Tagged: Taxi industry

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

Fare game

It’s valued at around $60 billion. It operates, at last count, in 45 countries and over 200 cities worldwide. It’s gone to war with powerful taxi cartels, and the governments who protect them. Named tech company of the year by USA Today in 2013, it has just been given an “F” rating by the century-old Better Business Bureau, the American non-profit consumer protection organisation. Its CEO, a 38-year-old enfant terrible called Travis Kalanick, has wondered aloud whether he should have called it “Boober” – a reference to the pulling power, he claims, it gives him with the opposite sex.

Uber – the ride-sharing application which connects commuters with drivers of private vehicles for hire – is everywhere. After launching in San Francisco in 2010, its ascent has been vertiginous. Its runaway success is the product of a perfect technological storm: the ubiquity of smartphones, GPS technology, and peer-rated social media. It’s also undercut and exposed traditional taxi industries with mostly lower prices for passengers, and seemingly generous deals for its drivers.

Uber arrived in Brisbane in April this year, after roll-outs in Sydney and Melbourne beginning in late 2012. Its establishment in Australia has mirrored its trajectory overseas: it has been embraced by the public, in the face of howls of rage from the taxi lobby, which has leaned heavily on governments to crush the new kid on the block, citing concerns over safety, insurance, privacy, and the legality of allowing private cars to operate as taxi services.

The Queensland government issued a cease-and-desist order against Uber on 21 May. Since then, 62 drivers have been levied with fines totalling more than $170,000 – for driving without the correct authorisation, and for providing a taxi service without the required licence – and Uber is paying them. “The drivers on the Uber platform are our most important partners, I want to stress that,” says Queensland manager Mike Abbott. “I can assure you we are supporting our drivers 100 percent.”

It’s typical of a company that relies on a crash-through approach, rather than compromise, for its success. While Uber claims to be working constructively with the government to find a solution, for now it’s perfectly content to exist in the black economy: untaxed, unregulated and seemingly unstoppable.

IF you’ve never caught an Uber car, here’s how it works. First, you download the app to your phone. You enter your personal information, including your credit card details and phone number, and set your pickup location. You then request a vehicle. At the bottom of your phone’s screen, it will tell you who’s on the way – the driver’s name, photo ID and phone number, the car’s registration number and model, an approximation of how long you have to wait, and the likely fare.

If there’s a delay, you’ll get a call direct from the driver. That, argues the Taxi Council of Queensland CEO Benjamin Wash, should be a cause for both privacy and safety concerns. But riders have the driver’s details, too. Like eBay and Airbnb, both buyer and seller rate each other after the deal is done. It’s a closed, seamless, cashless model – meaning, for the driver, there’s no obvious motive for robbery, or worse.

My first driver is Connie (who prefers not to give her full, or indeed real name). She’s taking me to my 25-year school reunion at the Caxton Hotel, an event Uber has got behind with a slick promotion to attendees. For my first ride, I get $10 off the fare. (I later get another $10 credit for recommending the service to a friend.)

Connie’s car is a white Honda Jazz that only just fits Uber’s criteria that vehicles must be less than 10 years old, but it’s clean, well-maintained and, even better, she has a selection of lollypops on offer. Connie herself is keeping busy after a long career navigating the financial uncertainties of the arts: “I have periods of time where I don’t have employment at all, or I’ve got very reduced employment, so I’ve got to fill in the gaps.”

Uber relies substantially on drivers like Connie, part-timers supplementing their income. Its relentless Facebook campaigns especially target those willing to work on weekends. But they are not tied to any schedule. While taxi drivers can work up to 14 hours before being logged out in the interests of fatigue management, Uber drivers work as it suits them. “I can work 12 hours straight; I can work half an hour; I don’t have to work at all; I can do whatever I want,” she says.

Women are rare in the city’s cab fleets, but Connie says she’s never felt unsafe. “We’re all connected through the app. I’m not picking up randoms on the street. We’re not exchanging any money, I’ve got their name and their phone number. If there’s any problems, everything’s traceable. When you get into a cab, you don’t know who the guy is. Who ever takes down the number of the cab they’re in?

