FINALLY THE STORY CAN BE TOLD
By Fred Anderson
Quick, shortsighted, and arrogant decisions are nothing new in government circles (Michele Bachmann comes to mind). In Minneapolis, taxi drivers, owners, and managers have witnessed a slew of rash policies forced upon them while being denied the chance to seriously discuss them with the implementing officials. The wheelchair-accessible taxi program is such an example.
In 2006 the Minneapolis City Council, during their victory over the taxi industry in lifting the cap on the number of taxis in the city, casually announced that the wheelchair-accessible taxi fleet would be 10% of the existing cabs. Council Member Diane Hofstede, long an outspoken advocate for the disabled, took great pride in this statement and refused to heed claims from cab personnel that the program was economically unfeasible and presented a great financial burden to taxi companies and taxi owners. It was put before the Minneapolis cab community as a fait accompli; a done deal, take it or leave it. The long-suffering cab drivers took it, but in a literal sense that the city did not anticipate.
This is not the first time Minneapolis has had a wheelchair-accessible taxi plan. From 1996 to 2002 Rainbow Taxi took over from Yellow Cab’s Joseph Miller, who was the first wheelchair-accessible taxi owner in Minneapolis. Eventually Rainbow had five full-size conversion vans, two of which were subsidized by the Minneapolis Community Block Grant Program (after all, conversion vans cost two or three times what a normal van costs). In the six years of operation the program only came close to breaking even during one of the years, mostly because the demand for service was inconsistent. In 2002, after requests to the city to forego the vehicle age requirement were denied, Zack Williams, CEO of Rainbow Taxi, was forced to discontinue wheelchair service. He told the City Council the wheelchair-accessible taxi program needed “specialized vehicles and professionally trained drivers.” He was not listened to.
As has happened before with Minneapolis taxi regulation, their plan wasn’t well considered. Minneapolis currently has over 150 wheelchair-accessible cabs, so many mainly because one sop left to owners was that the age waiver was lifted (five years too late for Zack Williams and Rainbow Taxi). After owners added the $1100 worth of mandatory wheelchair equipment, they operated as any other cab would. They did not have to take wheelchair-accessible orders because they knew what the city wouldn’t acknowledge, THEIR DRIVERS WERE NOT STATE CERTIFIED! Our estimate is that there are less than fifty state certified drivers in the city, almost all at the company who provides the vast majority of this service. As you can imagine, this led wheelchair customers to do exactly what they did prior to 2006; call the company that consistently provides the service. And thwarted at every turn to present a workable program, the cab industry kept quiet as to the shortcomings of the Council’s policy.
In 2013 the city finally noticed that in a standard van (Dodge Caravan, Ford Windstar, etc.) a customer in a wheelchair would have to bend his or her head to the side to get in the vehicle up the back ramp, and also would have to bend his or her head once inside the vehicle. While this situation is not beyond repair, it certainly is not proper. The State of Minnesota, as horrified city inspectors discovered, only inspects the equipment for correct installation and overall compliance with the law. During the taxi industry meeting of September 12, 2013 taxi company officials were confronted by very nervous regulators who probably felt betrayed. Some of them were betrayed of course; not by cab drivers but by their own employers. However, Grant Wilson, Manager of Licenses and Consumer Services, is more culpable than other inspectors in that he told all applicants which ramps, etc. to use, not bothering to find out if it would actually work. Waleed Sonbol of Blue & White Taxi summed it up when he told Mr. Wilson at the industry meeting that the Minneapolis Taxi Ordinance only states that these vehicles must be wheelchair-accessible; it doesn’t say anything about transporting a passenger in the wheelchair. I don’t think that was what Grant Wilson wanted to hear, but, it was he who recommended the equipment for the vans and it was he who didn’t notice for seven years that this huge loophole existed.
