Taxi Report Hits Rocky Terrain

With transportation, it's hard to find the middle of the road

A new study on Austin's taxi industry has drawn the ire of cab drivers as well as operators of alternative transit modes.
A new study on Austin's taxi industry has drawn the ire of cab drivers as well as operators of alternative transit modes. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

When Ray Mundy, the director of the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, came to Austin this week to formally present his study of Austin's cab services, he was greeted with the local version of a welcome basket: two lengthy public meetings, a spate of communication with citizens, and a letter from the opposition that called his efforts into question.

Of course, he didn't exactly make it easy on himself. "I'm pretty much biased toward the taxi industry," he said before he landed in (mostly) enemy territory. "I think it's a very vital one." Cab drivers, plus vocal representatives of the largely unregulated pedicab community and the currently illegal low-speed electric vehicle shuttle services (see "Doing the Electric Slide," April 29), say they're the ones being hurt by that bias.

Mundy was invited into the fray in the wake of a heated debate that erupted in 2010 over the pending renewal of two of the franchise agreements that the city of Austin has with its three official taxi firms. "We asked around the country ... 'Who are the top experts?'" says city of Austin Transportation Department Assistant Director Gordon Derr. Mundy was asked to take a broad view of the cab business in Austin. His 113-page report takes a specific look at the operators that service – or, in the case of the electric vehicles, would like to service – the Downtown region and Austin-Bergstrom Inter­na­tional Airport. Generally, Mundy sees the cab business in Austin as a healthy industry, aside from the fact that, as he found in his study, on weekend evenings and during special events "it was next to impossible to obtain taxi service within a reasonable time frame – if at all."

Beyond that perception, Mundy's report includes a number of specific findings which, in Derr's very diplomatic terms, will "get people excited." Take, for example, Mundy's read of the proposal that city officials should set the leasing fees that the cab companies charge their drivers. "Another threat to the service levels and health of the Austin taxi industry is the setting of lease rates by the City of Austin," he writes. "Setting a limit on permit lease rates would take away the taxi franchise company's initiative to generate more business for its taxi drivers because there would be no additional returns for these efforts." (When Mundy arrived at the Urban Transportation Commission Tuesday, he was greeted by roughly 50 interested citizens, including Taxi Drivers Association attorney D'Ann John­son, hacks – who all signed up against the report, no matter the extent of their objection – and a handful of pedicab drivers. No one from the electric cab community showed.)

Driver advocates have argued that high lease rates – Yellow Cab charges their drivers $300 a week – are part of an indentured system that makes it hard for hacks to earn a living wage. Mundy disputes this. In an interview, he said that drivers who don't jump at all calls may not bring as much money home, but that those who "treat it as a first and second job" do quite well.

"The report is what the report is," says Derr. "We hired him to give an opinion. Now we're going to take that into the public realm and get comments on that." And naturally, Mundy's isn't the only opinion simmering on the subject. On July 14, the Taxi Drivers Association of Austin sent a letter to the Austin City Council that did its best to shred Mundy's credibility. "His reports have raised the ire of drivers in San Antonio, Denver, and other cities throughout the country," the letter reads. "While the drivers remain hopeful that he will give the current system a fair review, we feel that it is important to raise concerns about potential conflicts of interest and lack of concern for driver income and working conditions."

The letter cites what it calls a series of "similar policy recommendations" in each of Mundy's previous reports. These include suggestions to reduce the number of taxis that service the airport, reduce the number of franchises and/or companies that serve a region, and adopt regulations that would benefit taxi companies. The letter also questions his sensitivity to driver quality of life issues, citing his suggestion that making waiting stations (as at the airport) too comfortable might encourage drivers to malinger while "contemplating their poor economic conditions."

"It was not a surprising report, considering the other reports we viewed," Texas RioGrande Legal Aide's Johnson said of Mundy's work. "We paid $50,000 of public tax money to get exactly what he's done in other cities." Johnson noted that many of the goals for the study that were laid out in two council resolutions went unaddressed. She also pointed out that Mundy had been hired to produce a similar effort for Austin's Yellow Cab company. Derr acknowledged that the Transportation Department knew about that company study when it hired Mundy.

With Mundy's area appearances still pending, Council Mem­bers Bill Spelman, Chris Riley, and Sheryl Cole weren't quite ready to wade into the discussion. Cole's appointee to the Urban Trans­portation Commission, Chair Dusty Lanier, was waiting to see Mundy in person before he offered a detailed opinion. Still, he had at least one observation: "Some things will make some people light up," he said. "But that doesn't make it wrong."

Despite the hefty background, and the fact that Mundy spends nearly 100 of his 113 pages on gas-powered taxis, some observers suggest that his take on pedicabs and electric shuttles might have the most immediate impact. Here, in a move that promises to make exactly no one happy, Mundy suggests consolidating the pedicab business "into fewer operators" and halting any new driver permits until that feat is somehow accomplished. He also implies that converted pedicabs – the ones with a wheeled platform strapped onto the back of a regular bicycle, trailer-style – are unsafe.

Mundy also deals a blow to the bid by one-time City Council candidate Chris Nielsen to get his fleet of electric vehicles officially sanctioned. In his report, he says the city should "consider a pilot program with a limited number" of the electric vehicles instead of granting Nielsen his permit.

Whether any of this will be included in the city's final rule-making over for-hire transportation is still very much in the air. The report "is one of many inputs we'll be taking," says Derr.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Taxi, cab, transportation, pedicab, electric vehicles

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