“It kind of feels like everyone’s part of something really new and exciting and everyone’s up for it. It’s like a secret club in a way.”

WASH prefers to describe Uber, its partners and riders as “cult followers”. The company’s only innovation, he says, is in marketing. “Self-promotion is no recommendation,” he says. “We believe there’s a lot of hype and spin around what Uber is doing, and no one’s actually questioning any of their assertions.”

In the run-up to the busy Christmas period, TCQ has erected electronic billboards around Brisbane as part of a a campaign against ride-share services, which it describes as “illegal, unsafe and uninsured”. Of course, it’s also protecting its own turf. An e-petition signed by Wash warns of “cashed up multinational interlopers [that] will seek to sweep away thousands of Queensland small businesses, potentially doing untold damage in the pursuit of profits.”

Wash is unimpressed by Uber’s cashless model, outwardly the most seductive part of its appeal to both drivers and riders worried about safety: “Personally I’d question whether or not they’re breaching privacy regulations by giving out passenger details to the driver, given that [Uber] drivers aren’t put under the same level of scrutiny as taxi drivers.”

Even for the Facebook generation, Uber’s ability to collect and potentially misuse personal information should be of concern. It’s not just the driver who knows where you live and has your number: your movements are tracked and logged, too. Uber’s global vice president Emil Michael made headlines in November when he suggested Uber could dish dirt on journalists critical of the company, after Sarah Lacy, founder of Pandodaily, accused the company of sexism and misogyny (Lacy, in a piece called “The Trickle-Down of Asshole Culture”, had decried a French advertisement, since deleted, which offered a deal whereby riders would be paired with “hot chick” drivers – model hired by Uber for a curious maximum of 20-minute rides.)

There is so much claim- and counter-claim surrounding Uber that, at times, it’s hard to sift the spin from the substance. The taxi industry claims Uber drivers, and their passengers, are uninsured in the event of an accident. Uber counters that its drivers are required to have comprehensive insurance, and are additionally covered by a $5 million commercial choice policy. “We’re doing hundreds of millions of trips now; we can’t afford to let down riders or drivers anywhere,” says Mike Abbott.

Like taxi drivers, Uber partners require a Driver’s Authorisation, subject to a full medical clearance, criminal background and traffic history check, but the TCQ claims they are not subject to the same ongoing monitoring as cabbies. Taxis are also inspected and their roadworthiness certified on a six-month basis; no such requirement exists for anyone using a private vehicle for profit. And there’s no obligation for Uber drivers to service vulnerable members of the community – for example, anyone with an assistance animal.

But the taxi industry, despite cameras and emergency systems and GPS tracking, has issues of its own. Google “taxi sexual assault” and you’ll get a long list of results from all Australian states, including Queensland. In Victoria, the Institute of Forensic Medicine documented 25 cases between 2011 and 2013. In many cases, drivers had tampered with or removed cameras to destroy or obscure evidence, and because victims were typically intoxicated, they were unable to record details of either the cab or the driver. Many more assaults have likely gone reported.

Such incidents may represent a tiny proportion of overall fares, but in the eyes of the public, perception is reality. A quick straw poll of female friends reveals that many refuse to take cabs, with several reporting incidents that had left them feeling scared and preyed upon. Some have already enthusiastically adopted Uber, which they see as both safer and more transparent than the alternative.

BLOW away all the smoke about safety, insurance and inspections and what you’re left with is an industry fighting tooth and claw to preserve its stranglehold on the market. Allan Fels, the former head of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission who conducted an inquiry into the Victorian taxi industry in 2011—2012, describes the entry of Uber and other competitors into the marketplace as “revolutionary”. He spares no sympathy for the establishment: “The revolution is even greater than otherwise because the taxi industry for years has failed to progress and innovate due to its self-protectionist attitude.”

