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THE CURIOUS MINNEAPLIS TRANSPORTATION POLICY
(This is a commentary sent to the StarTribune on January 19, who requested they be given ten days before it is submitted elsewhere. On January 28 it was sent to the mayor, all city council members, limo regulators at the State of Minnesota, The Pioneer Press, City Pages, Minnpost, Southside Pride, The Uptowner, The Messenger, and any other local or neighborhood publication I could think of. If you ever run into anyone who says they don’t understand what the big deal taxi regulation is in Minneapolis, show them this article.)
Minneapolis leaders have done a great job making our city more livable. Unfortunately regulation of one crucial element of urban life, transportation for hire, has been neglected and mismanaged, hurting the public as much as the transportation industry. Consider:
- We have more cabs than any other non-medallion taxi system in the U.S. except for Washington D.C. Currently Minneapolis has roughly one cab for every 380 citizens. The respected Shaller Report recommends we have about 40% of the cabs currently licensed here.
- There is a system of widespread bribery involving every hotel downtown, where limo drivers pay front desks and doormen for fares to the airport. The “$10 handshake” has been witnessed numerous times and it is obvious the main goal of these hotel employees is self-enrichment rather than customer service. (The State of Minnesota, which ostensibly regulates limousines, has told one Minneapolis licensing official, “We have no interest in further regulating limos”, and the city has ingloriously decided not to interfere.)
- Taxi rates are amongst the highest in the country, pricing many residents out of the market.
- There are no designated taxi areas at any light rail stops and less than half of downtown hotels have a cabstand, including the 32-story “W” Hotel and the comparable Westin. This is astonishing to many travelers, and again nationally puts us number one in a less-than-flattering category.
- Ridesharing services were allowed in very quickly and with no concern about problems they have had and are having in other parts of the world, including sexual assaults by drivers and bad insurance. Before the vote it was said publicly in City Council chambers that they are already operating (illegally, I might add) in Minneapolis so why not let them in, a dubious recommendation at best.
There are other policies the city of Minneapolis has instituted which have been shown to be unworkable and unjustly costly to the transportation industry, and thus to the public:
- In 2006 the city mandated that 10% of Minneapolis cabs had to be wheelchair-accessible. Only one other city in the U.S. had that many and they subsidized it! City taxi owners spent, on licensing officials’ recommendations, over $160,000 on equipment that was not functional. It just didn’t work for transporting wheelchair-bound passengers, a fact not recognized by inspectors until 2013.
- The City Council, by devaluing taxi licenses in 2006, cost cab owners approximately $6,000,000 over the last eight years. The old cab licensing system, set up by a previous council, though flawed at least provided a sense of stability. Changing that policy bankrupted many unsuspecting taxi owner/operators (a license costing more than $20,000 in 2006 was worth $2000 five years later).
- Beside the more than one thousand cabs there are hundreds of limos in the city, illegally operating as taxis, albeit with a hotel-sparked financial advantage. There are also an unknown number of ride-share vehicles and gypsy (unlicensed) cabs, perhaps several hundred more. Incredibly, the city tripled the number of taxis but did not significantly increased enforcement, not good news for riders.
Clearly this transportation policy, if you can call it that, is unworkable if Minneapolis is to become the first-class city its political leaders envision. But these problems, being man-made, can be solved through human intervention; other cities have faced similar situations and come up with workable solutions. For the sake of all concerned our elected officials must find the will to do the right thing, perhaps encouraged by other concerned citizens.
UBER AND LYFT
By Fred Anderson
Many drivers have asked me about the struggle against TNC’s and what the rewritten taxi ordinance will be. We now have some answers, but some of these answers have indicated more questions need to be raised.
