Cultural Critique / Pop Culture / The Color Line

But Can I Get a Taxi?

black man taxi

This past Memorial Day weekend, I took a week vacation from work and took the Amtrak to Los Angeles (please believe I took a plane back to New Orleans), and per my normal habit when traveling, I had made plans to rent a car.  But since I wasn’t renting a car from an airport, that made returning the car a bit more cumbersome seeing as how I was flying out of LAX with an 8:55am morning flight.  There was no way I was going to be able to get from NoHo (North Hollywood) where I’d be able to drop the car off Tuesday morning (because they would be closed on both Sunday and Monday of the holiday weekend), and beat it through LA traffic back to LAX.  So my friend was more or like, don’t worry I don’t mind driving, but you can use Lift.

Yes, I really thought it was L-I-F-T.

He sent me the link on my phone for L-Y-F-T, the car sharing service and had automatically coordinated with me to just take Lyft or Uber to the Fly-Over and take the shuttle to LAX.  By this time, in the back of my head I was freaking out.  My modes of transportation that I’m familiar with are 1) automobile 2) public transportation 3) taxi.  So this idea of car sharing was a foreign concept to me.  Living in the South for the better part of the last 12 years has veritably cut me off from rather progressive aspects of millennial culture, car sharing being one of them.

I got there Friday morning and we took his car where we went, but Saturday morning as we prepared for brunch, he was saying because of the bottomless mimosas that he planned on imbibing, that we should take Lyft.  Sure enough, using the credit on my phone, a car showed up in less than five minutes at the house and took us where we needed to go in Studio City. And we spent a whole $8.

GAM140204A021R0.inddFor those reading who are still lost, an epidemic that has whole missed large swaths of the American South is this concept of car sharing.  In the case of Uber, Lyft and a third named Side Car, there is an app (of course there’s an app, there’s always an app these days) that you download and you enter your credit card information–and that’s really about it.  When you want a car service, the map pops up and tells you how many available cars are in your area and how much the rate is at the time.  The rates vary depending on the day, time and more importantly the current demand (leaving the club at two in the morning on Sunday night, the rates were comparable to a cab).  As soon as you confirm the service, the name and face of the driver pop up on your phone as well as what car they are driving.  When the car arrives, you get in, tell them where you’re going and usually arrive there no problems.  A couple of seconds after exiting the car, a message pops up asking you to rate your driver–I gave all mine five stars.

So, you can see how taxi cab drivers are pitching a whole fit right?

Very recently, these car sharing services have met high protests from the taxi drivers in major metropolitan cities in Europe:

For drivers of London’s iconic black taxi cabs, Uber seems to pose an existential threat. Eddie Tresida spent two years studying for “The Knowledge,” the famously difficult test that requires prospective drivers to memorize every street in London before they can drive a black cab.

“Other drivers it takes three, four years. All depends how hard you work at it,” says Tresida. “If you want to be a taxi driver, then do the same as what I’ve done. It’s hard for two years. You go without things. You have to sacrifice things in your life. But if you want to be a taxi driver, this is the best taxi service in the world.”

Twelve-thousand drivers were expected to participate in the London protest. In Berlin, the demonstration was smaller, with only some 1,000 drivers expected. But the sentiment was just as intense.

“These apps don’t offer proper, decent, quality transportation!” says 64-year-old driver Barbara Novak. “Climb into one of those, and you might as well say ‘Mug me!'”

Stateside, municipalities are faced with figuring how to regulate these services, or better yet, if they want to regulate it.  I’ll suspect that they probably will because of potential revenue to the city and also because of historical lobby of the cab industry.  Many of the taxi cab services in these cities here in the United States have been a presence for close to 100 years.  Uber is only four years old–and worth $4 billion.

In all forms, political and cultural, this is the establishment meeting the new kid on the block.  What I also think is interesting is that this is an age old occurrence of the free market versus regulation.  When the railroads, steel and oil barons were forging their empires in the second half of the 19th century, some of the tactics they used today to get ahead would be frowned upon and would result in hefty fines, possibly worthy of jail time, but it was just those common practices that resulted in anti-trust laws and the forming of the Securities & Exchange Commission to regulate practices, policies and standard operating procedures.  Without sounding like an Ayn Rand free market zealot, one of the pros always touted about the free market economy is that it gives the consumer exactly what they want, better yet what they demand.

As in the case here in New Orleans, the city actually issued a cease and desist order to Uber–and Uber has not one car nor one driver present here in the city–based off the lobby of the taxi cab drivers and owners here in the city.  Taxi cab companies nationwide, and I’m sure even overseas in Europe, are subject city ordinances and getting clearance (medallions) from the municipalities to operate.  Case in point, the city passed an ordinance leading up to Super Bowl 2012 that all cabs must be equipped with credit card machines, GPS trackers and no car older than 10 years was allowed to be in service–and the cab drivers pitched a fit!  Most cited that the cost of improving was too steep and actually forced some out of service.

I’m sure you can figure out that I’m siding with Uber and the others.

