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Cab drivers drive down complaints: Service may have improved after city toughened rules

June 27, 2005

But much of the evidence is anecdotal, as city officials said they do not have complete complaint records for the periods just before and after the City-County Council imposed tougher regulations in 2002.

One key problem addressed by those reforms seems to have diminished-drivers taking passengers to the wrong address. The city received only two such complaints in the last 1-1/2 years, according to records kept by the City Controller's Office.

That

had been a commonly reported problem in the years after then-Mayor Steve Goldsmith's 1994 deregulation plan that lifted a ceiling on the number of new taxi permits that could be issued.

By 1997, there were 59 cab companies licensed by the city-more than double the number before deregulation and more than today's 48.

Many of the newcomers from out-ofstate or from other countries had little knowledge of the city. Others intentionally drove circuitous routes to ring up higher fares.

"The old joke used to be that you could arrive in Indianapolis in the morning and by that afternoon have a taxi license from the city," said Sergio Gonzalez-Piriz, chief operating officer of Indianapolis Yellow Cab Inc.

In 2002, Mayor Bart Peterson backed a "re-regulation" plan passed by the council that, among other things, required drivers to have lived in Marion or surrounding counties for at least one year.

"You wanted people to live here for a year so they have some sense of geography," said Dennis Rosebrough of BAA Indianapolis, who sat on a committee that studied the 2002 regulation proposal.

About 100 complaints were filed against cabbies from April 2003 to March 2005, according to city records. The city has issued licenses to 48 cab companies and 918 taxi drivers.

Deputy City Controller Amy McFadden-Marack said the city did not have its compliance database developed to capture all 2003 data and didn't have immediate access to paper records from prior years.

"We do believe that the complaints have gone down as a result of the 2002 changes," she said.

The organization perhaps most sensitive to the quality of taxi service, the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association, agrees.

"We're pleased. The complaints are relatively few" now, said ICVA spokesman Bob Schultz. "Taxi service is incredibly important. In many cases, [the taxi driver] is the first ambassador to the city a visitor encounters."

In the first three months of this year, the city received 12 complaints against cabbies vs. 19 complaints during the same period in 2004.

Last year, the office suspended the licenses of 33 of the 918 licensed drivers, vs. one in 2003 and one so far this year. The large number last year resulted primarily from an enforcement effort that targeted drivers with lapsed insurance, McFadden-Marack said.

Leading the customer gripes have been 11 complaints each for overcharging and reckless driving. Five of the complaints in the last year and a half involved drivers refusing service and another five involved cabbies refusing to drive short trips, which generally are less profitable.

"He was yelling at me. He was mad because he felt I was using his [competitor] to make the long trips and him to make the short trips," said Indianapolis resident Tom Brown, who filed a complaint against a Yellow Cab Co. driver last March.

The 2002 ordinance made it tougher to reject potentially unprofitable fares. It also created a training program for cabbies, and required that each firm have a dispatch system and that customers be notified if cabbies don't arrive to a call within 15 minutes.

"It wasn't so much re-regulation as much as raising the bar. I think that's why the complaints have gone down," Gonzalez-Piriz said.

Most controversial was a requirement that a new cab firm have at least 20 cars, which has made it impossible for many upstarts to enter the market and favored giants like Yellow Cab and Indy Airport Taxi.

"It ruled out a lot of the individual operators," Schultz said.

That is except for longtime Indianapolis cab firms such as the one-car Compass Rose Inc. Still, owner Randy Newman said other pressures are constraining the growth of cab operations and, perhaps, complaints.

Thirty years ago, there wasn't competition from limousines for short trips. Nor were there as many hotel shuttle vans or rental cars available, he said.

Then, he had all the business he could handle to and from the convention center. These days, "There could be 20,000 people attending a convention in town and I could sit there [idle] for three or four hours," Newman said.

For those cabbies not so savvy to the city as Newman, airport and convention officials have been holding briefings before big events. That includes "cab fest" at Indianapolis International Airport, where cabbies get details about those expected to visit for the U.S. Grand Prix or Final Four games, for example. Call it cultural sensitivity training.

But not everyone sees much difference in service since the tougher taxi regulations in 2002.

John Livengood, president of the Indiana Hotel and Lodging Association, said he recently asked his Indianapolis members about cab service.

"The response I got was, 'No, it really hasn't gotten much better.'"

In the absence of city complaint data from the last several years, the answer will depend on whom you ask.

And as far as resolving poor service, customer Brown said he handled it himself by finding another cab company. The disabled veteran who makes frequent trips by cab said a Metro Taxi driver even gave him his cell phone number.

"He works with me," Brown said. "He knows where I live. I found the right driver."
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