Monday, 20 January 2014

Darwin Cab inc.

"How about a fixed rate?"
"Sir,  this is the cheapest cab company in town. Just how stingy are you?"

I live in a country where the cab business has become de-regulated. Back in the day, before my time, regulations were heavy. Each city could only have so many cabs, and so many drivers to steer them. Prices were stable, income was good, and cabbies were seen as legitimate workers, (and not penny-pinching villains, who will either overcharge you, or accept payments in "goods", ie.  a piece of ass. Yours.). However, if you wanted to start a cab company with your own spin on how the service was to be rendered, well... Tough luck, buddy. No can do. Take your vile capitalist schemes elsewhere.

Then some time ago, it was de-regulated. Anyone with the right resources and connections could buy a car, register it as a taxi (getting a meter, price-tag, and various other required doodads installed), and then literally go to town, raking in that sweet free-market gold. A new breed of cabbie emerged: the Independents. Free-lancing automobile ronin, competing with other likeminded free men, living off the voluntary exchange between free men, while the established cab companies adjusted their business model in order to keep up and remain relevant.

And now that I've placated  Ayn Rand's hungry ghost, let's take a closer look at the situation.

Both systems had their perks. Both have their drawbacks. Since I'm too young to remember what it was like back in the day, and don't know nearly enough about the London cabbies to make a comparison (except that they are  the Mister Miyagi to our Ralph Macchio), today we're going to talk about the particular environment in which I work, and where my company fits into the food chain.

So. In my town, there are three major cab companies. There's Taxi G, which is the oldest and most well established company in town. If this were new york, these would be the yellow cabs. THen there's Taxi K, which is a company with a presence in every major city in this country. And finally theres us, Taxi M, which started out 20 years ago with two cars and covered in ads, but carved out a niche as the most dependable, popular, unavailable and (beyond everything else) cheapest company in town.

How do we stay cheap? The reason is as brilliant as it is infuriating: we barely have any cars. While Taxi G and Taxi K each have more than 300 cars associated with them, Taxi M has barely 55. With so few cars, it means that we are a busy bunch. On an average night, a cabbie at Taxi G might have around ten to fifteen fares, whereas I will have between 18 and 23. This means that each fare can cost less, yet the drivers go home with an acceptable pay. It also means, much to the chagrin of anyone who calls us, that we're almost impossible to book the first time you call.

 Don't quote me on this, but in conversations with cabbies from other companies, I've learned that I make on average as much as any of them, sometimes even more. We are popular, and even if we weren't, we'd still be busy. You won't find us standing at the central station or at the airport waiting in line for people. No, we are spread out all over the city as we please. We get our fares through ham radio. HQ will either call out the address, and then follows a short free for all where the loudest cabbie will get the fare, or HQ will  give the fare directly to whichever cabbie is closest with the longest time since his last fare. This way you're guaranteed  at least a couple of fares even on slow nights.

I like this particular business model. I like the reputation it has given us, and the pride we take in maintaining that reputation. Aside from some of the people who end up in your car, there's nothing so suicide-inducing as the time between fares. And we can exist thanks to de-regulation. Had somebody come up with the idea of a low-price cab company thirty years ago, he would've been given the beaurocratic finger. So, thanks to the free-market, I'm able to work in a pretty sweet niche, serving people who are in general very pleased with the service/price ratio we offer. We get a lot of love, is what I'm saying.

Of course, for every nuggest of gold found in the free market, one has to sift through ten nuggets of grade A shit. The competition, while giving us the opportunity to drive down prices, has also made the cab business very harsh for the individual driver. We make less, because if we're not driving you, somebody else is. Many of us resort to dirty tactics to make ends meet. Many cabbies will demand up-front, cash payment which they put in their pockets rather than on the meter (a problem found in pretty much every company, but particularly among the independents). Some companies will hire any idiot with a cab licence (sometimes without checking if the guy on the licence is the same guy holding it, see here), not caring as long as the driver rakes in the cash (Taxi K. in particular is a major offender).

