How Would You Like a Ride in a Brand-New Philadelphia Taxi?

The medallion system is screwing drivers and passengers.

The Philadelphia taxi is in the news again. The Philadelphia Parking Authority, perhaps the most loathed institution in town, has decided that it wants more taxis that are wheelchair accessible. I think this is the best news, not just for those who are in wheelchairs, but for all of us. Think of it: We might end up getting new taxi cabs!

God bless our cabs. They are collectively the most dilapidated fleet of motor vehicles in the developed world. Imagine what a visitor to our city thinks when they jump into one of our ratty, stinky, creaky, crumbling piece-of-crap cabs. What do they think of our city as they wait 30 seconds for the receipt to emerge from the meter? (I’m not lying, time it for yourself.) My fellow Philadelphians, it does not have to be this way.

In Boston, where the taxis are regulated by the Boston Police Department, it is illegal to put a medallion on a used vehicle. All taxis must be painted the same color: white. By 2015, all Boston taxis will be required to be hybrid vehicles. Passengers in Boston taxis are greeted with a small, flat-screen TV that provides fun bits of trivia about life in Boston. And when you ask for a receipt, it comes out in an instant—too fast, in fact, to time.

If you think the change will come anytime soon, forget it. The howling resistance to the Authority’s noble goal of requiring 300 of the city’s cabs to be wheelchair accessible reveals the underlying problem with the whole taxi mess. Taxi drivers may own the car, but they don’t own the medallion. There are 1,600 taxis dodging their way around our narrow city streets, but only about 100 of the drivers own their medallion outright. The majority of the medallions are owned by a small number of people and when they sell, they go for big money. So not only do drivers have to deal with the expense of the cars, the gasoline, insurance and those pesky credit-card processing fees, they have to pay the lords of the medallions a hefty weekly medallion lease. Can you imagine being an owner of a cab and being asked to pay for a $50,000 wheelchair-accessible van?

I wonder: Why medallions? Why should we enrich a few people so we can have lousy cabs? How many cabs should we have? The answer is simple: We should have as many cabs as there are drivers who can earn a decent wage serving the needs of Philadelphia. Take the medallions out of the equation and drivers will be able to afford a respectable (and new!) vehicle and earn a respectable income. Instead, each year, a cab owner would pay a fee for a license and be required to drive a car that meets strict standards. Drivers would be required to pass a special driving test and speak English. The license could be revoked if, say, the driver is caught talking on a cell phone while driving. Taxis that are wheelchair accessible would be afforded special privileges to encourage their adoption.

Why does this sound so simple?