Thursday, May 24, 2018
Opinion

Unified oversight smooths the ride for cabdrivers

Given the harsh realities of the job, perhaps it's easier to understand why Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle goes completely bonkers in Taxi Driver.

Long hours of long hours, often with few passengers to show for it. Drunks. Morons. Abusive passengers. And there's always the lurking risk of being mugged, or stiffed on a fare. Or worse.

Driving a cab is a very tough way to make a living. And now St. Petersburg's burgeoning nightlife scene, where saloons can now stay open until 3 a.m., is making the job both better and worse for the city's cabbies.

As the Tampa Bay Times' Claire Wiseman reported a few days ago, the city's expanded bar hours mean more potted patrons who need a ride home. That's good for cabbies. But the potential for increased business also has led to more cabbies — some legal, others less so — breaking the rules.

Drivers have reported having fares poached, hacks jumping the line to grab a passenger and other rogue taxis with phony medallions cruising the streets. And if you think a slobbering over-served yahoo can get nasty, try cutting in front of a cabbie to steal a customer. It isn't pretty.

There must be a better way.

We often hear a great deal of talk about the importance of regionalism — from transit to tourist marketing — in advancing the economic interests of Tampa Bay. Now the time has come to think about a singular agency that regulates cab service in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties. Such unified effort could help both consumers and drivers, who would no longer be required to dead-head after delivering a fare across county lines. And it could bring some fairness to a system that is often controlled by a few individual owners who impose draconian leasing fees on drivers.

The transportation environment throughout Tampa Bay is on the cusp of dramatic change with the potential of light rail, the advent of appointment-by-app livery services and even driverless cars. These alternatives aren't going away, suggesting it makes no sense to continue operating the area's taxi market as if it was still 1954.

Today's cabdriver isn't just competing against other drivers. They are competing against technology and an entrenched bureaucratic framework trapped within jurisdictional county lines.

Cabdrivers perform a valuable service to the public. But the job isn't getting any easier.

Unifying regulation of the Tampa Bay taxi industry would be a true test of cooperation. You might think of it as where the rubber meets the road when it comes to regionalism.

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