The nub of the issue is the value of taxi licences, which change hands for up to half a million dollars a pop. To recoup that investment, taxi fares are necessarily high (if you’re paying by debit or credit card, add Cabcharge’s 10 percent cut, absent from an Uber ride). Whereas licence owners are mostly investors, the majority of drivers lease cabs from their owners under a bailment agreement: they are regarded as self-employed, receive no benefits such as sick leave, and work excruciating hours for a relative pittance.

The Queensland situation, Fels says, is no different to Victoria’s. “The Taxi Council of Queensland and comparable other institutions in Australia and around the world have vigorously opposed competition, and the number one mechanism has been having a restriction on the number of licences,” he says. “The taxi industry has fought tenaciously to stop opening the industry up to real competition. Most other small businesses are not protected in this fashion, and it reflects the political power of the taxi lobby.”

Wash vigorously denies this. “The only way you can improve the industry is through competitive forces,” he says. What he claims his industry is fighting for is for Uber to be subjected to the same standards that cost licence holders tens of thousands of dollars per year. As for the cost of licences, he says: “No more than the cost of purchasing any other small business. I think it’s easy for people to isolate taxis and say it’s inappropriate for a cab to be worth half a million dollars. I can’t buy a newsagency for less than half a million dollars. They’re both small businesses, and the market determines what an acceptable price is.”

Why would a staunchly conservative, free-market loving government oppose a tech start-up that creates jobs and delivers cheaper services to consumers? Initially, the Queensland government gave the green light to Uber, with premier Campbell Newman saying his was a “deregulation-minded government” and that “we don’t believe in more red tape and regulation unless it’s absolutely necessary.” (He did add, however, that he would prefer his daughters caught a “ridgy-didge” cab).

It didn’t take long for the industry to get in the government’s ear. A statement from the Transport Minister, Scott Emerson, echoes many of the same concerns expressed by Wash. “The government’s position has always been consistent and, while we support innovation, we will always uphold regulations that are designed to keep passengers safe,” it said. “Regulation of passenger service vehicles including taxis is undertaken to protect passenger safety and we will continue to crack down on anyone who is breaking these laws.” Pushed on the issue of the cost of licences, Emerson said the government was conducting a review of the Victorian inquiry to determine whether the same issues were relevant to the Queensland industry.

Ken Parry, who drives for Uber around an established limousine business, tells me a story about picking up a staffer from the Premier’s office. Parry, mindful that he was operating against the cease-and-desist order, asked if he was the victim of an entrapment operation. The staffer laughed. “Oh no, we want you to exist,” he said. “How does that work?” Parry replied. “Transport’s killing us and you’re hiring me; is there some internal battle going on?” “No,” the staffer replied. “Just the taxi industry leaning on transport. The minister’s got to be seen to be doing something.”

MIKE Abbott acknowledges Uber is operating in a grey area, where technology and consumers have rushed ahead of the law. “We want ride-sharing to be regulated,” he says. “We are all for having sensible regulations that promote safety. We have been in discussions with the government and the Department of Transport since the launch. Those conversations are ongoing and we’re positive about where they’re going.”

“There is ambiguity, to say the least, about whether [Uber] is operating lawfully or not, but I believe that its arrival is putting very strong pressure on politicians to end many of the anti-competitive restrictions in the taxi industry,” says Allan Fels. “Uber has demonstrated to the public what it can offer, and politicians will find it very hard to block their service.”

I go for another ride with Connie. This time I’m not paying, but observing. Her first customer’s name is Sheldon (though he prefers “Shadz”). He’s a lithe, tattooed young hipster with earlobes stretched by oversized wooden plugs. If Uber is a cult, he is a fully paid-up, card-carrying member. “This is actually my second Uber trip today; I caught one from my house to here before,” he says excitedly.

“The dude on the way here used to be an Olympic weightlifter. That alone was pretty mind-blowing to me. With the Uber drivers, they all have other jobs. They’re like superheroes! You know, the superhero takes off his mask and goes back to his office job. Then he puts on his superhero mask and becomes an Uber driver. That’s how I see it.”

