"Drivers Are Pissed"

Cabbies lawyer up after code change

Ron Means of Austin Cab Company
Ron Means of Austin Cab Company (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Cab drivers concerned about an addition to the city's ground transportation code have retained a lawyer and called for a revocation, according to a letter delivered to Mayor Steve Adler and City Manager Marc Ott's office on Friday, July 17.

The amendment – part 14 of the updated code – stipulates that all in-service taxi drivers (independent contractors by trade, not employees of the franchises they drive for) must accept service requests from their service provider's dispatch system should dispatch determine them to be the closest taxicab to the specific pickup location. There are certain workarounds for the requirement: Cabbies can notify dispatch in advance that they are on a personal request (i.e., "special") or are waiting for a pickup at the airport, but if they're available, they're expected to accept the ride request. Failing to do so will result in a report filed from the franchise to the city, and a citation for a Class C misdemeanor (punishable by a fine of up to $500 per offense) delivered from the city to the driver. Accumulation of two offenses on a driver's record will result in a 60-day suspension.

The change is part of a massive overhaul to the ground transportation code taking place while the city's contracts with the three cab franchises – Yellow Cab, Austin Cab, and Lone Star Cab – are up for renewal. Drivers will now hold their chauffeur's permits (as opposed to leasing them out from the franchises); franchise permits (the city-governed determination of how many vehicles one franchise may put out on the road) will be distributed based on an as-yet-undetermined set of performance metrics instead of population; and drivers will receive due process reviews for disciplinary actions. The city is also expected to introduce a driver-owned co-op within the next two years, among other, more minute changes.

Most of the changes passed through City Council on June 4 sat well with the city's 700-plus drivers. However, although Part 14 seemed to pass through quietly, and didn't register immediately as a consequential change; on July 1 a former driver for Austin Cab texted the Chronicle: "Drivers are pissed."

Indeed, Friday's letter, delivered by attorney Rain Minns on behalf of three drivers – Geoff Rohde, Joseph Beers, and Ron Carter – illustrates a belief among drivers that the amendment "takes away the independent status of many taxicab drivers, and impacts their ability to earn a living." Drivers have historically been able to determine when, where, and how they drive their cabs – it's the luxury afforded to them as independent contractors. Implementation of the amendment would almost certainly compromise that luxury. Minns also suggests the change would likely "reduce cab drivers' incomes by taking them away from good fares, and taking away from them the ability to choose their fares."

"If they want to track us like that, they should make us employees," said Beers, currently raising money from other drivers in case the revocation request goes unreturned and he, Rohde, and Carter are forced to file a lawsuit. "I spent 16 years developing my business using my cell phone. Now I can't be logged in without being booked in [cabbie-speak for available to accept a dispatched trip]. If I don't accept trips, I'm the bogeyman. You've created a system that forces me to generate my own business, and you're going to use it against me."

Reception to the new policy, set for enactment on Oct. 1, has been mixed among other stakeholders. Yellow Cab President Ed Kargbo said that he supports the measure, saying that the purpose of a taxicab industry is to pick people up and deliver them to their destination as quickly as possible. Ron Means, a former driver who for the past 30 years has run Austin Cab with his mother, brother, and sister, was less supportive. He said that he wasn't consulted when the city took on the issue, and that he thinks it stands in contrast to the ideological reason that people become cab drivers. "It takes away their right to choose," he says. "The cab driver has a choice of where he works, when he works. That's why he drives a cab: to be free. You don't drive a cab because it's a job. It's an adventure. It's not an adventure if I have to [comply with this new policy]."

Means added that the new policy may also conflict with the change that gives drivers the right to due process: "You're going to write tickets for my drivers, expect me to [suspend them], pay an attorney under the new rule to represent us in arbitration, and pay for past pay if I lose – based on some ticket [you] wrote?"

Council Member Ann Kitchen, who chairs the city's Mobility Committee, told the Chronicle on Wednesday that the policy's being reworked as "a combination of customer service and an attempt to address accessibility issues with personal disabilities.

"The city has a responsibility to regulate for public safety and access," she said. "This is an access requirement, for customer service. We came at it from a concern about persons with disabilities having access to taxis. That is the role of the city, to ensure that this happens." She said the Transportation Department is working with the three franchises and the Taxi Drivers Association of Austin to sort out how it can identify the scenarios under which the driver may not be able to make a pickup.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Steve Adler, Marc Ott, Rain Minns, Geoff Rohde, Joseph Beers, Ron Carter, Ed Kargbo, Ron Means, Ann Kitchen, ground transportation code, Taxicab, Yellow Cab, Austin Cab, Lone Star Cab, City Council

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