Friday, March 23, 2012

Untangling Twin Cities taxis

Another column from me for

When was the last time you took a taxi in the Twin Cities? For me, it's been well over a decade—long enough that I can't even remember if I had to chip in for the fare or not.

Taxis are generally off my radar when thinking of different modes of transportation. I tend to walk, bike, and take buses or trains—taxis have never been much of a consideration for me because the price difference compared to local transit. Bus and rail fares rarely exceed $3 (the main exception being the Northstar commuter train), but taxi rates can easily reach 10 times that level. Taxis also simply haven't been that common in the Twin Cities—in Minneapolis, the city limited licenses to a mere 400 up until 2006 (though the total number of Minneapolis taxis has apparently only risen to 500). My own timidity largely just stems from the fact that I've barely used them and just don't know what's typical.

Lately, I've spent some time researching local fare regulations in order to further my education a bit. Minimum taxi fares in the area are often pegged at $5 (the maximum allowed for a minimum fare in Minneapolis and Saint Paul proper). Add in per-mile rates of $2.20 in Saint Paul and $2.75 in Minneapolis plus extra fees for waiting (up to $24/hour) or traveling from the airport (where $6.75 is on the meter before the taxi even starts moving). Oh, and don't forget the customary 10–15% tip (though you have the right to refuse to tip).

At this point in time, I suspect most cab drivers have credit card readers onboard, though I haven't seen it required anywhere yet. Street hails are legal, though I still haven't figured out if there's a special local code for roof lights being on or off (in some cities, this gets rather complicated).

It is possible to pre-negotiate a fare payment with at least some drivers. Saint Paul has set a minimum rate of $6.00/hour, though I suspect you'd be hard-pressed to find any driver willing to go that low.

Perhaps more confusing than fares and tips is figuring out which cab company to call when you need a ride. Cabs licensed in Minneapolis can drop off in Saint Paul, but not pick up there unless also licensed for the capital city. There also seem to be cabs licensed for airport service which aren't allowed to pick up in either of the two core cities (the MSP airport terminals are located in the unorganized territory of Fort Snelling, so taxis operating there may not be subject to the ordinances of surrounding municipalities).

At least a dozen different companies serve the two core cities, all of whom do things a bit differently from one another. Oh, and don't forget that there are 180 other cities and townships in the 7-county metro area alone which may have their own regulations. While I've been able to get some information about the core cities, reliable information for Bloomington—the region's third largest city—has proven to be elusive, so I haven't been optimistic about getting data from other parts of the metro. Understanding the patchwork of regulations around the region could easily become a full-time job.

This could be simplified, of course. At a recent BURP event where several area bloggers and followers got together for some drinks and conversation about all things urban, one wise guest suggested that taxis should really fall under the umbrella of the Metropolitan Council rather than being regulated by individual cities. Hopefully this would make things easier for everyone: taxi drivers, owners, and passengers. Drivers and vehicles would only need to be licensed once, and wouldn't need to worry about out-of-sync license renewals (Woodbury licenses always expire on Dec. 31, for instance, while Saint Paul licenses expire a year after being issued). Cab owners could get vehicle inspections done once rather than multiple times in multiple locations, and things like driver background checks could be made more uniform as well.

The Minneapolis City Council will be looking at taxi regulations soon, though their interest is in protecting drivers following a recent murder on the city's North Side. Council Member Gary Schiff wants to mandate either bullet-proofing or cameras in city taxis—both of which have been security options in Minneapolis taxis for a while now, though the major local companies tend toward using a GPS-based alert system instead.

Is it time to start thinking more broadly about taxis and their role in the Twin Cities transportation network? In my mind, taking a more regional approach is long overdue.

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