The nervousness of licensing officials noticeably increased as the meeting wore on. It was at last apparent to them that taxi personnel, for the last seven years, had no incentive to say anything! Taxi experts hadn’t been listened to, and the industry had been herded down a path that was forced upon them, as the lawyers say, without recourse. Furthermore, now that the drawbacks of the program are exposed, is the taxi industry is expected to roll over and meekly follow the new guidelines, including having drivers acquire State of Minnesota Certification and providing vehicles that are physically able to transport wheelchair-accessible customers, all by February 1, 2015?
The answer from the taxi community is “NO!” They want what should have been done in the first place; a professional and thorough study to be followed by an adherence to its findings. Those responsible in Minneapolis city government should know that unless current policy changes there will be a fight. There is no other city in the country with an unsubsidized 10% wheelchair-accessible taxi fleet, and there was zero research done by city officials before instituting this harmful and stupid policy. It is therefore unacceptable to the taxi community, who, in 2006 and after, presented several alternatives directly and indirectly to the Council, all workable and all rejected.
This is about what’s best for Minneapolis. The taxi industry is more than willing to step up and work with a City Council ready to listen to the advice of those who have practical experience with implementing and operating a wheelchair-accessible taxi program.
THE $10 HANDSHAKE
By Fred Anderson
We’ve seen it before - the $10 handshake; when a limo driver pulls up to a downtown hotel, shakes the hand of the doorman (with a ten dollar bill on his palm), and five or ten minutes later loads a customer’s luggage into the trunk. Make no mistake, there is a two-tiered for-hire transportation system in the Twin Cities, particularly in Minneapolis. One major participating group are the owners and drivers of the nearly one thousand taxis in the city. Taxi owners pay nearly $500 per year for vehicle licensing and over $5500 per year in insurance. The other group is limo drivers and owners, who pay no fees to the city, whose insurance rates are approximately half what a taxi owner pays, and who have virtually no fear of consequences.
The taxi customer base can be divided into these categories: 1) customers at events, such as concerts, games, theatrical plays, etc. 2) locals (i.e. people who live and work in the Twin Cities), and 3) travelers. If there are no scheduled events or it is a slow travel period (the days surrounding holidays, for example) the relatively small Minneapolis population can only support so much of the massive Minneapolis taxi fleet. What has happened in the last ten years is that limo drivers have slowly taken away a large portion of the traveling clientele through widespread bribery of hotel front desks and doormen.
In 2006 Minneapolis had 340 licensed cabs, which, coincidentally, is the number national surveys tell us is appropriate for a city our size. Since then the removal of the cap on the number of cabs allowed in the city has caused it to grow to nearly a thousand. Add the two hundred or so limos doing business unimpeded and the result is a theoretical drop in taxi business of over 350%. Add to that the number of hotels who, through their limo-compensated employees, will not put a customer in a cab unless there are no limos available and none expected shortly, and the number zooms to an estimated 500% proportionate drop in taxi income over the last eight years.
Taxis in Minneapolis are supposed to follow the rules set by the city, made much more difficult by the reduction of cabstands from even the 2006 level. Limos are not subject to local government regulation; they are supposedly controlled by the State of Minnesota, and the State does virtually no regulation of limousines. At a meeting with State limo regulators in August 2013, Manager of Licenses and Consumer Services Grant Wilson was told that, “The State does not want to further regulate limos.” In other words, given their past record, there are specific rules limos are supposed to follow but the regulating body has no interest in enforcing them.
In most metropolitan areas we have observed, one governmental entity controls both limos and taxis. Does this guarantee no conflicts between the two ever arise? No. Does it make it easier to resolve conflicts between the two? Decidedly yes. If the situation
was reversed and taxis were unregulated, the whine and outcry from limo drivers would be larger than large. Can city officials really expect that cab drivers will stand by while lack of enforcement destroys their business? With the City Council being revamped by the 2013 election it is perhaps the right time for us to do something.