The Minneapolis City Council voted 12-1 in favor of allowing Uber and Lyft to operate in the city. According to post-vote off-the-record accounts, the eleven other council members siding with Council Member Frey on his amendment did so at least in part as a courtesy to their colleague. Wow, that’s an astoundingly flimsy reason to pass legislation! There was even an expressed attitude amongst council members of “let’s get this vote over with”, not what we would call a ringing endorsement. For some reason confirming Uber and Lyft’s entry into the city was a foregone conclusion, folks. Their minds were already made up before the process started, and all we could do is watch the predetermined drama unfold. We got some of what we wanted, but politics trumped logic in this case and it is unfortunately typical, given the tenuous relationship the Council often has with the truth.
To recap, here are major issues with TNC ‘s we wish the city had been concerned with:
- They have a history of unaccountability and illegality. Uber’s parent company Google is skilled at manipulating and cajoling local governments throughout the world in order to maintain their secrecy. Many U.S. cities have objected to their ham-handedness, and they have been booted from, as of July 8, 2014, eighteen metropolitan centers in the U.S. and at least one in Europe.
- Council Member Frey, the author of the amendment, made the claim on July 8th that the state is working on a short-term Uber and Lyft exception from commercial insurance rules with, supposedly, the TNC duo acquiring commercial insurance by January 15th, 2015. We doubt it. U & L have never had comparable insurance to taxis anywhere else in the world and it seems unlikely they will submit to it here.
- Uber and Lyft’s method of training drivers and their performance of background checks is unknown and, noting the numerous serious complaints, obviously unsuccessful. We believe that the number of major infractions by TNC drivers is significantly larger per capita than those against licensed cab drivers. Accordingly, it is a public safety issue, plain and simple.
Council Member Frey was noticeably perturbed when, after public testimony on July 8thy, he introducing his amendment with a slash at cab drivers, noting the recent Star-Tribune article about turning down people of color in favor of someone who appeared safer. But please remember, Council Member Frey, we told the Council repeatedly in 2006 that without a doubt a large number of new drivers not making money would be a problem! Also, the Strib didn’t note whether any of the 17 drivers they snared on their sting were unlicensed in Minneapolis or on the way to an order, which would at least partially negating its findings.
Council Members, we did not ask for the moon. We asked for, and have always asked for, a level playing field. If TNCs beat taxis in fair competition, so be it. But allowing an entity with a flawed business plan to operate by special rules forbidden to others doing the same job is, by definition, unfair, and that’s the opposite of what you told us initially. Members of the Council only at first mentioned “a level playing field”, changing it later to “no one is going to be completely happy with this process”. All this makes you, Council Member Frey, in our minds either a purveyor of untruth or someone with a very convenient and selective case of amnesia. You’ve only been in office for a year and you’ve already almost completely lost credibility with the largest city-regulated industry.
What We Won
By Fred Anderson
There are several changes to the taxi ordinance we think are improvements:
First, the wheelchair-accessible taxi policy formulated in 2006 is dead. From here on there will be an “incentive system” for w/c cabs. Companies that don’t comply will pay a surcharge fee, which can be used to train drivers to operate the equipment or to purchase anything new to “better accommodate the needs of disabled passengers.” We don’t know how this approach will work, but after the last eight years we’ve got a pretty good idea of what doesn’t.
Otherwise, there were a lot of seemingly minor items that were changed. Trip sheets will be eliminated, although that may make it more difficult for authorities to track runs. Map books are no longer required. The parking ban for cabs on city streets has been rescinded, as has the requirement that taxi companies have a business office. It will now only take five cabs to form a new company instead of the fifteen it used to be. Cabs will be able to be ten years old instead of the previous five, and security cameras in taxis will soon be mandatory. The outdated statutes on group loading and senior discounts have been taken out, and the onerous Section 341.330, which mandated only certain cabs could have a license to sit on cab stands downtown, was removed. This ill-conceived rule, passed in the mid-nineties, was never enforced, possibly because even the thickest council member or aide could see cab-insurrection if implemented. It was, boys and girls, used as a threat to keep those nasty licensed “hacks” in their place. If you think city government treats us as children now, you should have seen it ten and twenty years ago. Yes, the city has been messing with us for a long time.
