In the nearly four decades that I have been involved with operating taxicabs, both here in Milwaukee and other cities throughout the country, I’ve discovered that government regulation, while well-intentioned, often results in unintended consequences.
The recent discussions and proposed reforms coming out of the City’s Public Transportation Review Board are a case in point. Among the changes being contemplated is the removal of the limitation on the number of taxicabs that may operate.
Consider the experience of a similar effort in Minneapolis. In 2006, that city eliminated the cap on taxis permitted to operate within city limits. These changes were advocated by the same law firm that is urging Milwaukee to “open the market” and dramatically increase the number of licensed cabs.
The self-proclaimed “Institute for Justice” has filed a lawsuit and is now pitching their case to Milwaukee drivers and policy-makers under the rubric of “economic liberty”, claiming it is fighting for the rights of cab operators to earn a living.
So how have those changes measured up to their promises?
According to a 2012 newspaper analysis, the changes in the Twin Cities have wrought a glut of taxicabs and fostered frustration among cab drivers. Far from an economic boon for drivers, swamping the market with new cabs has caused drivers to sit twice as long waiting for fares. The resulting decrease in income has forced drivers to hang up their keys and find other employment. This same experience has been borne out in other cities which have poured new cabs into a market without regard to demand factors. A study of San Diego taxicabs, for example, showed driver income fell by 30 percent after deregulation.
Those urging a lifting of the cap seem to be seeking a solution without a problem. In the past five years, there have been fewer than 25 complaints filed with the City of Milwaukee regarding taxi service.
Unlike other cities with a majority of “hailed” cabs or high-volume cab stands, Milwaukee taxi drivers rely upon an efficient dispatch operation with computerized call centers and a sufficient number of cabs to provide prompt dispatch service throughout the community, from business and commercial districts to low-density residential areas.
Wide open entry to any one with car to drive will actually result in a deterioration of quality and service and is not the answer to the City’s legitimate desire to improve its taxicab service.
The city can help address supply of cabs at the highest demand times for cabs, such as bar-closing hours, by fostering more staging areas along Water Street and other high traffic areas. How about working with tavern and other business owners to promote this readily available source of transportation?
Milwaukee’s taxicab operators stand ready to cooperate with city officials in enhancing the cab riding experience. We endorse guidelines that address customer service training for drivers and articulate responsibilities of drivers and the rights of passengers with disabilities. Further, the use of technology to enhance the passenger experience is being expanded through the use of GPS to provide faster service and integrating smart-phone electronic hailing through computerized dispatching systems.
I suggest a more collaborative approach that considers the long-term interests of drivers, passengers and the Milwaukee community rather than litigation and imposing heavy-handed city regulations. It will take all interested parties to join in a spirit of good faith to make the riding experience pleasurable and the driving experience more enjoyable and profitable.
Richard ”Red” Christensen is a director at the Wisconsin Association of Taxicab Owners.