On Matters Relative to Industry Operation

Public Trust

For some 3 1/2 years, I have been harvesting news stories about the taxi/limousine industry. Within these are a relentless, unacceptable array of Terrible Taxi Stories. The news media - newspapers, radio, TV, magazines, etc., are full of such stories that make me cringe every time I see one. Each is yet another nail in our collective coffin.

The is no question that media, in its ravenous hunger for printable stories and quotable quotes, makes a major contribution to the erosion of the publics' trust in the taxicab industry. However, their hunger is in fact relentlessly satisfied by real events and incidents that do continue to happen. No city or region is exempt from this phenomenon.

The public trust in the taxicab industry is undeniably the single most important issue before industry leaders. Without it, the slide into self-destruction continues. Rightly or wrongly, this incident in San Francisco has done irreparable harm to the industry's image and status, and companion public trust.

In an earlier message I posed a question about just what are industry leaders doing to rebuild and sustain public trust. From within 200+ participants, only a single positive, constructive response emerged. I do not believe this is a result of disinterest, but rather a widespread profound feeling of powerlessness.

In the early 70's, the industry underwent major fundamental changes inflicting a wholesale upside down turnaround of industry economics, out of which emerged the leasing/independent contractor environment.

As a consequence, industry leaders have been forced into a position where they generally can no longer impose discipline, penalties and/or rewards for unacceptable or meritorius behaviour, for fear of incurring the wrath of the IRS. So who's in charge?

As independent contractors, drivers are individual persons with little uniform stabilizing influence, or power to influence positive changes. In their eyes, there is little that can be done globally to enhance and nourish public trust. They justifiably feel very much at the mercy of a set of circumstances over which they have little control.

Regulators are very much aware that many of the problems eroding public trust had their origin with decisions made in good faith by their regulatory ancestors. Unfortunately, many of these decisions have been exploited and exacerbated by imprudent short term industry response, with little regard for the industry's future long term health.

All elements of this unique industry must share a portion of the burden of responsibility for what we now have today. There will be some who disagree with me, but the inescapable truth is that the industry's image and status is in tatters, public trust has been sharply eroded.

The day-by-day evidence is in the relentless Terrible Taxi Stories in all media, and equally relentless biting satire heaped upon the industry by the likes of Mark Russell, Bill Mahr, Howard Stern, et al.

A week ago, I asked a critical question - What are we doing collectively to earn the public trust so important to industry survival? How is our appreciation of the importance of this trust reflected in the service each and every driver provides to each and every customer in each and every city throughout the world? How is this "trust" reflected in our training programs? What is or is not being done to earn, nourish and protect our duty and obligation to the public trust?

From an InterNet discussion 27 May 1999

Public Trust

Today's collection of news stories focuses critical attention on the fragility and importance of the "trust" every taxi driver is bound to uphold. That trust is absolutely sacred, something to be vigorously protected. Regretably it is also very fragile, easily destroyed, and once destroyed, incredibly difficult to rebuild.

We are once again seeing the power of the press to shape public opinion. This tragic incident has hit the wire services, has so far appeared numerous times in virtually every newspaper up and down the west coast of the USA. It is almost certain to appear in a wave of Terrible Taxi Stories across the nation. Every taxi driver in the region must be hurting right now, the focus of widespread public suspicion and apprehension.

In Washington, DC, a taxi driver was murdered last night, yet this tragedy received scant attention in the local newspapers. Quite opposite to the media frenzy we are seeing on the west coast. Up in Boston, the media appears sympathetic to the hazards and plight of taxi drivers, with numerous stories extolling the dangers of the job. One wonders if this sympathy will evaporate when the west coast incident hits the Boston newspapers.

All taxi drivers carry an implicit public trust of profound importance. The public knows and expects it. The newspapers know it and are real quick to exploit its fracture, perceived or real. Such exposure inflicts mammoth long lasting damage to our image and status, reinforcing the critical importance of nourishing and safeguarding that trust.

