At the end of a debaucherous pub crawl for our bar guide earlier this month, two of our writers, intoxicated beyond all legal limits, tried to call a cab to pick up two whiskey-soaked friends stranded in the city. It was 2 am on a Saturday. The first cab company they called gave them an absurdly far-out ETA. So they called another. And another. And it was the same everywhere. One cab company could pick them up in two hours, another in three hours. One dispatcher simply hung up on them, saying he couldn't be of service. There were no apologies, no explanations. They were matter-of-fact: We'll come get you when we can.
So why is it so hard to hail a cab in Spokane these days?
Because there aren't enough of them. Because they're out picking people up at the airport or taking your grandma to the osteopath. And because the cab industry may just be dying.
The city of Bethel, Alaska, (according to a story in the Seattle Times last summer) serves its population of 5,900 people with 70 taxis, giving it a ratio of one taxi for every 84 people -- quite probably the highest cabs-per-capita rate in the country. It's almost double the ratio in New York City -- the spiritual home of the taxi -- where each cab serves about 150 people. Of course, in backwoods Bethel, to own a car you have to have it airlifted in, a spendy option that acts to curtail private ownership.
Not so in sprawling Spokane. Here, 56 licensed cabs serve about 200,000 city residents, or one per 3,500 people.
And it's not getting any better. In the last year, two large taxi companies have gone out of business or slashed their service, cutting the city's taxi inventory by as many as 60 vehicles, according to some sources. But the real problem, says AAA Taxi boss Eugene "Tiny" Parslow, is not with the number of vehicles in Spokane but the number of people who want to drive them.
"We can't get drivers," he says, qualifying his statement with, "We can get drivers, but they don't have the [money] to get into the system." Parslow says increasing city regulations have made it hard for cab companies to find drivers who can afford to break into the business.
"It used to cost $25," says Timothy Phillips, one of Parslow's drivers. Today, a driver must submit to a drug test and a physical exam, then apply for a city business license and complete another application through the police department. The total comes to $226. And if a driver owns his own car (rather than leasing one by the day from a dispatch company) that total -- with an emissions test, fees paid to the police department and the city's fleet services department -- comes closer to $450. Then there's insurance, which runs about $5,000 per vehicle each year, says Parslow, who owns five cars.
"Every night there's at least one or two cabs sitting [empty]," he says.
It's so bad, says Phillips, that he's heard rumors of companies hiring illegal immigrants to do the job under the radar for cheap.
Asked how many taxi drivers he thinks are operating without a city license, Spokane city council member Bob Apple says, "At least 50 percent." He adds that there are cabbies operating in Spokane who don't even have a driver's license, let alone a taxi license or a city business license. "[This is] an industry that is unenforced right now," says Apple, who was the, er, driving force behind a 2006 effort to require that Spokane taxis purchase a city-issued medallion that, he says, would've acted as their taxi license, assured passengers that they were in an official Spokane cab and discouraged cabs from outside the city from picking up fares in Spokane.
Apple claims the industry was behind his proposal, which was rejected on a 5-1 council vote that year, but most of the owners and drivers who spoke to The Inlander for this story say they hated the idea. "A lot of people did not understand it," Apple says. "Legitimate people wanted it. Those people who were shady were more fearful." He says the medallion system would've streamlined the hectic process of getting licensed and given hard-up drivers something to fall back on -- the theory being that the limited supply of medallions would've accrued value and become saleable assets.
"They have no pension. They've got no guarantees," Apple says of drivers. "To be able to build up a value, at least you get something when you leave the industry. You're putting up with a lot of abuse -- a drunk or a person who doesn't want to pay ... Without that pat on the back, who's going to want to do it?"
Two years after his proposal failed, Apple says the taxi industry is still "broke."
So are the drivers.
Felix Gaudreau does the math. An owner-operator who runs his own one-man business and pre-books all of his pickups, Gaudreau is an anomaly in a local industry in which drivers often lease their cars from a dispatch company. "Let's say they've brought in $300," he says. After they pay the company, after losing 10 percent on all credit card charges, after paying gas and buying a meal, drivers might take home $40, he says.
Eager drivers unable to front the start-up money and current drivers unable to save any up, says "Tiny" Parslow, are part of the reason "you don't see a cab sitting anymore."
Another reason that you're waiting at the curb for so long is that cab companies have other priorities, specifically medical trips and pickups at the airport. Two companies -- AAA and Spokane Dispatch -- have contracts with Special Mobility Services, a go-between for Medicaid clients needing to get to medical appointments. Gaudreau, who transports a lot of elderly patients but not on contract, says SMS runs pay well (with state money) and are fairly regular. And, he says, it's not unheard of for drivers to refuse other pickups because they don't want to risk missing out on an SMS run.
But the big elephant in the taxi industry's garage is the airport. Last year, Tri-Cities-based TC Transportation bailed on an exclusive contract to pick people up curbside at the airport. The company, which made a media splash by including nine shiny-new hybrid Toyota Priuses in its 21-car fleet, had agreed to pay the airport $42,000 or 8 percent of revenues for the contract, according to a story in the Spokesman-Review. Chief Operating Officer Ron Davis, who talked to The Inlander this week, declined to explain why he skipped town.
At any rate, when the company left town (with 24-hour notice, says airport spokesman Todd Woodard), the airport signed an interim agreement with Spokane Dispatch, the city's largest cab company, which has 29 licensed vehicles in its fleet.
That contract means that taxi phones at the airport dial directly to Spokane Dispatch, and only that company has the right to sit curbside and wait for passengers. But even Larry Loncon, the company's owner, admits that between SMS runs and other trips, he doesn't have enough cars to serve the airport properly. "We're basically a fill-gap situation right now." Gaudreau says he swings by the airport when he's got down time. "I defy you to figure out how you would cover that airport," Gaudreau says. "The airport wants you to keep eight cars out there at all times. Let's say two flights land and 10 people want a taxi, and they're all going in different directions. How do you replace [those cabs]? You take them out of downtown, and that shorts the SMS runs. I don't know a solution to keeping the airport covered like they want it, except for opening it up to all taxis."
Bob Apple agrees. "They need to open it up, because there is no company that can supply [the demand there]," he says.
Woodard, the airport spokesman, says that the interim agreement with Spokane Dispatch will be up around the end of March and that the airport board is looking at options for keeping the taxi ranks well stocked. He says they like having one company in charge, because it allows for better accountability. But he says they're looking at the system used at Sea-Tac, where a nonprofit entity runs the cabs and "somehow," he says, gets around paying onerous fees to the state's Labor and Industries department.
Your long wait, though, could also just be a symptom of a slowly dying industry. A 2001 public policy report on the taxi industry in Pittsburgh noted, "It's likely taxi usage peaked and has been in decline for a decade or more in most major metropolitan areas." The report cites suburbanization and the decline of the middle class as contributing factors.
Spokane cabbies recall the glory days of 15 and 20 years ago, when the industry was less regulated and there were 80 to 100 cabs in town. Today, it's a "nightmare," says "Tiny" Parslow. "I never [before] had to tell a person you gotta wait an hour, or two hours, or three hours."