“I think we’ve all grown up with this impression that transport is what it is,” says Abbott. “But it doesn’t have to be. I think it can be a whole lot better.”

First published in QWeekend (The Courier-Mail), December 6 2014

Going the extra mile for the disabled

The same message had been coming up on my despatcher for over an hour, with variations indicating increasing desperation: “URGENT wheelchair booking holding Ransome-Wellington Point. 2 x advantage jobs on offer. Pax waiting. Please assist.”

Good luck with that, I thought. That sounds harsh, I know, but there was nothing I could do; I was in the Albany Creek area at the time, a good hour away from the southern bayside suburbs. And most other wheelchair-accessible taxis, I knew, would be in two places: at the airport or cruising the city, where they had the best chance of finding work. The only way any of them would be making the 45-minute drive to the Redlands would be if another fare took them there first.

And even then they might not want to hang around, 2 x advantage jobs (where drivers are, sometimes, allocated a pre-booked compensatory fare) or not.

The sad, brutal reality if you’re a person with a disability – especially if you live in the outer suburbs – is that unless you want to go somewhere pretty exceptional, it’s often pretty hard to find a cab willing to come to your aid. And mostly, wheelchair-bound passengers aren’t going anywhere exceptional: they’re relying on taxis to take them from home to their local shopping centre, or they’re on a visit to their kids from their nursing facility or respite centre. Basic stuff, which anyone should be entitled to without fuss.

In some ways, working with people with disabilities is one of the most rewarding aspects of driving a maxi taxi. You are providing a badly required community service. One of the best jobs I ever had involved picking up a clearly gravely ill woman from the Holy Spirit Hospital with her extended family – children and grandchildren – a week before Christmas a few years ago. All they wanted to do was drive around the suburbs for an hour looking at the Christmas lights.

But – as anyone who works in community services will attest – it’s poorly paid. And time is money in a cab. There is no baseline retainer. Most drivers make a little better than 50 percent of a 12-hour shift’s take, if they’re good at the job. They bear the cost of fuel, and many other expenses besides. They are not considered employees, so there are no holidays or superannuation or sickness benefits. And rises in taxi fares are invariably gobbled up by the owners, who simply increase the cost of leasing their vehicles to drivers.

It is, as Ross Gittins said earlier this week, a terrible deal, and it’s hardly a surprise that the industry is plagued by high turnover and desperate drivers willing to cut corners wherever they can to make a living. The turnover is particularly high in the maxi fleet. It’s a rare cabbie who will go the extra mile(s) – literally – to pick up a wheelchair passenger in Ransome. Of course we are dealing with people less fortunate than ourselves, but the simple fact is we have to eat, too.

So Campbell Newman’s decision to axe a proposed taxi subsidy scheme (negotiated by the Taxi Council with the previous Labor government) is a disappointment. The scheme aimed to compensate drivers $6.50 for each wheelchair fare. And $6.50 per fare, adding up to about $1.5 million, is minimalist compared to similar schemes in other states.

Of course, Newman and transport minister Scott Emerson have trotted out the familiar refrain that the state is broke. But being broke hasn’t stopped the government from taking a politically motivated appeal against the mining tax to the high court. How will that boost the state’s coffers, either in the short or long term? An unlikely victory would certainly see a bit of extra cash flow into the pockets of a few mining magnates with close ties to the LNP. I don’t think I need to mention any names.

Speaking more broadly, and as Barrie Cassidy has already pointed out, that’s the rod Newman and other premiers have made for their own backs with their decision to turn their backs on a trial (a trial!) national disability insurance scheme, and on this proposal. Every cent they spend will – and should – be measured against their lack of commitment to servicing some of the most disadvantaged members of the community. The money they are being asked to put in is a pittance in state government terms, especially in a state as rich in resources as ours.

They should be ashamed.

Sex in a cab? Not on my watch

For about the last 10 years, I’ve been driving a maxi taxi on the weekends. In the early noughties, it funded my first book Pig City; during the GFC, as the freelance commissions dried up, it kept me afloat. These days, I restrict myself mostly to Sunday night shifts only, and although much has changed in the industry in that time, much of it not for the better, one thing hasn’t changed. And that’s The Question.

