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Sympathy for the Cabbie
April 4, 2013 11:25 AM   Subscribe

Boston taxi cab drivers, often cheated, work in a world where risk and reward are a mismatch.

Part Three of Three.

Part One: Bribes are a common routine for Boston taxi drivers

Part Two: An empire built of ambition and a very hard edge
posted by Rustic Etruscan (37 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
Related:
Excessive Regulation Turns Boston Taxi Industry Into Corrupt Mess.

Boston Mayor Menino Orders Review Of Boston Taxi Industry.
posted by ericb at 11:33 AM on April 4, 2013


Again, great work from the Boston Globe Spotlight team. Same group that exposed the Catholic priest sex abuse scandal, the collections agency scandal, the probation department head scandal, and many others. Journalism is not dead.
posted by Melismata at 11:33 AM on April 4, 2013 [8 favorites]


See also, would-be Part Four: Globie’s cab crash raises eyebrows:
A Boston Globe reporter masquerading as a Hub taxi driver gave a disputed version of a two-car crash that sent him and his two passengers to the hospital in a front-page story yesterday that’s raising questions about liability and whether he misrepresented himself.

...

“Deceptive methods are only acceptable if there was no other way to get the story,” said Stephen Ward, director of the Center of Journalism Ethics at University of Wisconsin-Madison. “This strikes me as a story you could get without having to go with these pretenses.”

A Globe spokeswoman emailed a response late last night. “The reporter revealed his identity to the Boston Police, and consistent with company policy he listed his company affiliation with Boston Cab. When conversing with passengers, he revealed his identity as a Globe reporter. In the days after the November accident, which was chronicled accurately in Tuesday’s story, the reporter obtained the official copy of the police report and corrected a factual flaw.”
posted by cribcage at 11:36 AM on April 4, 2013


In fairness, the Boston Herald (the "part four" linked above) is what those who think the Globe is part of a liberal media conspiracy read, and they consider themselves to be rivals to the Globe. (I do not believe the Globe notices that they exist) So while yes, the accident is a thing that should be investigated, the Herald article has the smell of the "There was a Benghazi cover-up!" attitude.
posted by olinerd at 11:44 AM on April 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't know about "liberal media conspiracies," but I don't know anybody involved in Boston law or politics who doesn't read the Herald.
posted by cribcage at 11:47 AM on April 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


Ironically, I never, ever read the Herald until I started driving a cab.
posted by Banky_Edwards at 11:52 AM on April 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


I was amazed at the no-receipt and gas tank silliness.

1) Automate the receipt-giving with a combo cash-counting machine & printer
2) Hire a guy to check the gas of each car after the shift ends.

But I guess all of that would be "expensive". If only Boston was home to, I dunno, some high-tech universities or somesuch.
posted by slater at 11:54 AM on April 4, 2013


And, as is the story with every part of the "free market," consolidation and regulatory capture have made attempts at reigning in this madness toothless, and now mean that every person in the entire chain, from passenger to cabbie to mechanic, gets screwed coming and going. But the owner of Boston Cab Company sure is doing pretty well for himself! He negotiated the highest fare rates in the country (increasing his rental fees accordingly, of course), and now owns 20% of the entire city's cab fleet (each insured for the princely sum of $10,000 in liability coverage!), as well as the service that does inspections on the entire city's fleet of cabs. When a competing service, Uber, emerged last year, he was of course first in line to file a lawsuit accusing them of putting public safety at risk. Meanwhile, a cab ride home from the airport now runs $40, the credit-card machines in the back of the cab just so happen to be broken in 90% of the fleet, and the cabbie and anyone involved in an accident with him are completely at the mercy of a an oligarch who we can't go after without being accused of waging of class warfare.
posted by Mayor West at 12:03 PM on April 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


Meanwhile, up north about an hour, all 18 cabs serving NH's biggest city (yes, it only takes 18) failed their inspections and have been taken off the road.
posted by ChuraChura at 12:09 PM on April 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Hire a guy to check the gas of each car after the shift ends.

I'm not sure how accurate the new cars are, but it was well known that you could gas up a Crown Vic and bang out a couple of small jobs before returning it with a gas gauge that looked full. It wasn't until the next guy got halfway through his first fare that it because obvious the tank wasn't full.

As a rookie driver (for a broker, not the company, and not in Boston proper) my first test was to alternate shifts with a notorious grifter and her coke-fiend boyfriend. The only times she handed over the cab with a full tank were the times she begged me to float her some cash.
posted by Banky_Edwards at 12:17 PM on April 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


One of the nice things about Massachusetts is that we have a ballot initative process that's actually sensible.

We could pass an iniative to eliminate medallions, and allow cities to regulate cabs in every way except limiting the number of cabs running.

