Tag Archives: uber

Thinking about taxis, rather than something else

It’s oppressive. You can’t get away from the Trump chaos. Everyone talks about it. Walk down the street, meet a friend. Immediately they bring it up even if you don’t want to hear it. A friend who is skiing in Vermont emailed me about meeting for dinner. But then she ended with, “what’s to become of our nation?”

A Scottish relative even got into the fray when she took a bus back to Lossiemouth from Elgin. An elderly woman near her told her she pitied the “poor Americans.”

“They niver thought in a the days o man that that absolute fool o a man wid be in the White Hoose,” she said. “And now I hiv tae ging back into Elgin again the night tae join the protest.”

Who knew elderly Scottish ladies would be protesting in far-north Elgin at night?

I try not to think about the nation’s problems unless I hear something funny. Thank goodness for the online Borowitz Report and Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, the New Yorker’s Calvin Trillin and Rachel Maddow, whose news is filled with irony and glee at the latest absurdity.

My most successful tactic, however, is to think about banal things instead of scary ones. Taxis come to mind. Life in Boston would be better if we had better taxis. Let’s think about them instead of something else.

Like telephone booths and typewriters, they are a relic of another age. There are the same number of taxi medallions in the city as in past years, according to the media relations department of the Boston Police Department, but there seem to be fewer taxis on the streets. This is hard to verify, however, since no one can tell me how many are actually on the streets.

But taxis don’t have to become relics. They have one advantage over Uber and Lyft. You can stand at a street corner and hail them. And you can find them at taxi stands—the one behind City Hall and in front of 225 Franklin are particularly convenient. If you can find one quickly, they are quicker than Lyft, for whom you have to wait. While taxis are more expensive, it’s usually only a few dollars difference. It won’t break the bank.

But taxis make it hard to love them. Signs pasted on the dirty, clunky divider urge passengers to stay loyal. But who can stay loyal to cramped quarters, no indication that a cab is available when it approaches you, clumsy payment options, hostility if you pay by credit card, annoying blather coming from a small television screen and a lack of air conditioning in the summer?

If taxis are to remain on the streets of Boston, they must up their game. Here are some modest proposals.

Put a light on the top of every cab that says if it is available or not. New York City cabs can manage that simple piece of information. So can DC’s cabs. It’s welcoming and efficient to know that the taxi coming toward you can stop for you.

Get rid of the divider between the driver and the passenger. These were installed long ago after a couple of cab drivers were assaulted. But that occurs rarely. Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, DC, taxis do not have that bulky barrier that prevents easy exchange with the driver and air conditioning from flowing through. And those places aren’t as safe as Boston.

The unsightly barrier makes it hard for passengers to get in and out and have a place for their feet. A barrier-free ride would make a passenger’s ride more comfortable and make that passenger more inclined to take a taxi rather than Lyft, which is always more comfortable.

Make taxi service regional rather than city-based. Surely if Amazon can figure out how to deliver packages everywhere, some smart person should be able to plan how to deploy cabs all over Boston, Cambridge and Brookline, for starters, with efficiency and standardization. It is annoying to realize that the cab coming toward you near is not supposed to pick you up even if it is empty.

Boston also has its job to do. Taxi medallions are like liquor licenses. They should not be able to be bought and sold in a private market. They should go to one cab and be retrieved when that cab is out of commission. They should be affordable for individual drivers. They should be issued with public comfort and accessibility in mind and not for the benefits and convenience of big owners.

If the taxis don’t make these changes, they’ll descend into the junk yards where Compaq computers and Walkman devices have gone. No one will miss them or be sorry. And we’ll have to go back to thinking about Trump.

Disruption or consequences?

Disruption was 2014’s trendy cliché. A new idea comes along and, poof, out with the old. Business school types are enthralled. New technology and new ideas are part of the disruption.

But some businesses and industries are vulnerable, sometimes because they haven’t taken certain developments into account.

Take coal. It is hard to listen to West Virginians complain about too much regulation, too much belief in climate change and too many jobs lost. They have been disrupted by cheap natural gas and the promise of wind and solar power. But coal has been going out of fashion since London banned most coal burning, first in the 1950s and then more so in the 1990s. Few people want to live downwind from a coal-burning plant. Few want to live with the polluted rivers and soil that coal mining and burning brings.

Nevertheless, it is easy to sympathize with long-time coal boosters and climate change deniers. Their livelihoods are disappearing; their way of life is going. Their unimaginative leaders have fanned their complaints instead of helping them invent new industries and find creative solutions.

Downtowns in many communities were also vulnerable. It wasn’t just that shopkeepers’ merchandise was more expensive than that sold by Walmart. Too many of those shopkeepers were offering out-of-date goods, little variety and unkempt environments. Too many towns demolished retail buildings to build parking lots so there were fewer shops of any kind to attract buyers. Walmart didn’t have to do much to disrupt such town centers.

Now we’ve got taxi drivers complaining about Uber, and it sounds like coal and town centers all over again.

I’ll confess I know little about Uber. I’ve never called one up on my cell phone. I don’t have an opinion on how much Uber should be regulated, if it is regulated at all.

But I do know taxis. They are as vulnerable as coal and town centers. There are not enough of them at many hours of the day. Residents of the Charlestown Navy Yard or the upper slopes of Beacon Hill who call a taxi say they never come. Even though the hybrid Toyotas are more comfortable than the old Ford Victorias, they are still cramped. The electronic screens on the back of the front seat are annoying. Unlike New York City taxis, more than half of Boston taxis have no rules posted, no telephone numbers to call with a problem and no driver identification. Let’s not even discuss the driver’s annoyance if you pay by credit card. Finally, again unlike New York City, Boston taxis have no light indicating if they are free to pick up a fare.

With service such as this, no wonder this industry is being disrupted.

The taxi industry, however, has made changes in the recent past that show it could clean up its act.

Drivers now seem to have more of “The Knowledge” about how to get around Boston. In the last few months, I have had to instruct few drivers about how to get to where I wanted to go. Twenty years ago, I had to guide almost all of them.

The airport taxis are better managed. When our children were young, we encountered drivers who cursed and pounded the steering wheel because we were headed to downtown Boston rather than Lexington, where they expected such a family as ours to live.

The cabs are cleaner and no longer smelly. They have been painted white—not as eye-catching as New York’s, but at least a gesture toward helping people identify them as they cruise around. Several years ago there was a driver who played the trumpet as he drove. Thank goodness he and other crazies have left the industry.

Most drivers, however, talk on their mobile phones, confusing passengers who think they are talking to them. More annoying, is that while on the phone, drivers can’t hear the passenger or pay attention to traffic.

There are problems besides Uber that the taxi industry faces. The Boston Globe exposed many of those last spring.

But the reason Uber is a threat to taxis is not because of the problems the Globe unearthed. Nor, for many people, is it that Uber might be cheaper. Like the status-quo defenders in coal-producing states, the taxi industry seems blind to conditions they have caused.

Cab drivers need to stop trying to get regulators to impose rules that will last only until the next new idea comes along. Instead they should provide better service and create new incentives that will keep customers loyal.