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.”

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