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?


But why? Cities besides the Big Apple have upgraded their service — in San Francisco, hybrid vehicles comprise 14 percent of the city’s cab fleet, and Boston and Denver (Denver!) are close on its heels, aiming to put more tech-savvy, eco-friendly cabs on their streets over the next few years. Why not us?

Why the pissed-off cab drivers — or ones who barely speak English and don’t know their way around the city? Why not drivers who might actually be interested in carrying on a conversation? Why cabs without any uniformity or amenities, other than a lumpy seat to squeeze into with the hope that when you squeeze out you won’t discover ripped pants or a peculiar stain on your jacket?

Having spent six weeks plummeting down the Philadelphia taxicab rabbit hole, I think I found some answers.

[sidebar]FIVE YEARS AGO, brighter days were supposedly on the horizon for Philly’s cabs. In April 2005, the Philadelphia Parking Authority took control of the taxi industry from the state’s Public Utility Commission. The thought was that the PUC, which regulates multibillion-dollar companies like PECO and PGW, wasn’t equipped to oversee a small, niche industry that consisted of fewer than 2,000 taxis. Regulations were loose, enforcement was sporadic, and compliance was an afterthought for most cab drivers and owners. Officials argued that the PUC’s apathy and ineffectiveness was to blame — and handing control over to a local agency seemed like the logical first step in turning things around.

And, to be sure, that’s what it set out to do. That summer, the PPA’s new Taxicab & Limousine Division immediately replaced the PUC’s rules and regulations with a 98-page book outlining in no uncertain terms that cab drivers and owners were going to have to shape up or ship out. For instance, taxis are now inspected not once a year, but twice: first at a Pennsylvania state inspection station and again at a PPA facility. The PPA also sent to the streets a force of 11 new inspectors to perform spot examinations for everything from bald tires to odorous interiors.

Fines were levied. A first offense for a missing hubcap or wheel cover, for instance, meant a $100 ticket ($225 for a second offense, and $350 with a possible suspension for a third). Similar penalties applied to dirty cabs (interior, exterior and trunk), a driver’s attire (collared shirts, no open-toed shoes), and the driver’s use of a cell phone (prohibited while behind the wheel). The parking authority brought its infamous uncompromising philosophy of governance to the taxicab industry.

And fines and enforcement were just the beginning. The agency also made it mandatory that all cabs accept credit card payments for fares of any amount, forcing drivers to pay a five percent service fee on every transaction. And most cabs had to be outfitted with a universal GPS system, which not only provides directions when needed, but can also track every certified cab in the city, whether on duty or not.

Even Speedy, who has no love lost for the PPA, admits that the new regime had a positive affect on the industry’s appearance. In the days of the PUC, what he calls “the duct-tape era,” the condition of the cabs was deplorable. In fact, Philly taxis, in those days, were downright dangerous.