What are we doing collectively to earn the public trust so important to industry survival? How is our appreciation of the importance of this trust reflected in the service each and every driver provides to each and every customer in each and every city throughout the world? How is this "trust" reflected in our training programs? What is or is not being done to earn, nourish and protect our duty and obligation to the public trust?

From an InterNet discussion 23 May 1999, relative to the death in San Francisco of Julie Day, followed by the arrest of a taxi driver charged with her murder.


by Terry Smythe

Regrettably, some taxicab companies have allowed their service levels to degrade over time. The result is that they now find their user base shrinking to the absolute minimum "users of necessity". The process is slow, insidious, tending not to be noticed as these companies show a marked reluctance to see themselves through the eyes of their lost customers.

The blame for their misfortunes is often focused on a number of perceived "intruders" such as a second family car, subsidized public transit, stretch van "buses" behaving as taxicabs, U- Drives, corporate fleet vehicles, hotel vans, etc, etc, ad nauseum. The critical issue often overlooked is that these competitive services have not been the "cause" of their misfortunes, but rather the "effect" of their own inattention to service levels.

All too often, taxicab company management will hold themselves blameless claiming their service levels are just fine, thank you. "Let the record show that we routinely respond to requests within x minutes, well within our service standard." Unfortunately, response time is not the true measure of service, which also embraces vehicle quality, cleanliness, comfort and features; driver appearance, conduct, grooming, knowledge, honesty, and attitude; corporate image, status, and services; dispatch efficiency, responsiveness, and responsibility; and a whole host of other relevant factors.

The world is full of entrepreneurs constantly seeking out opportunities to provide a better service or a better product, so as to improve their competitive position and enlarge their share of a particular market segment. Such is the way of democracy and competition. The taxicab industry, even though regulated, is no different in its vulnerability to the onslaught of natural competitive forces.

It is precisely because it is regulated that the taxi industry has no option but to be vigilant in sustaining and continuously enhancing their service levels. For if they fail to do so, they will surely fall victim to external competitive forces that are not regulated.

Contrary to industry opinion, regulation is not there to guarantee success and survival. It only guarantees that the public interest will be protected. The industry has responsibility to take its service levels seriously, and they would be well advised to heed the advice offered by Stanley Brown, a Director in the consulting firm of Laventhol & Horwath.

Sponsored by five major Canadian firms and by the Faculty of Management of the University of Toronto, Brown recently surveyed 1000 companies and wrote a book, "Creating the Service Culture: Strategies for Canadian Business", due imminently from Prentice- Hall. Copies of the research report itself can be obtained from L&H for $25 by faxing them at (416) 977-3538. The report is called "I.D.E.A.: The Status of Innovation and Service Excellence in Canada."

According to Brown, the consequences of service neglect can be devastating, causing a 20% drop in profits, a 10% decline in sales, and an annual 2% loss of market share. The nourishment of a "service culture" is generally poorly handled, as less than 60% p73 of the firms surveyed allocated a budget for training in service excellence.

Brown believes their are 5 key "pillars" that must be in place to nourish a service culture:

  1. Research into employee needs and beliefs, customer needs and competitive positioning.

  2. Management must accept responsibility for developing a service strategy.

  3. Service standards must be established that meet or exceed expectations of customers.

  4. The service concept must be communicated to employees and customers.

  5. Quality service must be encouraged and rewarded.

So what has all this to do with the taxi industry, and our job as regulators? While it is true that our first responsibility is to protect the public interest, it is prudent and appropriate that we take some appropriate action to help, if not direct, the taxi industry to adopt an attitude of service excellence. If the industry will not willingly embrace this attainable goal, then we should do what is necessary to provoke and sustain an environment in which it can emerge and thrive.

As published in The REGULATOR, May/Jun 1990.

Smoking in cabs

Recent out-of-court settlements with the tobacco industry has finally confirmed for the world to see that smoking does indeed kill people. So where's the argument in favour of continuing to kill people, including taxi drivers?

