Sharecropping on Wheels
June 11, 2010
While the city shuffles the taxi franchise deck, drivers demand ‘a fair shake’
BY WELLS DUNBAR
Photo by Jana Birchum
At first glance, few things seem simpler than a taxi ride: call or hail a cab, hop in, declare your destination, and fork over a few bucks when you get there.
But beneath the simple, even romanticized, service model, the process that led to your passage has a host of largely unseen mechanisms – questions of competition, permits, fees, and what’s best not just for passengers but for drivers.
These questions were publicly highlighted earlier this year in a report from Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, a nonprofit dedicated to pro bono legal work for the disempowered. TRLA’s white paper on the local taxi industry, "Driving Austin, Driving Injustice," resonated with the alarming conclusion that after terminal fees, gas, and lease payments are deducted, local drivers regularly work more than 60 hours a week for less than minimum wage.
The paper, and a new drivers’ group advocating on cabbies’ behalf, the Taxi Drivers Association of Austin, emerged at the same time the franchises of Austin’s two largest cab companies, Yellow Cab and Austin Cab, began winding their way to City Council for renewal. Late last month, the council voted to renew the two companies’ franchises for five years; a third cab franchise, Lone Star Cab, whose permit expires in two years, will likely soon have its franchise extended to 2015, meaning all three competitors will be up for renewal simultaneously, creating the potential for a wide-ranging realignment of how permits are awarded and how franchises operate.
But the feeling among the drivers pressing the issue is that change must come sooner to Austin’s convoluted taxi system. The drivers are dearly hoping that council action can and will speed that change along.