Zack Williams of Rainbow Taxi in the local press called the ordinance changes a “victory”, although he further states we are still not operating on a “level playing field.” Some think we could have gotten more, but what we really may have gained from all this is an ally in Council Member Abdi Warsame, who was responsible for the previously mentioned improvements in the taxi ordinance. Although technically a sponsor of the new TNC ordinance, Mr. Warsame, whose ward includes the West Bank, home of a large percentage of the city’s taxi drivers, apparently early in the process started wishing the whole TNC issue would go away. Speculation is that he may have gotten an unsettling early introduction to city politics and its perils. A knowledgeable member of the disabled community we know called the City Council “slippery,” and we tend to agree. But this is the devil we must deal with, and like it or not we will have to be political as well as practical.
OH WHAT A TANGLED WEB…
- In Chicago an Uber driver is arrested for sexually assault of a passenger, the second within a three week period for the ride-sharing behemoth. Maxime Fohounhedo was driving under an account created in his wife’s name. The victim was a bar patron Fohounhedo was called on to pick up and take home. Unfortunately for her, he took her to his home, where the incident allegedly occurred. Uber spokesperson Jennifer Mullin described Uber’s background check system as “far exceed(ing) what’s expected of taxis.” We call this talking out of your ass.
- Speaking of Uber, David Plouffe, former Obama campaign manager, has given his imitation of a jockey jumping on the back of the horse as it crosses the finish line. Said the confused yet enthusiastic Uber exec, “Since we launched uberX in California, drunk driving crashes have decreased by 60 per month for drivers under 30.” Hmm. According to the Huffington Post, “Uber does not (my emphasis) provide evidence… that Uber users and those under thirty are the same population.” Using Uber’s rationale, the emergence of ride-sharing also corresponds to the rise of ISIS, as both happened at roughly the same time. We’re certainly not convinced Uber are terrorists, but I’d say that taxis could make the drunk driving claim more persuasively, being that we have saved thousands more lives than all the ride-sharing interlopers combined.
- Still speaking of Uber, in Madison Wisconsin ride-sharing service Uber is facing up to $42,000 in fines for illegally providing paid rides to customers, among other things. City Council President Chris Schmidt outlines some of the issues, familiar to those following the story nationally, as “lack of insurance, 24 hour service, handicap accessibility, and the practice of surge pricing.” Uber spokesperson Lauren Altmin painted a smiley-face on the disaster by claiming, “We look forward to working collaboratively with the city to develop a progressive regulatory framework.” However, a passion for corporate secrecy and an unwillingness to follow the same rules as others providing the same service are not generally considered progressive characteristics.
(Sources; Huffington Post, Madison Capitol Times)
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. And 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 such a position again.
Choices made can have serious repercussions down the road. We lost, in streetcars, something that made us unique. Not only that, it was a crucial element; the Twin Cities at one time had the best public transportation in the country. Removal of the streetcar system ended any chance of that continuing. The transportation decisions we make today are therefore more important for the future of our city than most of us realize. We have to get it right.
A RESTAURANT REVIEW
4201 Nicollet - Minneapolis
By Fred Anderson
Another visit from a long ago rock & roll colleague prompted a lunchtime meeting at a local bistro, this time Curran’s, a “family restaurant” in south Minneapolis. It wasn’t a bad choice.
One of the first things you notice at Curran’s is the size of the menu. It is huge! This is not always a positive thing because it may indicate a lack of specialty dishes. I don’t know details of their business plan but my guess is that they primarily cater to their diverse clientele. I had torsk, which I liked, and my friend had a breaded walleye filet, which he liked. I thought I had eaten a similar meal many times at Perkins or Denny’s, although it may have been a bit better than that. It was good, just not spectacular.
Curran’s is recommended, just be aware that it is what it is - an inexpensive restaurant with decent food. They are not trying to wow anyone at Curran’s. They just do what they have been doing for over fifty years, and their customers seem to like it. In other words, they are not trying to impress you with anything except their competence and consistency. It’s worked for them for over half a century.