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A little black & white taxi took away my old man

December 6, 2009
Scion xB taxi

Instead of Prii, Portland's taxi fleet includes a bunch of Scion xBs (Orin O'Neill photo)

When I first saw the current Scion xB, I thought, “paint it yellow, put the ‘taxi’ light on the roof, and you’d have the ultimate funky retro taxicab.”

Obviously, that thought had occurred to others.

While Seattle and Vancouver, B.C. have taxi fleets with growing numbers of Toyota Priuses, Portland’s Radio Cab Co. boasts no less than six Scion xBs.

Before the price of gas went through the roof, most taxi operators in the U.S. ran Ford Crown Victorias. The preferred version was the Police Interceptor, which could be had cheaply when surplussed from local police agencies.

When you crunched the numbers, the former cop car was the only thing that made financial sense, given the economics of the taxi biz.

I once applied for a job driving a taxi in Seattle. The interview process included riding with one of the owners of the company on the last two hours of his shift. When we returned to the yard, he counted his take for the 12-hour shift: exactly $100, about 40 of which was Metro taxi scrip. His “nut,” i.e., the fee for using the cab, was 55% of that (owning the company got you no favors, apparently). That left him $45. But the car had to be returned to the yard with a full tank of gas.

I asked him how he did. “About average,” he replied. I thanked him for his time, and didn’t take the job. Taking the job would’ve required me to get a business license and a chauffeur’s license. I would get to pay B&O tax!

Since then, I’ve had conversations with cabbies who say things aren’t much better. One told a story of how his friend was able to make more money going online and finding good used cop cars to sell to his fellow cabbies (retired state police and county sheriff cars are considered more desirable). Another told me the only way to get rich driving a taxi is to get rear-ended by a Lexus.

These days, cabbies are pretty much all “independent contractors” who get to pay a hefty monthly fee for dispatching and the privilege of painting their car some garish color. There was an attempt in Seattle to have a taxi company where the drivers were hourly employees, but it only lasted about two months.

A taxi industry that allows operators to make a decent living with safe, economical late-model vehicles is not only better for the economy, it’s far better for the environment than so-called “car sharing” (folks, it’s an hourly rental) arrangements like Zipcar and car2go. The argument that somehow these services magically take cars off the road can be shot down in flames by checking the availability of any car in their system, which will almost always be on the road (i.e., booked and in use) far more than any privately-owned vehicle. “Car-sharing” adds to congestion, folks.

Radio Cab, which seems to have more cars on the street than Broadway Cab (the yellow ones), actually has a rather eclectic mix of vehicles, including such things as Buick Regals, Toyota Camrys, various minivans and even a Freightliner Sprinter (well, Freightliner is a local company). Crown Vics are the exception to the rule. Favicon

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2 Comments
  1. December 7, 2009 6:04 am

    They bought some Toyota Highlander hybrids in Key West for the pink cab fleet. 38mpg they say which sounds incredible.

    People balk at taking a cab across town in Key West for $10 a head and then get busted for DUI, a night in jail, a body cavity search and thousands in fines and classes and court appearances and general humiliation.

    I worked a couple of months as a cab driver in Tampa years ago and gave it up as a ghastly job. I wonder how they make it.

  2. December 7, 2009 11:52 am

    conchscooter, the guys driving the Priuses say they’re getting mid- to upper-40s. Not so hard to believe when you consider taxis spend most of their time stopped or crawling in traffic, times when a dual-mode hybrid like a Prius or Highlander has the gas engine shut off.

    I’ve come to the conclusion driving a taxi is nice hobby, at least in the U.S. In Europe, you can drive a taxi or wait tables and still be part of the middle class. What’s wrong with that picture?

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