I.e. minimum insurance, car models, inspections, licensing, fares, fare meters, all that's fine.

But no medallions. Anyone who buys the right car, insures it, gets a licensed driver, and equips it with the right meter SHALL BE issued a license.

And then this entire fucked up system goes away.
posted by ocschwar at 12:24 PM on April 4, 2013 [5 favorites]


I don't know about "liberal media conspiracies," but I don't know anybody involved in Boston law or politics who doesn't read the Herald.

Of course! The Herald's sports section is better.
posted by Slap*Happy at 12:26 PM on April 4, 2013


A friend of mine (the same one I mention in Cool Papa Bell's Coastie thread, in fact!) was riding in a Boston cab that was in a nasty t-bone accident once. He had the damndest time getting his face fixed, and ISTR there being some *cough* "diffculties" around the cabbie's license.

I used to take cabs home from work in Back Bay between midnight and 2AM, and it was often a thrill ride: those guys were scary drivers and the cabs were in nasty shape.
posted by wenestvedt at 12:39 PM on April 4, 2013


In fairness, the Boston Herald (the "part four" linked above) is what those who think the Globe is part of a liberal media conspiracy read, and they consider themselves to be rivals to the Globe. (I do not believe the Globe notices that they exist)

I noticed today that the Globe has a picture of the sign being dismantled at the former Boston Herald headquarters and the caption refers to the Herald as a "tabloid". So that's a nice little Boston dig.
posted by maryr at 12:42 PM on April 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


I mean, words have connotations, etc., but it is a tabloid. I guess that's the Dogwhistler's Defense, though.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 12:48 PM on April 4, 2013


Can someone explain this to me?
[…] some Boston cabdrivers have questionable pedigrees.

Ahmed Mehalba, for instance. Mehalba was arrested by the FBI at Logan Airport in 2003 after he returned from Egypt with classified US documents he obtained as a civilian translator at the Guantanamo Bay detention center.

A native Egyptian and US citizen whose uncle was an Egyptian military intelligence officer, Mehalba pleaded guilty to illegally possessing the documents and lying to law enforcement. He was sentenced to 20 months in prison.

He is now permitted to pick up taxi fares at the airport where he was arrested.
I don't understand this mentality. Driving a cab is a relatively low responsibility, low wage job. It's a little more dangerous than preparing your food.

Why is this a job unsuitable for a felon? Are the classified documents he obtained going to leap out from his bag and strangle you?

What's the point of releasing people form prison at all if "cab driver" will forever be too much responsibility?
posted by pmv at 12:54 PM on April 4, 2013 [14 favorites]


Of course! The Herald's sports section is better.

I'm really not a sports guy, but one day on commuter rail, having run out of things to read I picked up the outer shell of a Herald that someone had left behind. The outer shell consisted of the sports stuff in the back and a few pages kissing Scott Brown's ass in the front. So I turned to the back and after reading the second sports story I thought "Good lord this is good writing. And I don't even particularly care about the subject." So, yeah, great sports writing, but you have to wash both your hands and your eyes if you read the front pages.
posted by benito.strauss at 12:56 PM on April 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


The outer shell consisted of the sports stuff in the back and a few pages kissing Scott Brown's ass in the front.

Chris Faraone, the writer for the Phoenix, once came to a class of mine and said he loved the Herald as long as he read it from the back to the front. He said the Entertainment editor let the reporters do their own thing to a much greater extent than their counterpart at the Globe did.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 12:59 PM on April 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


In my ignorance, I used to think Uber were the likely bad guys in all those stories that circulated a while back about their business model coming into conflict with existing local rules and regulations regarding taxi services, but I think you've got the right read here, Mayor West. Having learned a little more about the existing state of these regulations in places like Chicago and elsewhere, I think many of them do represent regulatory capture more than reflecting or serving any actual public interest.

I still don't like/agree with framing like that found in the link ericb posted above laying the blame at the feet of "excessive regulation," as I think that plays too easily into the narrative of the knee-jerk "small government" set, and misstates the actual underlying problem, which is poorly designed regulation and/or regulatory capture. And I also think that potential benefits of restructuring or eliminating regulation (like increased price competition) should always be carefully weighed against other considerations. But in this case, it seems the existing rules are designed to protect entrenched business interests to the detriment of the public. That should be remedied.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:00 PM on April 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


Uber calls Boston cab lawsuit 'baseless'.

And, just today ...

Boston Taxi Honchos: Uber Discriminates Against Cancer Patients, Avoids Bad Neighborhoods, And Encourages Scofflaws.
posted by ericb at 1:24 PM on April 4, 2013


It's generally true that people who embrace all things Republican as part of their identity will favor the Herald, while people who embrace hating all things Republican as part of their identity will disfavor the Herald. And you can switch all that around for the Globe. The Herald endorses Republican candidates, the Globe endorses Democrat candidates. Et cetera.

