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Cabs, students clash over practices

Karen Langley | Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Bars, bowling alleys, off-campus parties and movie theaters all bring to mind weekends in a college town – but in South Bend, they also inspire thoughts of long waits for overcrowded taxi cabs.

While students may feel at the mercy of cab companies, these same companies are often frustrated by no-show callers and belligerent passengers.

Student dissatisfaction with some common cab company practices has caught the attention of Assistant City Attorney Ann-Carol Nash, who has received numerous complaints from students about cab companies in the South Bend area.

“Notre Dame students are often seen as easy targets by people who are not as reputable as they should be,” she said.

Nash said the complaints include reports of drivers stuffing unsafe numbers of passengers in cabs and charging students excessive and not agreed-upon fares, as well as companies refusing to send students a cab late at night.

“I certainly sympathize with people who want to get from a nightclub to home or campus,” she said. “That’s the sort of thing I want to work very hard [for] to create a better environment.”

South Bend licenses taxis, so the city can take away the licenses of drivers who violate regulations. Nash said she plans to develop amendments to the city ordinance governing cab companies and to improve enforcement of the existing ordinance.

“I’m worried about the quality of the taxi service [students are] receiving,” Nash said. “I’m trying to tighten enforcement so students aren’t taken advantage of or made to feel unsafe.”

While Nash said it is “inappropriate” for a cab company to refuse service late at night, cab company representatives say it is not always possible to send customers a cab in a timely manner on busy weekend nights. Some companies recommend that callers contact another company, while others expect callers to wait for an eventual ride.

“If we can’t get [the customers] in a reasonable time, like 30 minutes … we tell them we don’t have cabs available,” said Walter Jones, owner of ABC Cab. “Sometimes [customers] don’t even get a cab from any company in town.”

The problem arises because companies sometimes receive hundred of calls in a few hours, said Jan, a Checker City Cab dispatcher who declined to give her last name.

Given the concentrated demand for cabs, Jan said a lengthy wait is sometimes unavoidable. Though this may be inconvenient, she described a call for a cab as a verbal agreement that is violated if a prospective passenger calls rival companies to see which cab arrives most quickly.

“When you order a cab, you’re supposed to be ready for however long it takes,” Jan said. “I work for a cab company, and I have waited two hours for a cab.”

Jones said students do not understand how frustrating it is to cab companies when the students call multiple companies and take a ride from whichever driver shows up first. When a cab driver “gets a void,” as a no-show customer is called, his time and gas is wasted – a factor that drives up fares.

Senior Sarah Gelwicks said she thinks cabs are convenient, but she has spent time on many nights waiting for a cab to arrive.

“It takes forever,” she said. “Either there [are] a lot of people trying to get a cab and not enough [cabs] or you call a cab and someone else takes it.”

In any case, the wait is typically longer than the company predicts, Gelwicks said.

“They usually tell you it will be there in 20 minutes, and it gets there after 40 minutes,” she said.

When a driver is sent to pick up passengers, the cab often becomes jam-packed with students eager to reach their destination. The law says each passenger must have a seatbelt, but drivers are motivated to collect the fares of additional passengers, while passengers often want to save money with group discount rates and avoid separating from their group of friends.

Sophomore Jimmy Newman has shared numerous cab rides with more passengers than the law would allow, a situation he said was initiated by the cabs’ drivers.

“They would just keep packing people in and say an excuse, that it’s the last cab of the night,” he said. “They’d try to pack tons of people in with no seatbelts.”

Jones said it is not uncommon to find small cabs brimming with eight or nine students.

“That’s dangerous,” he said. “If parents knew that, they’d have a heart attack. If insurance companies knew, they’d have a heart attack and then they’d raise the rates.”

When asked how he addresses city regulations like the seatbelt rule, Jones said he can only encourage his drivers not to overload their cabs.

“You don’t have full control because you’re not in the cab with them,” Jones said.

Jan, who formerly worked as a driver, attested to the difficulty of turning down an extra student on a cold South Bend night.

“When I was driving, we had kids begging, ‘Please let our friend in,'” she said. “It’s hard to turn down a really tiny girl, who could just share a seat, and make her stand out in the cold because her friends are already in the cab.”

The subject of cab fares is also marked by miscommunication between students and cab companies. While many students expect to pay $2 for a short trip, employees of various cab companies stressed that $2 is usually a flag drop price compounded by a meter rate per mile.

ABC Cab charges an $8 minimum per party anywhere within a three-mile radius, Jones said. The company’s flag drop, or rate to get into the cab, is $2 and the per mile rate is $2. When five or more passengers ride by van, they can travel up to three miles for $3 per student.

Checker City Cab has a $7 per party minimum. Like ABC Cab, Checker City Cab charges a $2 flag drop, followed by $1.40 per mile, Jan said. A $1 gas surcharge is also added to the party’s meter.

These prices are not always understood by students. Junior Kate Moran said she expects to pay a set fare for short rides.

“Sometimes I think prices can be completely arbitrary,” she said. “But normally it’s the standard $2.”

Each company has special rates for popular destinations like South Bend Airport.

“I think the economics of cabs is not understood by students,” Jones said.

Jones also noted that when an occasional student vomits in a cab, the company is forced to pay an expensive bill to clean the cab’s interior.

“It’s not unreasonable to expect to make enough money to clean it up,” he said.

While Nash expressed concern about cab companies’ compliance with city regulations, United Cab driver Bob Hoffman said companies are aware that they must follow the rules.

“The city does keep checking on taxi companies to see how they’re operating,” he said.

He admitted that some drivers do allow students to “load up” on Friday or Saturday nights, but said the decision is left to students.

“Very, very seldom do we have any problems,” Hoffman said. “[The students] are a very good bunch of people to work with.”