with rude and inconsiderate drivers.

  • Will

    Uber is an unregulated ripoff, with even less fuel efficient cars. That said, Philly has much to do to improve the overall taxi experience, including better enforcement of drivers in bike, bus, and pedestrian crossings. Of course, for 2.25 I’ll stick with the El.

  • Steve Chervenka

    It is not the drivers fault! If a sports team has a bad season, who gets the blame primarily? 1. The owners are in the leasing business, and could care less about the hospitality aspect. This is a well documented argument that they use in court to defend themselves from lawsuits. 2. Since the 1980’s, the drivers have been classified as independent contractors; thus they have no protection like workers compensation. They have to pay for everything and buy everything from the company store and inflated prices. Better pay with some protection would attract good drivers,and there are many good drivers now working under poor conditions because they love the job. 3. Take the transcript from this meeting and compare to all past meetings about the same problem in the last 30 years, and you won’t find much difference. Better cars and more training with enforcement is all everyone focuses on. Place the focus on the independent contractor agreement and improve the lot of the drivers with better wages and basic protections, and there will be real improvement.