Both papers have employed some excellent writers and some wildly incompetent hacks. Mostly what you can determine from criticism about either paper is the character of the person talking. In any serious conversation around Boston politics, admitting you weren't familiar with a front-page story in either paper would be a faux pas.

This series on Boston cabs was basically a recycling of a similar story done several years back. I don't mean the reporting isn't new, but the story has been covered before.
posted by cribcage at 1:37 PM on April 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm glad I read this story. As a relocated New Yorker, now Boston resident, I feel like my interactions with cabbies are premised on a baseline of mutual frustration and occasional hostility: Why do they give you such shit for a credit card transaction? Why are they too busy talking on their cell phone to listen to directions? Why, oh why, is it impossible to establish a functioning 'When the light is on, the cab is available, when it's dark, it's not' system here? I guess, if I'd thought about it, I would have realized that there had to be structural reasons for this - after all, it's unlikely that every cabbie in Boston happens to be slightly more of an unprofessional jerk than the ones in New York - but I think keeping this story in mind will help me to be a bit more gracious and sympathetic throughout those frustrating interactions than I was before.

To speak to your point, pmv - as a woman who often gets into cabs driven by men late at night, I don't think that a cabbie is a low-responsibility position at all. I trust - maybe more than I should - that someone else has done the background research to ensure that a cabbie isn't likely to rob me or rape me or drive drunk or otherwise harm me. I think a lack of a criminal record should be the least we expect from a cabbie - and that cabbies, in turn, should be paid commensurately to the responsibility we accord them when we place our lives in their hands.

Also, allowing a cabbie to work a 24 hour shift is as irresponsible as allowing a cabbie to drive drunk.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 1:54 PM on April 4, 2013 [6 favorites]


I have to say, though, it does seem pretty irrelevant to passenger safety that a taxi driver has smuggled state secrets.
posted by ambrosen at 2:08 PM on April 4, 2013


This series on Boston cabs was basically a recycling of a similar story done several years back.

I am curious what is new here. I thought most of this stuff was common knowledge.

To me, cab drivers are usually either assholes or angels, with the angels making up like 2%.

I'm a big proponent of public transit, so I only take cabs in emergencies or when forced to by fellow travelers. Most of the time I wished I would have bussed or walked.
posted by mrgrimm at 2:13 PM on April 4, 2013


I've taken cabs and used Uber here in Seattle, and to be honest, I will use Uber top choice. Their drivers are polite and not crazy (one asked me about my preferred music, the others had the radio off when I got in the car), the cars are clean inside and out (barring the usual situation with weather) and in good condition. Only need to have one trip where you can hear things rattling in the seat to make you worry.

And by 'not crazy', I mean that they don't do things to make be hang on for dear life, like go from a center lane on I-5 to the exit, cutting across two lanes. Which has happened with two different cab companies.

The quality of the Uber ride was considerably higher than the regular cabs, and if they can keep it up, no wonder the cab companies are scared.
posted by mephron at 2:22 PM on April 4, 2013


Tabloid refers to the shape of the paper, not its content.

My complaint to Chicago's taxi commission (driver refusing to hang up and drive) received a response; the complaint to Boston's ( driver padding the surcharge from Logan) was ignored.

Given that I've been harassed way too often by cabdrivers, I am a staunch supporter of RightRides.
posted by brujita at 3:29 PM on April 4, 2013


I am curious what is new here. I thought most of this stuff was common knowledge.

I don't know if you read all three parts, and I'm not sure what previous series cribcage is referencing, but what seems unique here is the deep-level focus on the medallion system and how it corrupts the regulators, frustrates the drivers and degrades the overall experience. "It's hard to be a cabbie" and "the taxi system is fubar" are stories I've read, but "here are several examples of specific people who are gaming the system, stealing money from overworked immigrants and putting the public in danger" is a new angle to me.

The problem with the "just kill the medallions" approach is the insane amount of money tied up in them. Sure, no one will shed tears if the owner of Boston Cab takes a bath on the medallions he's been printing money with for years, but there are many, many independent owner/operators, who have taken out huge loans to purchase their medallions and at least take a shot at working for themselves. Looking into unwinding the medallion system, opening up the system (but tightening the regulatory oversight) is a laudable goal, but it's not as easy as one might think.