So what do we do? We have told inspectors and council members in the past that we will not present a problem without presenting a workable solution. Our solution is for the Minneapolis Taxi Ordinance to incorporate, word for word, certain sections of State law. We suggest particularly Minnesota Limousine Regulation Section 8880.0300, which mandates rate charges be more than a taxi, Section 8880.1000, which mandates limo drivers keep track of trip records and “referral records,” the 2013 Minnesota Statutes 221.84, which mandates limos only pick up on a prearranged basis, and 2013 Minnesota Statutes 609.42, which outlines the penalties for bribery. It is thought by some in our profession that the State might welcome help with an area it has had little success regulating. We don’t know that for sure, but we do know that the State of Minnesota does not prohibit local law enforcement from issuing tickets to, or arresting, violators of State law.
The City of Minneapolis extracts nearly a million dollars annually from the thirty-five or so cab companies and the fifteen hundred or so cab drivers it licenses. What we ask in return is a little protection from the single most economically disruptive force we face. Each month thousands of bribe dollars trade hands between hotel personnel and limo drivers, and we know that if you leave a problem alone it doesn’t go away. An unchecked problem will only get larger, and the longer it is left alone the larger it will become. We urge city politicians, licensers and regulators to act before things get so out of hand that it can only be fixed by extreme, and consequently embarrassing, action. We us hope clear heads will prevail, and we continue our efforts to insure that they do.
AN OPEN LETTER TO THE MINNEAPOLIS MAYOR AND CITY COUNCIL
Re: Minneapolis Taxi Regulation
Since 2006 the City of Minneapolis City Council has made several taxi regulations that have adversely affected not only the taxi industry, but worse yet, the taxi-riding public.
The points of contention are:
- By removing the cap on taxi licenses in Minneapolis the city has tripled the number of taxis. There is no other city in the country with less than four hundred thousand residents and one thousand cabs. The only survey we’ve seen outlining how many cabs are appropriate for a city’s population recommended three hundred and forty cabs for a city the size of ours, which, perhaps not-so-coincidentally, is the number of Minneapolis taxis in 2005.
2. Flooding the market has had several undesirable side effects:
a) Minneapolis Department of Business Licensing cannot handle the job of regulating taxis. While the number of taxis has tripled the number of inspectors and staff has not risen significantly, causing the small number of troublemakers amongst all the new drivers to feel they can act with impunity. This hurts not only honest cab drivers but, more importantly, city dwellers and travelers who find themselves not able to trust the driver after they get into a cab.
b) The number of cab stands downtown has decreased during this massive expansion of the city’s taxi fleet, causing some drivers to driver around fruitlessly (90% of the time there are not enough customers off-stand to make this practice worthwhile), while emitting large amounts of auto exhaust into the atmosphere of a city that proclaims itself to be “green.”
c) A significant number of small cab companies have no dispatch system, forcing drivers to rely solely of whatever business can be acquired on the street. Minneapolis is too spread out geographically and demographically for such a practice to be profitable. National surveys seven years ago had taxi drivers taking home approximately $11 per hour. Our estimates are those numbers in our city today are considerably less, with the drivers with no dispatch being on the low end of this financial spectrum.
3. The policy of 10% of city taxis being wheelchair-accessible has unraveled in 2013 primarily because, as the City Council was informed in 2006, to be successful the program requires “trained drivers and specialized vehicles.” By not performing research before initialing the policy the city now has nearly 150 vehicles licensed as wheelchair-accessible that are not ADA compliant, and only a relative few drivers state-certified to operate the equipment.
4. Limo regulation is nonexistent in Minneapolis. Limo drivers spend thousands of dollars each and every month bribing hotel doormen and front desk employees for lucrative fares, essentially stealing them from taxi drivers and owners who pay licensing fees for the right to pick up customers in Minneapolis. Most limo drivers are former taxi drivers, at least a few certainly being formerly among the city’s trouble-causing taxi drivers. The State of Minnesota does virtually no regulation and city inspectors do not even bother to check limousines parked on city streets for extended periods in front of hotels. Our unofficial research reveals there are proportionately as many complaints against limo drivers as there are against cab drivers, but because a limo customer has no known recourse to file a complaint, they go unreported.
