In Praise of Hacks


The Baltimore City Paper has a nice cover story this week on the unlicensed cab drivers who charge less than ordinary taxis—and are more willing to carry black passengers as well.

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  1. A few months ago I was in an area of DC not frequented by taxis. I asked someone where to find a cab and she directed me to a grocery store parking lot where several guys were talking outside their cars. They are known as “courtesy drivers” and accept “donations” for giving rides. The guy with whom I took a ride told me that he understood perfectly why cab drivers didn’t like the area – lots of robberies and murders of drivers in the neighborhood.

  2. “And it has a reputation as a dangerous practice, for both riders and drivers… over the past decade as many as 13 Baltimoreans have been killed while driving hacks. And since hacking itself is illegal, many lesser crimes that might occur in the process–carjackings, robberies, assaults–likely go unreported.”

    I briefly drove a taxi. In West L.A. and during the day. No way would I do that in Hollywood or points east or south or even in WLA at night.

    The charges of racism against cabbies not picking up blacks falls down when you consider that they probably wouldn’t hesitate to pick up older blacks or, say, Amarosa.

    Once again, liberaltarians cheer those who take greater risks for less money.

  3. I was stationed in the Navy for a time near Ponce, Puerto Rico. They had a taxi system there called publicos, which was guys driving back and forth on the main highway between towns. You flagged them down and then jammed in with as many other people as the guy could cram into the car, and off you went. The fare was 50 cents, which was pretty good considering the Navy base was something like 10 miles from the city.

    The whole system was licensed and I suppose insured. It worked pretty well, and was safe and cheap. The only trouble was they stopped running when the sun went down. After that you were SOL & probably had to walk home.

    I have a little direct experience in the cab business & I’ve concluded that the main thing that gives rise to the gypsy cab phenomenon (and associated problems) is that most of these big cities limit the number of licensed cabs that can run in the city. This creates an artificial scarcity of cabs, which drives up the price and also makes the cab service unreliable, since you often can’t find one when you need one, due to excess demand during peak hours.

    I think that if the cities would just grant as many licenses as people wanted to buy (at a low fee), and required that the cabs be insured, this would let the market take care of supply & demand, as it does in so many industries. I think it would also eliminate most of the dangers involved with the gypsy cabs, such as the lack of insurance, and criminals at the wheel. It works for barbers, I don’t see why it wouldn’t work for the cab business. When you get a haircut you generally don’t have to worry that Jack the Ripper has the clippers.

  4. My friend Greg operates his own illegal car service here in Charlotte. He charges less and makes better money because he doesn’t have to split the fares with a cab company. He relies on word of mouth to generate business primarily from folks who would otherwise be driving drunk because legit cabbies charge more. Cheers to the hacks. Let them work how they want to work. I hate knowing that when I get in a NY cab, at least some of my money is going to the police department. Plus I have to listen to Elmo or the Rockettes tell me to buckle up.

  5. I’ve concluded that the main thing that gives rise to the gypsy cab phenomenon (and associated problems) is that most of these big cities limit the number of licensed cabs that can run in the city.


  6. Douglas Fletcher,

    Hate (and I mean hate) to play normative-conservative devil’s advocate, but your proposal doesn’t account for the natural explosion of taxi cabs on the streets of any city in which the proposal is adopted. An unlicensed, unregulated free-market taxi system will be of enormous appeal to immigrants competing for other labor. Don’t you think that an unbridled profusion of taxis is problematic?

  7. First, I wasn’t talking about unlicensed and unregulated. I’m talking about minimal regulation which will ensure most of the cabs are insured and don’t have criminals at the wheel.

    Second, there won’t be an unbridled profusion of cabs — the ones that know how to make money will stay, and the rest will go out of business. Just like grocery stores. We don’t have too many of those, do we?

    I don’t understand your reference to immigrant labor. If you could try to clarify it for me I might be able to answer you on that question.

  8. Couldn’t you try to google some reasons why, Jen? Things that come to mind: kidnappers (OK, maybe not in the U.S.), people with DUI/accident records, people with “funny” meters, too many taxis at one location (airports, hotels), etc.

  9. The Passenger:

    You have to admit that the Yoyoma one is pretty funny. “Don’t be like me, make sure you have all your belongings before exiting the vehicle.”

  10. I actually don’t think a criminal record should be an automatic disqualifier- violent crime, yes, but I can see real potential in Ken Lay driving a cab…

  11. I do a great deal of business travel and whenver I have a choice between a licensed taxi and an unlicensed taxi I choose to support the unlicensed taxi driver every single time.

    Rates are lower, service is better, and I am not supporting inefficient government regulation.

  12. until you get the $850 fare.

  13. Hmph. In NYC, the gypsy cabs usually charge more than the yellow cabs. And it can be MUCH more on those occasions when the fare magically increases from what the driver told you when you got in the cab and the time you want to get out. I say, screw ’em. I’ll take a *real* cab.

  14. ThePassenger and NYer: the tape-recorded voices have been gone for awhile now, much to most people’s delight. I kind of miss them.

  15. Does anybody know what excuse is used by those who advocate the licensing of taxis? I mean, I understand licensing food vendors, on the theory that unlicensed food makers might not know how to prevent botulism poisoning. (I don’t buy that argument, but at least I understand it.) I understand licensing doctors. But what is taxi licensure supposed to prevent? Was there ever a gang of kidnapping taxi drivers or something?

  16. The problem isn’t the licensing of taxis. It’s the arbitrary ceiling on how many licenses there can be.

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