Cowboys of the cab industry get their comeuppance

One thing I learned about the taxi industry, after 15 years driving for it, is that it is unburdened by either self-awareness or shame. Take, for example, the Taxi Council of Queensland’s recent claim that Uber – the ride-share app that’s happily eating its lunch – is a potential haven for sexual predators which the industry rejects.

Pardon? My observation is that it’s next to impossible to get rejected by the taxi industry, at least in my home state of Queensland. Drivers are like gold; keeping bums behind the wheel is all that counts as the cab cartel – once as convinced as Kodak that the digital thing would never catch on – faces up to its own mortality.

It’s not as if the mainstream industry doesn’t have its own safety issues. Just punch “taxi sexual assault” into any search engine. In Victoria, the Institute of Forensic Medicine identified 25 cases over a three-year period. Most of the victims were heavily intoxicated. Two were intellectually disabled.

I have lost count of the number of my female friends who won’t have anything to do with taxis after being scared off by drivers who (a) suggested there might be other ways of paying their fare, or (b) who loitered around their front doors with intent, or (c) upbraided them for being out alone without their husbands.

But the industry is behaving like a spurned lover in need of an intervention order with its illegal/unsafe/uninsured campaigns against ride sharing. Uber has a multitude of issues that are the subject of a separate piece, but what cabbies really can’t cope with is that the public doesn’t believe a thing they say anymore.

Not surprisingly, they’re voting with their wallets, not that they need them in Uber’s cashless transaction model – an obvious winner for safety-conscious drivers, too, who would quite happily do their jobs without collecting the kind of cold hard cash that make them sitting ducks with anyone with a penchant for violence and easy money.

Two weeks before I gave away the game for good a couple of months ago, I read a scathing piece by Wendy Squires giving the one-finger salute to taxis. I checked off each of her points one by one as she reeled off all the ways the industry had treated her, both as a customer and as a woman, like shit on a shoe.

That article should be pinned prominently in every head office of every cab company in Australia and beyond as a laundry list of what the industry needs to change if it’s to step up to the plate of good customer service in the 21st century. It won’t be, because the industry won’t admit it has a problem. And because change is all too hard.

For me, the writing was on the wall for months. The signs were bad even before Christmas, but after the traditionally slow January, it never quite recovered. The return of university students in late February saw little improvement. By the time exams rolled around, I was struggling to take home $100 from a 12-hour night shift.

Seriously, why would any self-respecting student with a smart phone want to take a taxi today? Young people have adopted the new technology (as young people will) because they know a better product when they see it, and they know when they’re getting stiffed.

The only friends the taxi industry has left are the state governments that – after handing out the licences valued more like mortgages – have tried and mostly failed to protect their monopolies, and the businesses that hand out Cabcharge dockets to their employees.

Ah yes, Cabcharge, that racket that still gouges you 10 percent in Queensland (it’s been lowered to five percent in Victoria and New South Wales) for the privilege of using your credit or debit card every time you pay up. They got a “Shonky” award from Consumer magazine Choice for that one back in 2012.

That’s 10 percent of the saving a consumer like Squires makes every time she decides to catch an Uber car, bugger whatever the industry says about safety. As she rightly calculates, she has the driver’s name, photo ID, car model, registration, rating and phone number.

Most sane people would regard that as a safer option than falling into a cab dead drunk in the middle of the night and trying to remember the number of the vehicle. Cameras aren’t a great deal of assistance if you have little recollection of what’s happened to you, much less who took you home. They can be disabled easily anyway.

The cab industry is also a victim of its own business model. Like Uber, its drivers are not considered employees (despite wearing a uniform, driving marked cars and signing up to loosely enforced company policies) but independent contractors, paid a percentage of each fare.

The cab industry is mostly populated by cowboys and Indians. The cowboys own the vast majority of the licenses and have the ears of the relevant ministers. The Indians mostly just drive. There are no retainers for the excruciating hours worked; no benefits like sick pay or annual leave. It is, frankly, an industry built on exploitation: a workforce poorly trained and badly remunerated, governed by a body with no will to clean up its act and no disincentive to cut corners.

First published in The Guardian, 14 August 2015

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