5. There are no cabstands at nearly half of downtown hotels, including the thirty-two story “W” Hotel. There are also no stands at the Target Center, the world-famous Guthrie Theater, the Walker Art Center, and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Besides this, we found no other major cities in the country having major lodging establishments and entertainment districts with no set access to taxis.
6. The moves taken by the City of Minneapolis in 2006 hastened the trend of cabs owned by individual owner/operators rather than taxi companies. Yet city law describes a taxi as a “commercial vehicle”, which cannot be legally parked on any Minneapolis street. This is, we believe, an unfair restriction on owners and drivers who live and work in the city. A cab is the same size as almost all other vehicles on the road; why are they singled out?
With the national spotlight about to be centered on Minneapolis in July of 2014, we feel it is in the best interests of the taxi community, taxi customers, and the City of Minneapolis to find ways to address these glaring and potentially embarrassing issues. For our part we promise never to present a problem without outlining a possible solution. We welcome any inquiries by the City of Minneapolis.
DECEMBER 12 2013
By Fred Anderson
The last industry meeting of 2013 provided some entertainment as well as some consternation on both sides. A lot of factual information was presented, some of it anticipated and a smaller amount of it very interesting.
It was announced at the beginning of the meeting that the number of cabs in Minneapolis has risen to nearly one thousand. This means there is one taxi for every 380 persons in the city, man, woman, or child. As we have stated before, there is no major city in the United States of America with this cab/citizen ratio. And as we’ve also stated before, the inspectors know so many cabs is a mistake but they are bound by the terms of their profession to defend the policy, at least in public.
The main focus of the meeting was the wheelchair-accessible taxi fiasco. As you know, in 2006 the City Council set up an unworkable system, which, although it was supposed to help the disabled population get taxi service, did nothing of the sort. Licensing Inspector Pat Hilden informed us that three taxi company leaders, of three of the largest companies in town, met with inspectors in November 2013 to come up with an alternate plan to present to the City Council. Licensing inspector Pat Hilden stated at our meeting more than once that “the pain must be felt by all” who are involved. I pointed out that wheelchair-accessible taxi owners have already felt the “pain” of having to spend $1100 for wheelchair equipment that would never be used. I’m not sure that went over well, but of course it is the truth. Discussion then moved as to how to convince the wheelchair-bound community that whatever is set up will be better. I suggested that having a single phone number to call would be advantageous, as they do in Chicago. Furthermore, we should explain that a system with no phony WC cabs but many more trained drivers and properly equipped vehicles is much more practical and effective. Still, the explanation task remains.
The next topic was the unprofessional behavior of a few taxi owners and a few drivers, particularly when dealing with State Services for the Blind, which issues the Braille cards mandatory in all Minneapolis cabs. Apparently some owners and drivers are taking it out on SSB personnel when they can’t get their Braille cards quickly enough to suit them. Pat Hilden also claimed there were nearly a hundred and fifty 311 taxi complaints from September to December in 2013. I fought the urge to yell, “What did you expect!!” when I heard this. You can’t flood a market in any business without it resulting in a lot of frustration. I suggested making the penalties stiffer for taxi driver and owner offenses, and getting rid of the more recalcitrant ones. But Minneapolis is concerned, arguably too much so, with the rights of individuals, most particularly ones who trample on the rights of others. In this case it is wheelchair customers and the well-behaved taxi drivers and owners who suffer. I don’t know how all of this will work itself out. It’s now a matter of wait and see.
Pat Hilden requested numbers from all taxi companies reflecting the calls each gets for wheelchair-accessible taxis. I told him that most, if not all, companies do not keep track of calls for orders that cannot be fulfilled. For example, at my company we don’t keep track of customers calling to get a bus ride. I suggested he get numbers from non-taxi wheelchair-bound providers such as Metro Mobility. He persisted with his initial request, and finally I told him that where I work the number is probably zero. Other company officials at the meeting nodded their heads silently as if to agree. No doubt he initiated this line of discussion at the behest of one of his bosses, who is apparently in the dark as to how the taxi industry actually works.