Uber, Lyft and Side Car provide a very easy service to a whole new generation.  The cheaper cost aside, getting Uber is just easier than hailing or calling a cab be it on a lazy Saturday afternoon going to the beach, or at 2 in the morning leaving the club or lounge with friends.  It also makes sense to this generation.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but United Cabs (the cab company here in New Orleans) does not have an app I can download and track the time until it arrives at my door or the corner I’m standing.  Secondly, I’m of this generation–that means I don’t carry cash.  It seems second nature to pull out my card and swipe–I would think that for cab drivers this would be welcomed seeing as how too often we hear stories of cabbies getting mugged, beaten and killed over a robbery.

Thirdly, there is the safety factor–both the passenger and the drivers are trackable if anything goes bad.  For me, this is what ultimately sold me on this idea.  When I get into the car, if the driver doesn’t match the face on the picture that was sent to me, or the car doesn’t match, automatically I know something is wrong.  Additionally, as a customer, my credit card is on file with the company so they’re automatically going to get their money and don’t have to worry about being stiffed–ever.

Perhaps things have changed a bit, but it’s not exactly the world’s easiest feat to get a cab and be a black man.  I don’t care how nice you dress, some cabs just don’t service certain neighborhoods.  Granted at times, people my age and younger forget some of the latent prejudices that people a fraught with, particularly if we’re out with a mixed group of friends and inhibitions are a bit relaxed–going out and hailing a cab solo could be a bit challenging.  Let’s be clear though, this isn’t something that we left in the 1990s when Danny Glover famously recalled his own experience not being able to get a taxi, this is something that is clear and present in this day and age.  In Washington, DC, local news WUSA, channel 9 reported on this back in 2013:

A WUSA9 undercover investigation documents black passengers waiting longer and being stranded on DC streets by 25% of cabs who passed them by in favor of white customers.

In response to the investigation WUSA9 is creating an online portal,WUSA9 iAlert, allowing passengers to immediately document discriminatory practices on phone videos and authorities to take action.

We tested nearly 100 taxis over three weeks on Saturday nights from 6:00 p.m. until 2:00 a.m. We tracked WUSA9 decoys acting as passengers , and volunteers including people we met on the streets to see who DC cabs would choose DC cabs would refuse.

See the video to watch cab after cab drive right past our black male and female passengers and pickup white passengers we’d located 100 feet up the street.

Out of 53 cabs tested with a white decoy near a black passenger, 13 taxis drove past the black passenger and picked up the white passenger.

Of cabs tested without a decoy, our investigation showed black passengers waiting up to three times longer than their white counterparts.

This is the world we live in these days, it’s not a cash-and-carry world like it used to be, this generation, my generation uses their phones for everything–there’s always an app for that.  I don’t think cabs are suddenly going to disappear overnight, but this is certainly their wake-up call to update for the new and next generation.  They have officially been put on notice.  My hope is that municipalities don’t do like their predecessors and take too long for the laws to catch up with the practices and then the laws are seen as inhibiting consumers rather than serving them.

Again, sounding like a Negro Ayn Rand, I do think this is a place where laissez-faire capitalism is serving the greater good.  Some regulation is needed however.  For instance, the company does need to have insurance on drivers because undoubtedly accidents do and will happen, and bottomline–people are crazy.  But the risk that cabbies say you’re incurring is no more of a risk than getting in the car with a cab driver, or no more of a risk that cab drivers take when picking up a fare.  The world is changing, and when municipalities are voting to keep these car sharing services out, they come off as the old curmudgeon shaking his cane saying to young kids “Get off my lawn!”

On a very personal level, can I get a taxi?  Leaving the places that my black self may want to go that’s not in a populated or diverse neighborhood, can I get a taxi?  Am I going to be able to walk out on the corner and see a taxi?  No, probably not.  It’s easier for me to pull out my phone, ask for Uber or Lyft and be on my way–rather than find a taxi cab phone number, call it, wait for it and then potentially worry about the cab driver not knowing where to go because he may or may not have GPS readily available.

And I won’t have to worry about being discriminated against.

Car sharing isn’t going anywhere, let’s just get used to it being here.

Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL

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3 thoughts on “But Can I Get a Taxi?

  1. Reblogged this on Spinster's Compass and commented:
    Do you use any of these cab/taxi apps during your travels and/or daily life? If so, how would you rate ‘em and why? What do you think of the economic & travel points made by this blog post? And last but not least, if you don’t use any of these apps, would you consider doing so for your future travels and/or daily life?

  2. In a taxi you have, or should have displayed for you, a license with a photo and name, and you are insured. Who do you turn to when the LYFT guy turns out to be a creep? I was a cab driver in Chicago back in the 1970’s and I remember unlicensed ‘jittney’ cabs on the South side picking up fares right in front of me. I think the city put them out of business since then, but the city council did up the number of cab licenses with the stipulation that they must serve all areas of the city. I always love it when the city council writes a joke into a new law.

    • The name and photo of the Lyft/Uber driver pops up in your phone. That if the person didn’t match the face in the phone when I showed up then I would have said something.

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