Of course, when I worked the streets not a day went by without my silent thanks that the majority of my co-workers were incompetent at best, loathsome at worst. My tips were constantly fat, because even on my worst day I looked like a beacon of excellence by comparison.
posted by Banky_Edwards at 4:02 PM on April 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Last time we had a thread like this someone suggested that medallion owners be issued shares in a company that could itself issue medallions. The reason medallion owners don't want new medallions issued is that it would dilute the value of their investment, but doing it this way means that they get compensated by revenue from the sale of new medallions. You'll hit an equilibrium point that serves the medallion owners rather than the population as a whole, but it would still be much better than the existing system.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:23 PM on April 4, 2013


Why is this a job unsuitable for a felon? Are the classified documents he obtained going to leap out from his bag and strangle you?

I once had a Boston cab driver attempt to assault me on a late-night ride. He pulled over on a deserted Cambridge street, got in the back seat, and went after me. Luckily, my spidey sense was triggered when I noticed that his route was insane even by Boston standards, and I had one hand on the door handle and the other on the pepper spray my mom had given me when I told her I was moving to the scary big city. I was able to stun him, get out, and run like hell.

When I called the cab company to complain (I'd actually taken a photo of his license just in case), they told me that it wasn't their problem and that I should call the police, who were equally unhelpful.

Anyway, I live in NYC, which has both medallions and far fewer problems as far as professionalism goes (I seriously never encountered a driver who knew how to get me from Central Square to Brookline). I have many issues with the medallion system, but it does seem that Boston's cab scene is its own special kind of messed up.
posted by snickerdoodle at 4:26 PM on April 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


Public service advisory: please wear your seat belts in cabs. I don't know what it is about a taxi that makes people skip seat belts, but they're cars like any others, they get in accidents, and that plastic barrier will do serious damage to your face and head even in a low-speed bump. I live in Boston and will get out of (and report) a cab with broken seat belts.
posted by swerve at 7:55 PM on April 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


I seriously never encountered a driver who knew how to get me from Central Square to Brookline

I'm not sure anyone knows how to do that, for more than one location in Brookline.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 8:59 AM on April 5, 2013


I seriously never encountered a driver who knew how to get me from Central Square to Brookline

I'm not sure anyone knows how to do that, for more than one location in Brookline.


I was walking taking a walk on Storrow Drive, along the lower edge of Beacon Hill, when a couple pulled over in their car and asked how to get to Coolidge Corner. I started to give them directions, and after specifying the fourth turn I thought "what the hell", and offered to get in the back seat and direct them from there. They were an Irish couple up from New Jersey for the birth of their first grandchild. The directions I had started to give them involved going through Kenmore Square, which turned out to be under heavy construction and even more impossible to navigate than usual.

I think someone could make some money renting out as the Boston street equivalent of a harbor pilot.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:48 AM on April 5, 2013


Oh, FFS, getting to Brookline from Central Square is easy. Far easier than getting there from Storrow! Take the 47 or the CT2 once or twice. Memorize the route. Boom, now you're on Comm Ave or Beacon and Brookline is right there.
posted by maryr at 10:11 AM on April 5, 2013


Yeah, that part of Brookline is right there. Now find something on the other side of Coolidge Corner.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 12:27 PM on April 5, 2013


Why would I want to go there?

That said, I drive to Coolidge Corner, Washington Square, or Cleveland Circle. Then I turn left.

Barring that, I take a wild guess and take Brookline Ave out of Fenway and go past the Riverway. That probably puts me somewhere in Brookline.
posted by maryr at 4:09 PM on April 5, 2013



The problem with the "just kill the medallions" approach is the insane amount of money tied up in them


I'ts A problem. It is not MY problem.

Kill the medallions.
posted by ocschwar at 7:26 PM on April 6, 2013


I drove for Boston Cab back in the mid-80's. At that time, nearly all the drivers were white men (I was one of 4 women who held a Boston hack license that year), mostly from Southie. They were pretty brutal on the subject of immigrants and non-whites (although both of those could be translated as "not from Southie") driving cabs.

Yes, I started out in the hole every morning. Most of the cabs I drove were death traps. The newer, nicer cabs cost more. None of the cabs had working speedometers. We didn't gas up the cabs unless we ran low on a long fare outside of the city. I would total up what I owed, the flat rate and the per mile charge (which varied, depending on how many miles I drove), put the cash and vouchers in the bag and put it in that bin. I'm not remembering any receipts, but don't remember ever being ripped off.

Also never bribed a dispatcher, or saw that happen. What I was told was that if I reliably showed up, I'd get better cabs. That was exactly how it seemed to work.

I wonder if the obvious deterioration has something to do with the immigrant status and/or race of the current crop of drivers? Or did Eddie just get really greedy, figure out he could treat the immigrants worse than the tough guys from Southie, and get rid of the later?
posted by QIbHom at 12:18 PM on April 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


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