The meeting ended with the announcement that taxi inspector Ron Martin has moved on in Licensing and Regulatory Services and is now inspecting houses. This is common in their department, maybe in all departments of city government, I don’t know. It is a real problem in city regulation; often the people doing the regulating have no clue on how the businesses they are assigned to actually work. The taxi business is a complicated and difficult one; it would be more than helpful to work with people who have some operational knowledge. The case of Ron Martin is typical. Too often an inspector is promoted or otherwise reassigned at exactly the point where he begins to understand how to best do the job. This, by the way, is no slam against Ron Martin, who has been one of the best taxi inspectors Minneapolis has ever had. It’s merely one of those things that makes you shake your head.
We have a new City Council, or at least most of them are new. Committee assignments have been announced, and we have a majority of new members on the committee regulating taxis. This is our chance to at least bring these issues before them and before the public. Wish us luck.
IT GOES ON AND ON
- The city of Vancouver B.C. has been ordered by a local court to put a hold on plans to allow “certain suburban taxi companies” to pick up in the city during peak weekend hours, not because it is a bad idea but because the Passenger Transportation Board would not allow alternate proposals by taxi companies to be heard. The court called it a “prima facie failure to hear the other side,” which certainly sounds familiar.
- In Lagos Nigeria a taxi driver was stripped naked by officials of the Abuja Environmental Protection Board for trying to pick up passengers illegally along the airport road to Abuja. The driver resisted and lost his clothes, and when journalists arrived police officers fired their guns in the air, apparently to frighten them. When they were not intimidated the police allegedly drove off.
- On New Years Eve in San Francisco an Uber driver struck three pedestrians, killing one of them, a six-year-old girl. The driver was booked and released on bail later that evening. Uber was quick to point out that the driver was not carrying an Uber passenger at the time. However, the incident will no doubt lay bare the inconvenient truth that insufficient insurance is all too common amongst Uber drivers, which can only lead to problems for the drivers and the unfortunate customers they convey.
- Unlike Uber, rideshare companies Lyft and Sidecar have procured a million dollar policy for their drivers. The only problem is they won’t let anyone see it, including their drivers. One driver, who did somehow get to examine a photo-copy of the policy, says that there were post-its covering the name of the insurance company on the document. Insiders speculate there would be trouble if they run into any sizable governmental scrutiny.
- Nissan is pushing its design for the “cab of the future” to cities such as London England, Barcelona Spain, and Tokyo Japan. The model has been tweaked in the last year or so, although whatever improvements are made will not see the light of day for the near future in New York City, where a district court in 2013 ruled that the city “exceeded its authority” by mandating this Nissan be the only taxi vehicle used in the Big Apple.
TWIN CITIES CHECKERED TRANSPORTATION HISTORY
By Fred Anderson
The mistakes by the Minneapolis City Council in taxi regulation over the last few years are only the historical tip of the iceberg when it comes to transportation policy. There have been decisions made in the more distant past that have been, if it’s possible, even more shameful. It’s time to review, not for the purposes of gloating, but to get a perspective on how corruption can work against the common good and how we might gain insight on how to avoid it in the future.
The Twin Cities from 1875 until 1954 had streetcar service that stretched from Lake Minnetonka in the west to Stillwater in the east, a distance of over forty miles. At its peak there were 524 miles of tracks, and it was said that at that time every person in Minneapolis and St. Paul lived no further than 400 yards (less than a quarter of a mile) from a streetcar line. Thomas Lowry, who has his name on streets and hills in the Mill City, founded the Twin Cities Rapid Transit Company in 1890 after a merger of the Minneapolis line with the St. Paul line. This firm also owned and managed buses, a practice which eventually led to the undoing of the streetcar system.
