When Downtown Mall landlord Mark Brown bought Yellow Cab and Anytime Taxi last year, he created Charlottesville’s largest round-the-clock cab company, and started making big changes right away: a fleet of sleek new hybrid cars, an app that lets customers book rides via Web and smartphone, and credit card swipe machines that make it easy to pay with plastic in every car.
Brown says business is booming and bringing more shoppers and diners Downtown, but there are discontented rumblings coming from within the city’s cab industry—an industry that’s both highly competitive and resistant to change.
Two Yellow Cab drivers speaking on condition of anonymity said morale is down and tempers are up among the veteran cabbies of both newly acquired companies. The call center is staffed by one inexperienced dispatcher, they said, which means their main customer base—poorer residents without Web or mobile phone access who need a ride to the laundromat or the grocery store —often face hold times of 10 minutes or longer when they call for a cab.
And there are some things the computer system just can’t do, they said, like ask a student which dorm entrance to come to, or prioritize fares by area, so drivers aren’t wasting time crisscrossing the city.
But their biggest beef is over money and autonomy. Most cab drivers operate as independent contractors, paying about $260 a week for the right to shuttle passengers in a car branded with somebody else’s company name. But the cost of doing business with Yellow Cab and Anytime Taxi is going up, they said. The new credit card system takes 5 percent of fares and tips. Many cabbies who agreed to lease the shiny new Hyundai hybrids Brown is pushing are locked into five-year partnerships with Yellow Cab, but aren’t seeing the promised payoff from lower mileage costs, said the drivers.
“We’ve got a lot of drivers out here that can’t even pay their lease,” said one Yellow Cab contractor. And there’s no love lost between drivers and the companies’ new owner. “It’s his way or the highway, is what we say.”
Lloyd Smith used to drive for Yellow Cab, but the same problems the anonymous drivers pointed to finally drove him to contract with relative newcomer McCoy’s Taxi Service instead.
“The computer system is a failure,” he said. “It can’t do what the human aspect can do. A lot of times, you’re getting calls, but there’s no way to show people have moved or called another cab.”
But a bigger problem, he said, is that Brown just doesn’t get the industry—or respect the fact that a lot of cabbies consider themselves independent business owners.
“In order for somebody to run a cab company, they have to have been a cab driver,” he said. “He wants to run it like a McDonald’s.”
Smith thinks a driver exodus could sink Brown, especially once the smartphone-toting UVA traffic evaporates in June. “He’s not going to make it this summer, because everyone is walking away from him.”
McCoy’s owner Kennan McCoy said he and other smaller companies are getting a lot of calls from former Yellow and Anytime customers frustrated with long hold times. In a small town with a lot of cab options, he said, treating the rider right is the only way to succeed—that, and respecting drivers.
“It seems to me you’d catch more flies with honey,” he said.
Brown acknowledged that his phone dispatch system has issues, but he said it’s because his service—particularly the pay-by-card option—is so popular. He started with 15 cars, and now has more than six times that. He’s planning to add several new dispatchers in the coming weeks. “We’re struggling to keep up, the demand is so great,” he said.
One of his supervisors, Mike Anderson, has been driving a cab in Charlottesville for seven years, and said Brown has raised the bar. The previous owners of Yellow were more like slumlords, he said, refusing to repair and update cars that could barely limp to Richmond and back without breaking down.
The computer dispatch system may still have some kinks, but it’s increased efficiency, Anderson said, and it’s more fair. No more dispatchers playing favorites and giving certain drivers all the good fares. And despite the griping over the 5 percent take, he said the credit card machines are a boon for drivers, too.
“People would rather hold onto their cash,” he said. “If they tip with a credit card, they’re a lot more willing to give you a bigger tip.”
Brown said the complaints from cabbies really come down to one thing: resistance to a new system that comes with far more accountability.
“From 1933”—the year Yellow Cab was founded—“to June of 2012, the company hadn’t changed much,” said Brown. “There wasn’t much advancement other than a radio and a map.”
And while drivers might have been content with that, he said, their passengers shouldn’t be.
“For 80 years in this town, as a taxi driver or a dispatcher, you could rip off customers,” he said—or at least get away with blaming lateness on poor communication. Now, every call and mobile request is logged, and GPS tracking eliminates any questions about where and when cabs show up. The new technology is a public safety plus, too, he said. When a UVA student reported an attempted rape by a man she thought was a cab driver last month, Brown said his company was able to map exactly where all its cars were that night, eliminating more than a hundred suspects.
While all the oversight might ruffle the feathers of fiercely independent cabbies, Brown said that doesn’t mean it’s not good business. He said some may be complaining, but the uptick in fares is lining the pockets of plenty of drivers. “The machines probably double, triple their business. Everyone who works for me is making markedly more money than before,” he said.
Bottom line, said Brown: High-tech dispatch and cashless transactions of the future of the taxi business. If he didn’t bring it to Charlottesville, somebody else would. “Change is inevitable,” he said.