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Meter Eaters

Christopher Gardner

Driven to Distraction: Some local taxi drivers say that because of city restrictions, driving a cab around San Jose is not as lucrative as it is in other major metropolitan areas.

Despite San Jose's hopes of being a world-class city, residents can only dream of the day when they can hail a cab. Now, local cabbies say the cops are driving them crazy.

By Becki Bell

HEATHER MAY remembers the Friday night she waited so long for a cab in front of a downtown nightclub that she finally took a ride home with the bartender instead. May, who had requested a cab sometime before 1am in downtown's San Pedro Square, says the promised "45 minutes" eventually turned into two hours as the dispatcher told her that her first cab had been commandeered by a pair of pedestrians a block away from where she was waiting. "The bartender had called at least twice to catch me a cab," May says. "The cab never came, so he ended up taking me home. When I was in D.C. last summer there was a cab every step you took, but in San Jose, you have to wait forever. It's frustrating when you want to go out and have fun and you're dependent on a cab but they don't show up."

May's experience is not a unique one. For many people, a weekend evening in the downtown area frequently ends after a jaunt along a neighborhood sidewalk. In some parts of town, sobriety comes quicker than taxicabs. "[Customers] wait at least 45 minutes," confirms Ed Sakai, a local bartender at the Shark & Rose. "People usually get frustrated and leave." Those who are patient enough to remain, he says, are sometimes still standing on the sidewalk after he has turned out the lights and locked up for the night. And high-demand daytime hours are often no better. While San Jose continues to play host to Internet and business conferences, the executives and industry specialists who attend those conferences complain that sometimes they can't even get a cab out of the airport.

THE SCARCITY OF CAB service would seem to be at odds with the image sought by a municipality that calls itself the capital of Silicon Valley, whose airport contains the word "international," and that has invested hundreds of millions to become a world-class city.

And at one time, the goal of having a thriving cab industry seems to have been in place. The city's taxicab muni codes proclaim the intention to "further the public convenience and necessity of transportation services by taxicabs," conjuring up a vision of San Jose as a mecca for taxi transportation, where cabs wait for potential passengers at every corner. With such lofty objectives built right into the city ordinances, opportunity-savvy taxicab entrepreneurs should be swarming to San Jose faster than software engineers.

But the drivers and administrators of local cab companies complain that driving a cab in San Jose is about as lucrative as being on parole, and that frequent police spot-inspections and permit suspensions have put them on the run. Drivers avoid the parts of town most likely to have a heavy police presence, which tends to be the parts of town where cabs are most needed. "So many drivers are telling me they can't pick up downtown," says Mola Gebeye, who is vice president of Golden Star Cab Co. and a member of the Santa Clara County Taxicab Association. "The real problem is the police department has been harassing the drivers. It gets to the point where the drivers, they don't want to drive anymore."

IN SAN JOSE, taxi permits hinge on everything from the condition of the car's tires to the amount of mud on the floorboards on a rainy day. Local drivers complain that police are just as likely to revoke a permit for the second reason as they are for the first. Jacqueline Smith, acting chief of Washington, D.C.'s successful office of taxicabs, says that such on-the-spot permit-revoking doesn't occur in the nation's capital, a city known for abundant taxicabs and relative market freedom. "Any of the metropolitan law enforcement can stop them and inspect the cab, and they can write any of our hack violations," she says, but officers don't revoke permits for such violations, and extreme actions are only taken if the drivers aren't on record as having the proper documentation. "If the cab is unlicensed or the driver is unlicensed, they can impound the vehicle and lock up the driver," she says. "They can give them a ticket for a dirty cab."

San Jose's stricter policy of pulling permits on the spot, combined with frequent inspections, is a lot like what would happen if a busy restaurant could lose its right to operate because a customer spilled coffee 10 minutes before an inspector walked through the door. Yellow Checker Cab driver Nelo Bains calls the volume of inspections he and his peers have to endure "crazy," to the extent that the same officer once inspected his car on two consecutive days. "He checked my permit, he checked my business license, everything," Bains says. "He said, 'We can check every hour if we want to.' "

Another driver, who asked not to be identified, says he was fined for being unable to produce his permit with enough speed. "[The officer] didn't even give me a chance to explain," he says. "He started writing a ticket, and once I found the permit he said, 'It's too late now,' and he circled 'misdemeanor' on the ticket."