Interesting to note that all hospitals in Winnipeg have been declared to be 'non-smoking' premises. That means absolutely no smoking anywhere within hospital premises. Yet in spite of everyone knowing that smoking kills, what do we see out in front of every entrance to the hospital? Patients and staff, puffing their brains out..... :-(

My wife works at the Health Sciences Centre as an EKG Specialist. Every day I take her to work and drop her off at one of the main entrances, she has to wade through a carpet of butts on the sidewalk out front and the most gawd-awful stench.

We've even seen patients out there in the dead of winter in their pyjamas and paper slippers sneaking a puff, some bringing their IV poles along with them, and some even lifting their oxygen mask up onto top of their head so they can sneak a puff. Hate to think what could happen to a cigarette in an oxygen rich environment.

Tobacco kills. No argument. Proven. No different than with guns, just slower.

From an InterNet discussion 6 July 1997

Vehicle Age vs Condition

I've been following this most interesting discussion about vehicle age vs condition. In London, England, there is no arbitary age at which a vehicle is removed from service as a taxi. The folks at LTI perceive, from their viewpoint, a London Cab's life cycle is 12-13 years. That does not mean it has been removed from service as a taxi. It just means that its cascading ownership has disappeared from view at that point, and most likely is still in service for far more years.

The previous London Taxi, known as the Fairway, was manufactured for 39 years continuously, with continous evolutionary changes and improvements throughout the manufacturing life cycle. Unlike the US taxi industry, which basically now relies on used 4-door family sedans as their vehicle of choice, the purpose-built London Taxi is the vehicle of choice here from a number of viewpoints, foremost is durability. The standard US 4-door family sedan was never intended to stand up to the punishment of police and subsequently taxi use.

A majority of London taxi drivers, as they emerge victorious from The Knowledge, purchase an older London Taxi, and as they mature, eventually migrate into purchase of a new one. Driver-owned Fairway's dominate, and of course, LTI would be very happy to continue this dominance.

Hardly a moment goes by without seeing the familiar image of a London Taxi on the streets here. They are everywhere, have become a sacred heritage. Even Harrod's, the department store for the rich and famous, include a miniature of the Fairway within their collection of "Traditional London Sights" to take home. Tradition and heritage have become powerful forces here to sustain the presence of this vehicle of choice for generations to come.

This provides a strong inducement for anyone buying a taxi, to make sure it is a Fairway, or its new improved offspring - the TX1. Drivers want it, the travelling public expects it. No contest.

This environment is quite different from that of North America where there is no heritage reaching back into antiquity. There is no hard legislated requirement for purpose built cabs to be purchased. ADA is intended to inspire and encourage such vehicles, but has not yet imposed mandatory accessibility by the year 200x.

As a consequence, the proliferation of single-vehicle independent owner-operators who are basically free to acquire whatever vehicle they wish, have little outside influences shaping their choice of vehicles. Fleet operators do tend to try to standardize on a specific type of vehicle, principally to facilitate ease of maintence.

Faced with this situation, budget bound regulatory authorities have great difficulty in acquiring the resources needed to conduct thorough vehicle inspections. Without these resources, they fundamentally have no option but to fall back on an age restriction as the only alternative available to them to minimize the presence of unsafe vehicles on the road.

This is not a cop-out. It is simply a logical reaction to their situation. Having once been a regulator, I can truthfully say that the vast majority of regulatory authorities would like nothing better than to have a team of qualified vehicle inspectors on staff with proper facilities. The source of the budget is tax dollars. The senior decision makers have rarely been given cause to think positively and benevolently upon the taxi industry, and have no difficulty with unilateral arbitary budget cuts. Ergo, an age restriction emerges as if by magic.

In London, England, the Public Carriage Office (PCO) is a unit within the London Metropolitan Police. They do have a staff of trained vehicle inspectors and I will be visiting their facilities in a day or two and will report back. London does not have an age limit. All taxicabs are required to be inspected frequently. Condition is the rule, not age.

