Does Philadelphia Really Need More Taxis? How About Better Taxis?

City Council prepares to create a "world class" taxi service.


The last time I was in a Philly cab, the car itself was roughly in the same shape as the Millenium Falcon during its more fraught moments in The Empire Strikes Back. My driver willed the vehicle up a small incline on the edge of Center City, the engine audibly struggling, only to generate a magnificent SCRAAAAAAAAAAAP-ing sound as he applied the brakes to stop at my destination.

The time before that? The driver griped relentlessly at me for using a credit card — I had no cash on me. I ended up climbing over a big pile of curbside snow to run to an ATM and get the cash he wanted.

More taxis? Maybe Philadelphia doesn’t need more taxis. It needs better taxis, and nicer taxi drivers.

Be that as it may, City Council later this month is going to start talks on how to create a “world-class” taxi service. And that discussion seems like it will be more focused on how many cabs the city provides, rather than how good they are.

That’s not entirely unreasonable: According to Council’s numbers, there are 1,599 cabs operating legally in the city — one for every 967.5 residents, one of the lowest ratios among America’s major cities. What’s more, the number of taxi cab medallions hasn’t actually increased since 1974. There are some exceptions, but those medallion owners have basically functioned as a City Hall-enforced cartel: If you don’t have to compete with hungry newcomers, you might not care so much about vehicle maintenance or customer service either.

(Oh, and the city has an embarrassingly low number of wheelchair-accessible cabs operating: Just seven.)

“Having greater numbers of modern, efficient and accessible taxi cabs directly affects the image and ability of Philadelphia to be taken seriously on the world stage,” the Council says in the resolution that will inaugurate hearings on the matter.

Maybe. But if the council plans merely to hand out a few more medallions and enlarge the cartel somewhat, the effects may be short-lived. If it really wants to improve Philadelphia’s taxi system, the best thing it might do is to expand access to non-taxi transportation options.

After all, the city’s a lot better place to live and get around since car-sharing services like ZipCar arrived. Same thing for Uber, the app-driven private limo service. The arrival of a bike share program later this year should make it even easier for Philadelphians to zip from Point A to a nearby Point B.

All these services are relative newcomers to Philadelphia. Yet it’s possible their arrival has had an effect: Think about those shiny, clean, relatively new hybrid taxis operated by Freedom Taxi — they’ve also arrived in town within the last couple of years. Would they be here if competition hadn’t arrived? Without competition,what incentives are left to improve the quality of Philadelphia’s taxi services?

Two years ago, Philly Mag offered a suggestion from Neil Shah of the Hersha Hospitality Trust to scrap the medallion process altogether and replace it “with a test, and select our drivers based on their knowledge of city streets and destinations, their communication skills, and the quality of their cars.’’

That’s not a bad idea. It’s also unlikely: Medallions go for as much as $500,000 apiece these days, and civic groups eagerly anticipate grabbing a chunk of revenue from new medallions for their own projects.

City Hall will let the taxi cartel keeps its medallions, then. But here’s hoping that officials can increasingly figure out how to get out of the way when innovative and competitive new services come along.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.