The Question gets asked in all sorts of ways. Sometimes people come right out with it, but more often than not it feels like I’ve picked up that hapless idiot from Monty Python’s “Candid Photography” sketch – better known as Nudge, Nudge. A nod’s as good as a wink to a blind bat, eh, eh, knowwotImean?

Say no more!

The question (I’ll put it euphemistically) goes something like this: have I ever picked up in the act of, you know, picking up?

It’s always men who ask it, of course. Never women. Women (at least the nice, polite and proper ones that I mostly seem to meet) don’t generally think to ask such things. Maybe I’m just meeting the wrong ones, at least if the bragging from my colleagues is anything to go by. Let’s take the case of Prabhjit Gill.

Gill has just been acquitted by the Perth District Court of raping an intoxicated female passenger. Gill’s co-accused, Amrit Pal Singh, was convicted. I can’t say anything about the case, with which I was previously unfamiliar, but in its aftermath Gill has made a series of what to me seem quite extraordinary, not to mention lurid claims.

Firstly, Gill says he knows “at least 60” drivers who had been offered sex in lieu of payment. I would love to know how he arrived at this figure. Did he (or his defence team) do a survey? His claim was news to me – and to my fiancée, too.

On top of that, Gill boasts of being offered oral sex by passengers as payment “two or three times a month”: “You drive, you pick up a girl, and they have no money. They offer you [oral sex],” he says. Of course, Gill claims he never accepted sexual favours as payment himself, but “knew of many drivers who did.”

Riiiight. Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he? His job, after all, depends on it. Otherwise, I can only put Gill’s startling public testimony down to the fact that, unfortunately, many men love only one thing more than sex, and that’s bragging about it – how much they’re getting, who with, in what shapes and forms. I’ve certainly come across other cabbies who, like Gill, seem to fancy themselves when it comes to Business Time.

“Hey, can you take me to Carindale, please.”

Wait a minute, I know what you’re trying to say, baby. You’re trying to say ooh, yeah, it’s business time.

Yes, you are quite correct. It is business time. I am at work. That will be $28.50, thank you very much. Enjoy the rest of your night. With someone else. Make that with someone else especially.

All I can say is this: in a decade, I have never picked up while picking up – not once – and have fielded just two genuine propositions. One was from a gay fellow whom I picked up from a festival at the Wickham. He hadn’t scored, was a bit sad about it, and I was the last guy of the night to (politely) turn him down. He did cheerfully pay up for the fare, though.

The other was a transgender woman, who didn’t have the full fare for me to get her from Fortitude Valley to Woodridge. She offered to show me her new breasts – and started to slide down her top. I looked away, saying only that they weren’t mine to see. She eventually left the cab and tottered away on her six-inch stilettoes. Am I sending out the wrong signals, or what?

Look, I’m sure it happens. Occasionally. To someone out there. Maybe even Mr Gill. But really, I am afraid to tell you that in my experience, the idea of cabbies rampantly getting lucky in their vehicles (do they charge their passengers the $80 cleaning fee at the end, I wonder?) is a big, fat urban myth – one propagated almost entirely by cabbies themselves.

There is, however, one shining, magnificent exception to my story.

I was at the rank at Red Hill, outside the old Skate Arena, when the job came through. The pickup was in Victoria Street. The destination was Roma Street; barely time for a conversation. And yet, in those few minutes, we were getting along so well, she asked me to take her further, on to the airport.

The connection was palpable. What was I going to do? How could I let this opportunity slip? I couldn’t, of course.

We arrived at the airport. Suddenly I was as nervous as a kitten. “Look, I can’t ask you for your phone number,” I blurted. “That would get me into trouble. All I can do is offer you my number. If you want to call me when you get back, I’d love to hear from you.” She tilted her head to one side, grinned, and said OK. I wrote down my number, my hand shaking.

We’re getting married next year. It’s made that decade of driving worthwhile.