I find myself with mixed emotions. Conceptually, I favour the London approach on condition. Unfortunately, North America simply does not have the same heritage, public expectation, and industry organizational structure environment.

With large numbers of single-vehicle owner operators free to acquire a replacement vehicle of personal choice, cost, not regulations, is their critical decision criteria. There simply is no purpose built taxi in North America to compare to the durability, functionality, public acceptance, recognition and requirement of the London Taxi.

So while I support and favour the concept of condition, I must recognize the North American environment simply and typically does not have the regulatory infrastructure in place to support it, ergo - age rules as a function of reality, not preference. Please don't accuse the regulators of copping out. They do care, but have little option but to impose age restrictions, albeit through gritted teeth against their privately held wishes.

From an InterNet discussion October 1997

Who's In Charge?

There was a court case here in Winnipeg a while back where an IC driver dropped and destroyed a customer's personal property while loading it into the trunk of his taxi. Interesting resolution was reached in minutes as the case came before the judge.

The plaintiff (the customer) was trying to recover the cost of replacing the destroyed costly appliance. The defendent (the IC driver) claimed he was not responsible because he was operating as ABC Taxi Co. and they should be liable. Co-Defendent ABC Taxi Co. argued that the driver was an IC and therefore solely responsible for the damage.

The magistrate asked the Plaintiff:

"What telephone number did you call to get a taxi?

(Answer - telephone number of ABC Taxi Company)

"What company name was on the door of the taxicab that arrived in response to your call?"

(answer - ABC Taxi Co.)

Magistrate then deliberated a few seconds and responded:

"I find that when the Plaintiff entered the taxi, she entered into a contract with ABC Taxi Co. ABC Taxi Co. is responsible and will reimburse the Plaintiff for the cost of the appliance and all legal and court costs." "Next case please."

The case was not appealed.

So who's in charge?

I do not disagree there are tax laws in place out of which emerged the IC, but are these laws fair and just? Are they good for the industry? If not, what needs to be done to restore responsibility where it belongs?

From an InterNet Discussion 5 July 1997

Is it time for change?

It has been said that, "It's too easy to make runs off the meter", an issue of great concern to regulatory authorities at all levels of government, and in particular to an owner engaging a driver on a percentage meter split.

In our contemporary world of leading edge technology, it is possible to integrate metered revenue, contract off-meter revenue, and vehicle mileage, and develop driver profiles automatically. As a database is accumulated, an eventual 'typical' profile would emerge which might be automatically compared to day by day performance of paid miles vs unpaid miles for each driver, providing an opportunity for a fireside chat and attitude adjustment.

This a realistic consideration, but may by some to be inconsistent with the IC concept. Nevertheless, good records are fundamentally critical to all businesses, large or small. Most regulatory agencies require at very least a trip sheet logging all runs against vehicle odometer. I'm very much aware that such records are often ignored, but if this industry is ever to restore its once proud heritage, it must begin somewhere. Good records are a good start.

From an InterNet discussion 27 July 1997

Changing Our Image

It has been said that it will take a concerted effort on the part of everyone... drivers, owners, dispatch services, and regulatory bodies to always present themselves as competent professionals,

It is basically a "team" effort, highly desireable, wonderful if achieved, yet elusive. Can the "team" ever be assembled and pull together in an environment characterized by highly atomized independence, maintained by extraordinary measures to prove with absolute legal clarity that the "team" does not and cannot exist. Care and control tends to be widely set aside in recognition of tax laws that no longer favor the ideals of customer service once held sacred.

Can we ever hope to see regulatory courage and industry cooperation pulling together in a team effort to achieve a return to historical pre-eminance? This must be seen by all as an absolute imperative requirement.

From an InterNet discussion 28 April 1997

The perfect taxi - What features?

Within the array of suggestions for the ultimate taxicab, I have yet to note anything relative to cold weather reliability. Not all taxicabs run continuously, and in our brutally cold climate here in Winnipeg, a taxi parked overnight gets so cold-soaked that many of its components do not work reliably for several hours after morning startup - meters, radios, gps transmitters, etc.

