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San Diego Committee Wants Worn-Out Cabs Off The Road

Above: A yellow cab drives past San Diego International Airport on Sept. 16, 2011.

Special Feature Speak City Heights

Speak City Heights is a media collaborative aimed at amplifying the voices of residents in one of San Diego’s most diverse neighborhoods. (Read more)

Aired 7/28/14 on KPBS News.

Of all the days to call a hearing on taxis, the city of San Diego's public safety committee chose one during Comic-Con, a big moneymaker for cab drivers. But drivers who say drive unsafe cars and make poverty wages filled the committee room – and an overflow room – to push for reforms.

Of all the days to call a hearing on taxis, the city of San Diego's public safety committee chose one during Comic-Con, a big moneymaker for cab drivers. But drivers who say they drive unsafe cars and make poverty wages filled the committee room – and an overflow room – to push for reforms.

The skipped Comic-Con fares may prove worthwhile for those leasing worn-out cabs. The committee voted to cap the age of taxis on the road at 10 years and prohibit salvage vehicles from operating as cabs.

Speak City Heights found 40 percent of cabs in the city have passed the 10-year mark, and 20 percent have salvage titles, which could indicate they've been severely damaged in the past. Some drivers who spoke separately with Speak City Heights and San Diego State University researchers said they fear for their safety because of the condition of their cars. Some are in service for nearly 24 hours a day if leased by two drivers.

The measure to keep older taxis off the road must get approval from the full City Council and the Metropolitan Transit System, which regulates the taxi industry. But MTS stands by its existing safety provisions. It does annual and random vehicle inspections.

"My household has a 10-year-old car and a 6-month-old car and I put my two young children in both and I feel they are safe," said MTS Chief of Staff Sharon Cooney at the hearing. "We, as the people who check and inspect the cabs, feel they are safe."

Michel Anderson, who represents the cab company owners who lease their cabs to drivers, said the cost of updating their fleets could put some operators out of business.

Most major cities already limit the age or mileage of taxis to protect drivers and passengers. The region's own airport authority has capped vehicle age at 10 years, but in 2010 offered permit holders financial incentives to help offset the cost of switching to newer cars.

The committee didn't flesh out its proposal on aging taxis – or any incentives to go with it – at the meeting. But it did touch on several other taxi reform items. Here's where they stand:

Capping Lease Prices

Most taxi drivers on the road lease their cabs from companies or individuals who own the vehicles and have city permits to operate them as taxis.

Jill Esbenshade, who led an SDSU study on the taxi industry, found leases for the cars average $400 a week. After paying for the lease and gas, drivers netted $4.45 and hour – a figure owners generally refute.

Driver advocates pushed for a cap on how much owners could charge drivers to use their vehicle, but committee Chairwoman Marti Emerald hasn't taken up the proposal.

Regulating Underground Medallion Sales

Medallions are city-owned permits to operate taxis in San Diego. Cab company owners can transfer them to another individual for a $3,000 fee. Instead, they're selling them for tens of thousands in profit.

Drivers advocates say the high cost of getting a permit is contributing to high lease rates. Some want an open market – meaning anyone driving gets a permit, making them an owner-operator. At the very least, they want the city or MTS to regulate the sales.

The committee asked the city attorney's office to return to the committee this fall with a legal opinion on the extent to which the city can regulate the medallion market.

Settling Disputes Between Owners and Drivers

Many taxi drivers say they have little recourse if their cab company treats them unfairly. Most lease agreements between drivers and owners include an arbitration clause stating they agree to see a costly arbitrator instead of a judge if the relationship turns sour. Drivers also say some cab owners use intimidation and retaliation to keep them from speaking up.

Esbenshade told the public safety committee she observed the impact of alleged bullying by owners firsthand when a group of drivers was asked to volunteer for an advisory committee that weighs in on taxi issues.

"No one stepped forward," Esbenshade said. "When asked why, they said they were afraid to serve on the Taxi Advisory Committee because they're afraid of being fired. This shows that there's a chilling effect that's preventing a lot of drivers from participating in the democratic process."

Anderson said cab company owners want to root out the few who engage in retaliatory practices. The committee has requested that the city attorney's office look into whether cabbies, who are independent contractors, are covered by whistleblower protections through the California Department of Industrial Relations.

The committee also asked the city attorney to draft a standardized lease agreement that strikes any language on arbitration, opening up the possibility for drivers to go to small claims court.

Anderson said removing the language is unnecessary.

"Not all lease agreements are the same," Anderson said. "If a lessee doesn't like what's in the contract, they don't have to sign it. They can always go somewhere else."

United Taxi Workers organizer Sarah Saez said it's difficult to find an operator willing to forgo the arbitration clause, which is standard in contracts for everything from cell phone service to health insurance.

The committee will take up at a later date whether it can require owners to use the new contract.

On Lyft and Uber

The taxi industry is facing fierce competition from rideshare companies Lyft and Uber. The city is not yet taking up the issue. Most at the hearing agreed passing reforms within the taxi industry is a necessary first step.

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