And that brings us to the independents. Without the right resources, such as a HQ, radio service, or an operator to organise and deliver fares, the indies have to resort to extortionate pricing and a business model that is as clever as it is rotten: plagiarism.

If you ever come to my home town, you will notice a lot of Taxi G cars buzzing around. They are white, with yellow signs in which it says Taxi G, with a black and yellow checkered stripe lining each side of the vehicle. You will notice a picture of a grinning cabbie in a blue cap plastered on the back of the car. But you will also notice that a lot of the cars look a bit off. Some of them say G Taxi, some say Royal Taxi G, others say Taxi with the G randomly distributed somewhere else. Sometimes the checkered stripes are nothing more than barricade tape. And the little blue cabbie is curiously absent from all of them.

These are the majority of the independent cabbies. They know they are disadvantaged. Nobody in their right mind would get into a cab driven by a fellow who most likely doesn't know his way around town, service mindedness, or even the local language, and on top of that pay up to three times the amount other companies charge. So what do the indies do? Like a goat in sheep's clothing, they dress up their cabs to look like Taxi G, and concentrate on picking up fares from the street; chiefly tourists and people too drunk to tell the difference. They do what they do to survive. I can understand that.

But christ, you will not find a more hated lot. The customers hate them, because they are often incompetent and practiced extortionists. The other cab drivers hate them because they are in the way, holding up traffic in order to swoop down on all and any potential fares that might come their way. We hate them, because their shady dealings destroy our credibility, teaching our customers that cab drivers can and will happily be bought. Every time some drunken douche hangs drooling at my window, waving a fistful of cash in my face and demanding that I fit him and his seven friends into a car built for four (an offense that could easily cost me my licence), I blame the bastard cabbie (indie or otherwise) who set the precedent. Every time a customer tells me about this creepy cabbie who started to feel her up during the trip, I curse the unregulated indie cab drivers who have no company standards to uphold.

Our customers are being told, through the greed/desperation of the cabbie underdogs, that the cabbie can be bought. That he will dance for nickels. That he will beg for scraps. And above all, that he can't be trusted. And many customers are shocked and often furious to discover that a handful of us try to maintain some kind of integrity (none of us fully succeed, but we try).

So. What has the de-regulation of the business given us?

It has given the customers a greater variety of product, and it has given independent actors the opportunity to create and maintain their own enterprise. It has made the exchange between the cabbie and the cabbee more honest and direct. It has allowed me to work for the most popular company in town, with a customer base that will often express their gratitude and pleasure at the service I provide, motivating me to take pride in my work.

But on the flip side, it has created an environment where tricking the customers, selling your dignity, and breaking the law are all sensible survival strategies. It has created actors that cannot be trusted to see to the customer's security. It has lowered the status of the cab driver to the point where only strippers and possibly meter-maids are held in lower regard, as far as legitimate professions go.

Where do I stand with all this? Honestly, I have no really strong comittment either way. I, like most of my peers, despise the indie cabbies. This is my own, god-given bigotry, driven by instinct and justified by my own observations. It is not a rational, or a particularly pleasant trait of mine.

 But I am also aware that this is only a symptom of a greater issue (I won't call it a problem), the natural consequence of de-regulation. And so, while I do curse them out and feel that twinge of contempt every time I'm late to a fare because some indie asshole decided to stop in the middle of the road to pick up a gaggle of drunken hipsters, I don't wish them harm. Nor do I wish for their removal. They do what they do, because they can do. I can't blame them for it, but I do not approve of it. I tolerate them, because the same circumstances that created them also allows me to work in the unique way that my company operates.

In addition, they motivate me to do my best. At the risk of sounding pretentious, I figure that if my customers know that there are cabbies out there who are professionals and deserve to be treated as such, they will shun those who don't. And if enough of us do the same, the forces of the free market will transform the dodgy shit so rampant in the business from a viable survival strategy to a weak one at best.

Of course, it could be that its simply a matter of the house slaves despising the field slaves, and vice versa.

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