We say with a smile that Winnipeg enjoys 10 months of Winter and 2 months of poor sledding. This past winter is not far off that humorous perception, and we can except more of the same in winters to come. This past winter, just beginning to give up through gritted teeth, has been incredibly brutal with records set on most consecutive days below 30 below, most snow, most crushed roofs, et al.

Such cold weather takes its toll on any vehicle, not just taxicabs. But taxis are public service vehicles, not private passenger cars. Unfortunately, vast majority of taxicabs are exactly that - former private passenger cars.

As the design of the ultimate taxi (a Hummvee ?) begins to evolve, I wonder if the designers and builders would consider bringing their prototypes in for cold weather testing. I would be delighted to participate in such an exercise. If such vehicles can survive and keep running here, hopefully they will also run in the incredible heat of Las Vegas and other similar hot spots.

From an InterNet discussion 23 February 1997

New Business

The pervasive regulatory environment characterized by the imposition of a licence quota has the effect of suppressing aggressive marketing. I have noted that in many cities, the industry tends to be oriented to waiting for the phone to ring, rather than market their service to expand the market. "Why bother generating more business than we can handle, we can't get any more licences..."

And so it goes. Imposed quotas tend to suppress marketing. Unfortunately, in the absence of marketing, apathy sets in and alarm only emerges upon realization that the competition out there has not gone to sleep, and has found ways to chip away at fringe market opportunities like Kiddie Kab, parcel delivery, courier, tour buses, hotel courtesy vans, seniors handi-transit, accessible transportation, etc.

From an InterNet discussion 18 November 1997

Taxicab Colors

In Winnipeg, prior to the 1971 breakup of the local industry from 8 corporately owned and structured taxicab companies, down into independent owner-operators, the fleets each had unique identifiable color schemes. Since then, as replacement vehicles are acquired, they go straight into service in whatever color they happen to be.

About 6 years ago, the then General Manager of the major company tried hard to encourage his shareholders to standardize on white. A few did so, but most did not, and eventually the initiative dissolved and evaporated.

The two major local companies are essentially dispatch companies owned by their own independent owner-operator shareholders. The individual shareholders are free to leave or paint their cars in any color they wish. One has painted his car yellow, very similar to the New York Yellow Cab. It looks quite sharp and instantly recognizable on the street.

The individual shareholders are also free to acquire whatever kind of car they wish. Most frequent vehicles are Chev Caprice, Crown Vics, Lincolns, and a few Cadillacs. Diplomats are fading out. There are no age restrictions, but government inspections are rigorous resulting in few older vehicles in service.

In 1971, when the 2 major dispatch services emerged out of the ashes of the 8 old taxicab companies, they coincidentally designed door logos that bear a strong visual resemblance to one another at a distance.

One of them attempted to come up with something different by using their name in Olde Englishe gold font, which looked good only in high contrast with the vehicle color, during daylight hours. On some vehicle colors, the gold Olde Englishe simply vanishes at a distance, particularly after dark.

A local company has come up with a roof top advertising device, in a triangular shape, 3-sided advertising panels, and boxy in appearance. The roof top light is mounted on top of this structure, straddling the pointy end of the triangle at the leading edge. Looks very much like an afterthought. As each independent owner-operator is free to do with his car as he wishes, not all cars have this roof top advertising.

So what we now have are 2 major fleets with no consistent image, no identifiable color scheme, somewhat similar door logos, a mix of vehicle types, and some with roof top advertising. On a crowded street, it is sometimes difficult to spot which vehicles are cabs, particularly after dark even with roof lights.

Some years ago, a local advertiser tried to introduce rear window advertising, using a form of see-thru screening. It failed to gain approval by the police department, and by non-owner drivers. Both were uneasy about the inability of the outside world to see into a taxicab from the outside. A driver in peril might go unnoticed.

I favor identifiable fleet color schemes for customer selection, owner/driver pride, street hails, and consistency of image and status.

From an InterNet discussion 22 October 1997

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