JOHN CARRILLO, press information officer for the San Jose Police Department, says there are a number of reasons why officers double-check a driver's permit. Primary among those reasons, he says, is the well-being of potential passengers. "You're sitting inside a vehicle, and you don't know who this person [the driver] is. Basically, you're entrusting your life, your safety, to this person," Carrillo says, adding that officers stepped up the frequency of inspections because of complaints from the public.

Carrillo points out that frequent inspections are allowed for in the muni codes. "I don't even know that it occurs, but yes, under the regulations that they are supposed to comply with, they are supposed to allow for inspections, just like any other business. It's right there in the law: Any time, any regulatory agency can inspect them, just like the drugstore, the dry cleaner or the liquor store."

San Jose drivers, who requested anonymity citing fear of retribution, say there is no real need for the spot inspections. "I don't think to work and to live is a crime," says one driver. "Why do they want to harass people who work and live? The city and the police department, they have records, they know who paid, they know who has permits. Why don't they check their database instead of harassing the whole fleet of cars?"

The SJPD permits department, however, is not eager to provide the answer to the drivers' questions. Officer Leroy Widman, who is in charge of SJPD taxi inspections, says he and his partner "can stop a cab anytime and inspect them," but refused to comment on either the potential circumstances of those inspections or the frequency with which they occur.

Spokesman Carrillo, however, blames the increase in inspections on past driver conduct. "We got numerous complaints from people being overcharged, and that was because most of the taxicabs had their meters tampered with so they could easily change the amount owed on the meter," he says of a rash of complaints two years ago.

As of press time, police were unable to provide records of those complaints or of citations issued, but Carrillo estimates that 90 percent of the cab meters checked by police at that time showed evidence of tampering, with the state inspector's seal broken. Officers have since been concerned about accountability--Carrillo says that the driver's identification should always be one of a cab's most prominent features. "If their IDs aren't properly displayed, [passengers] wouldn't know who to complain about," he says.

BUT DRIVERS HAVE their own theories about the circumstances of spot inspections. Many of them are immigrants, and for them the local taxi industry falls a long way from the "opportunity for everyone" ideal that brought them to this country. "I think the problem is that San Jose permits division looks at cab drivers as being from another country and not being aware of the laws we have," concurs one driver, a white male. "Probably those drivers are intimidated, and they go ahead and pay the fines without questioning them."

Buried in the same city muni codes that declare the sanctity of public convenience are stipulations that aspiring cab companies must own the clear title to at least five cars. San Jose's muni codes require that single-car cab owners affiliate themselves with existing companies, which can cost as much as the annual tuition of a Stanford University law student. The full-of-good-intentions authors of the city code apparently forgot to consider that if they made it tough to drive a cab in the city of San Jose, it might also become tough to get a cab in the city of San Jose.

SJPD officials defend the five-car minimum. "You can't just come in here with one cab and be your own company," Widman says. If that were the case, he says, "every individual in the taxi industry would be their own business." But while Widman discounts the idea of single-car companies, he is unable to explain why they would be such a bad thing for the city of San Jose. "That's the way they set it up," he says. "It's like going through a red light. What's the reason for [the law against] that? What's the reason for not speeding?"

Yet a system of single-car taxi companies has turned cities like Washington, D.C., into transit utopias, where cabs really do wait outside most busy public establishments during peak hours. Washington's ratio of cabs to people has been estimated at one cab for every 84 people, and cabbies in the capital can afford to be idle because they don't have the expenses that San Jose drivers face.

According to Jacqueline Smith, aspiring single-cab owners in the capital can, after paying the regular annual licensing fees, become independent by simply painting their own name on their car door. And while San Jose drivers typically pay the companies they drive for between $250 and $400 in insurance and dispatching fees per week, a D.C. driver's insurance costs are comparatively minor--usually averaging between $58 and $77 a week.

MEANWHILE, THE CITY of San Jose's downtown convention center invites the world to send its executives, entrepreneurs and programming prodigies, and then balks as the world's best technological minds stand around on curbsides waving their arms at cabs, many of whom are just passing by on their way to pick up another passenger. "We get complaints from people attending conventions that it's ridiculous to get a cab," admits Yellow Cab driver Richard Eplett.

Drivers say there isn't much they can do about the problem. Widman says there isn't a problem at all. But to San Jose's visitors and residents, the official denials simply mean that they won't be grabbing a cab anytime soon.

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From the March 27-April 2, 1997 issue of Metro

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