Streetcar ridership reached its height in 1922 with over 226 million passengers. That, by the way, is nearly three times the number of people who used both trains and buses last year. Depression in the 1930’s and war in the 1940’ss caused the fortunes of TCRT to fall and rise and inevitably fall again after the end of the greatest war in history. Reaching the same point of decision, many other cities made plans to adjust service in the post-WWII era. The advent of mass ownership of automobiles and a movement of many urban dwellers to the suburbs made streetcar systems all over the U.S. face the same dilemma.
Other players soon appeared on the scene. An organization called National City Line (NCL), which was bankrolled by General Motors (a primary manufacturer of buses), Standard Oil, and Firestone, made a nation-wide effort to destroy streetcar systems all over the country. In 1949 here in TC land, Charles Green, a Wall Street investor, wrestled control of TCRT from D.J. Strouse, who had been determined to do whatever necessary to preserve Twin Cities’ streetcars. Green, self-described as “a man always looking for a way to make a fast buck”, thought he could do it again in our metro and was probably discouraged to find overhaul of the system was necessary. He made the decision to dismantle streetcar service, which was cut short by the discovery of his ties to organized crime. Control of TCRT was then assumed by his lawyer, a man named Fred Ossanna.
Ossanna also had connections to criminal elements, a fact not discovered until after streetcars were replaced by buses in 1954. He went to prison for fraud, after it became known he was taking kickbacks from salvage yards anxious to procure the scrap from discarded rails and tracks. But as I said, by that time it was too late.
Twenty years ago an elderly customer of mine told me that as a city council member during those years he saw how corruption reached all the way to Council chambers. Minneapolis is probably no more corrupt than any other city, but in the days before bloggers and electronic media it was seemingly much easier to get away with it. A few other cities resisted the influence of National City Line and modified their streetcar systems to fit the new economic realities. The Twin Cities did not, and for many years afterward had to face the fact that it was the only large metropolitan area in the country without mass transit other than buses. It is my view that this carefully hidden embarrassment was at least partially responsible for the creation of the Metropolitan Council. Although it is denied publicly, the movers and shakers of this community know that we cannot afford to have gangsters make such far-reaching policy decisions because they will always decide for what makes them the most money. Although many people don’t like that the Met Council is appointed and not elected, it is unlikely that with them we would find ourselves in this position again.
Choices made can have serious repercussions down the road. We lost, in streetcars, something that made us unique. It was said that the Twin Cities at one time had the best public transportation in the country. The opportunities we have now are therefore that much more important. We do indeed have to get it right.
A RESTAURANT REVIEW
2112 Hennepin Ave. S.. – Minneapolis
By Andrea Williams
On a cold Monday morning in early 2014 my husband Zack and I had a business meeting with our accountant, booked by our accountant at the Lowry in Uptown Minneapolis. We had no idea what to expect, and I at least was pleasantly surprised.
The Lowry’s menu was obviously based on American food, although the choices were sometimes unusual. For instance, I had a BLT, with turkey bacon instead of pork, and cole slaw that had raisins in it! I didn’t think that combination would work, but both the sandwich and the cole slaw were delicious. Zack had egg, sausage, and toast, which he thought should have been better. It wasn’t bad, but in his mind there was definite room for improvement. Our accountant had a spinach salad with a muffin, which she appeared to thoroughly enjoy.
The Lowry was very busy at ten o’clock that morning and they don’t take reservations, although they would like you to wait in their lobby or bar for what they claim won’t be a long time. Their website is sparse with information about ownership and general philosophy, but at the bottom of the page there was icons for other Twin Cities restaurant websites, including the Longfellow Grill on East Lake Street. I imagine they also own these places, but there was no direct mention of it. So, if true they at least have a local track record.
The Lowry is recommended, especially if you are into trying dishes you may not have tasted before. Prices are comparable to other Uptown restaurants, in the moderate range I suppose. Prepare to wait when you go there; they seem to have a lot of people who like them. If they can be as busy at Monday 10:00 AM as they were the day we were there, it has to be much more crowded during peak times.