Interview: How to Improve Philly Taxis

David Alperstein says more competition is needed, but city regulators are behind the curve.

The question of how to improve Philadelphia’s taxi fleet is suddenly prominent. City Council held a hearing on the question Tuesday at City Hall. The two lines of criticism: City taxis offer a poor picture of Philadelphia to tourists, and there are insufficient numbers of wheelchair-accessible cabs — just seven for the entire city.

Mr-AlpersteinOne of the witnesses at Tuesday’s hearing was David Alperstein, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Taxi Association, which is made up of companies, drivers and dispatchers in the city. He talked to Philly Mag about the problems facing city taxis, how the system works and why the Philadelphia Parking Authority — which regulates taxis in the city — is behind the curve in addressing issues.

First of all, what about Philadelphia taxi service isn’t world-class? How do we achieve world-class standards?

I think, first and foremost, the answer is having better vehicles on the road. Newer vehicles, better-trained drivers, those who are in the industry striving to accommodate all people, which includes wheelchair-accessible vehicles and the disabled. Right now, although there’s a few wheelchair-accessible vehicles, for us to be a world-class city, we need to have an ability to accommodate anyone who comes through the city. And having those types of vehicles at the airports waiting for passengers, at convention centers, at our hotels will increase how people view the city of Philadelphia.

It sounds like there are some deeper, systemic problems in terms of the drivers. They kinda get the short end of the stick every which way: They have to pay for their own insurance, they have to pay for their cars, but they’re also paying money to the medallion owners too. Does the system maybe need to be blown up in any sense?

Well, I think some of the facts are a little bit distorted. There are different types of vehicles on the road. There are some that are owner-operated where the owner owns the medallion, operates at his leisure. There’s owner-operated but also that owner may lease his shift, meaning that operator may work 12 hours in the morning and then the other driver takes it at night and pays the lease to that owner.

The majority of the vehicles now, given the amount each medallion costs ($500,000) are part of like a fleet. Meaning that they are double-shifted, which, if you speak to most people in the PPA and the regulatory agencies, it is important to have vehicles double-shifted because there’s only 1,600 of them.

And if one’s not on the road for a day, that means there’s less vehicles to serve the public. So the shifting vehicles is very favored and I think that’s where most of the vehicles are going these days because the profit margins are better. Although, the margins are tight in this industry, that’s probably the best way for drivers to be on the road the most and the value of those vehicles being on the road for the public is greater.

So is more medallions the answer, then?

I think more medallions — if they are wheelchair-accessible vehicles — is the answer. Because what happens there is those vehicles can also pick up the public as they would a normal vehicle. However, if there is a proper dispatching system in place, which the PPA really needs to look into, when a disabled person needs that cab, that cab is available for them as a priority.

Final thing: We heard that, even though we’re having this discussion in City Hall, a lot of the action that needs to take place in order make these improvements will need to take place in Harrisburg. What’s the likelihood of that actually happening?

It’s interesting. The PPA has been the governing body in our city for all the taxi cabs. Now, they never enacted regulations to allow for the sale of new medallions until this year. They proposed a regulation simultaneously with the regulation allowing for additional medallions to be on the road. So, it’s kinda strange that they never even thought about it when they took over, whatever, 10 years ago. And now all of a sudden, they’re scurrying to put together regulations on how to just even sell a new medallion. But I think they put the cart before the horse in a sense when they were like: “Oh, we need more medallions.” They hadn’t even been to: “Oh my God, how do we actually do this?”

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.