This week we found out what $100,000 will purchase you in terms of local governmental studies. Two professors, the younger James Cooper and the elder statesman Ray Mundy, have teamed up to examine taxi issues around the United States, the city of Seattle being their most recent client. To better understand their motivations, you must first understand that even tenured professors have inherent limits upon their university income. Even with insane tuition costs, college teachers themselves make modest incomes given the years of study and degrees required to become experts in their chosen field of study. Unless you find other avenues of outside income, the prized academician will have trouble buying that required new treed jacket every few years. The dusty, frayed, dedicated scholar might be a good image for the movies but in real life money is needed to put children through twenty years of schooling etc. which means today's college educators must be self-promoting. The college world presented in Pearl Buck's (1892-1973) 1938 novel "This Proud Heart" is long past, living and dying for educational excellence alone in an idyllic, tiny college town.
In part academics is now all about paid research, publishing papers and articles and books, in short "getting the money, honey!" which brings in Cooper and Mundy, two transportation infrastructure experts exploiting a niche market, the much misunderstood world of taxi cabs. Like Professors Tubby and Saltana in JB Priestley's (1894-1984) rollicking novel, "The Image Men", Cooper and Mundy have a product to spin and sell: the correct study of taxi and related transportation services. Like a small team of psychiatrists called in to quell a particularly contrary patient, Cooper and Mundy were generously paid to examine and diagnose a dysfunctional situation. How successful, and necessary their diagnosis was is what I will be entertaining here, knowing as I do the local industry. You might say I understand the asylum from the inside out, gaining perspective from long-term incarceration.
I certainly wished the City of Seattle had asked me and say, my taxi lobbyist colleague Chris to conduct the study. I am confident we could have conducted the study for a quarter of what the city paid, and perhaps for far less than that. But why trust local expertise when you can overpay complete strangers? Ray Mundy, in a remark to Chris said that "every city has a Joe Blondo, someone who has driven for years and knows everything about the local taxi business." Thanks, Professor Mundy, for the endorsement. I will try not to disappoint.
It is probably helpful to regard the Cooper/Mundy study, officially entitled "City of Seattle and King County Taxi, For Hire Vehicle and Limousine Services Demand Study," from the static perspective of reading it directly from the City of Seattle's website; and also from their city council presentation of nearly two hours on Tuesday September 2nd, 2013, which, beginning at 5:30 PM, ended promptly at 8:00 PM. Approximately 40 minutes at the end were given to public commentary, each commentator allowed two minutes. If you wish, you can watch an archived telecast via the City of Seattle website. There you can watch and hear fervent Lfyt drivers tell how nirvana was reached simply by opening their hearts and car doors to the greater Seattle public. Have your handkerchiefs ready and poised.
The major difference between the two was that the public forum allowed Cooper and Mundy to fully narrate their study, filling in gaps not always readily apparent, allowing for questions from the three sitting council members, Clark, Harrell, and O'Brien. Cooper's sometimes impassioned comments, along with Mundy's more subdued demeanor, added both color and additional information to the learned proceedings.
Other than some disruptive public speakers at the end, the audience, packing a "standing room only" council chambers, were unusually attentive and polite. Many in the audience clearly understood the potential potent of the study thus paying attention to the speakers rather than focus upon the various electronic devices cradled in their laps. Council member Harrell in particular offered many penetrating questions, attempting to clarify current market impacts upon the taxi industry itself. I detected hints of sympathy, which I personally appreciated, disdain the usual tone addressing all subjects taxi. I do recognize that all three members of Clark's subcommittee are committed to a fair and responsible resolution.
The report includes about forty pages or slides, as Sally Clark pointed out, is somewhat unusual. Cooper and Mundy certainly can't be faulted for not being thorough, it being the strength of their effort, clearly attempting to leave no issue unexamined. Despite their obvious scrutiny I dispute some of their statistical data, meaning I strongly question where their data gathering took them. If they are wrong, for instance, about market shares this is what happened when two individuals, uninitiated in both the taxi business and chosen city of study, come in like detectives looking for evidence.
I fully admit I have not read their other studies but is it possible that conclusions in those cases were not totally correct or accurate? Once an assumption is made, it is often transferred. I don't know if that is occurring here but I request that everyone involved, from the City, the County, the taxi industry and the other interested parties keep their critical mind connected. Blind or tacit acceptance or denial does not assist toward permanent remedy. The local taxi industry has been ill, running a high fever for decades. An ill-conceived prescription will only further sicken the patient. Full-recovery should be the goal instead of a hastening to the morgue.
The following are some specific comments concerning data and conclusions.
City Market Share
Cooper and Mundy break it down 56% taxi, 27% limo, 11% ride share & 6% for hire. If that taxi statistic was true the industry wouldn't have gas money. More accurate is about 75% give or take. The for-hire percentage is also higher. In regards to the limo figure does that include all those illegal "gypsy cab" pickups?
County Market Share
They have it as 53% taxi, 30% limo, 13% ride share & 4% for hire. Taxi in reality is at least 60% and depending, on the weekends as high as 70%. In this case the for hire percentage is also higher. King County is their turf. Drive over to Bellevue and check it out.
Visitor Market Share
The reports states it as taxi 69%, limo 19%, ride share 8% & for hire 4%. This where I more or less agree but bump up taxi to 75-80 % and the for hires perhaps as high 10-15%. The majority of the visitor limo rides are prearranged through the hotels because the tourists are frightened of the menacing "black cars" looming in on them. Some of the tourists standing on the streets truly look alarmed as well they should be.
Cooper and Mundy presented many beautiful and colorful charts worthy of many modernist exhibitions. For instance take the weekly daily-rider usage or demand chart, its pastel peaks and valleys a work of art. How accurate though is questionable because my 25 plus years out here have taught me the vagaries of the business, its ups and downs and everything in between.
The Friday and Saturday peaks make perfect sense but when it is declared that Sunday and Monday share similar trends is when I know they got it wrong. And what is that Thursday spike in the evening hours all about? Maybe once a year, if the Seahawks are winning, do you see a truly busy Thursday evening, when they are scheduled for a NFL Thursday night game. That just happened last week, an exhibition game against the hated Oakland Raiders. Their graph really understates Sundays, which this summer, from my experience, from the hours 10 AM- 10 PM, have been busier than the same periods on a given Saturday, my wallet all the evidence I need. With the arrival of the UW Husky college football season that could change the percentages.
Number of Vehicles
One alarming figure was the number of state-wide licenced limos, 1102, most which operate in Seattle and King County. One statistic Cooper and Mundy didn't state is how many of them were either owned or driven by former Seattle taxi drivers. My guess is 90-95% which, everyone, is part of the entire problem, and will remain until the licensing folks issuing all those new (taxi) for-hire driver licenses realize they must stop flooding the market with new (and inexperienced) drivers.
The FHV (for hire) total is 369 which includes 170 County-only. A major problem is that no can tell the different between a City or County for hire car meaning we sometimes might have all 369 FHVs working the city streets all at the same time. Scary! And with little to no enforcement what is there to discourage them? Essentially nothing whatsoever.
The taxi total is 928 cars, of which 240 are County-only translating into 688 City-plated or Dual-plated cabs. That 688 figure explains the limo and FHV figures. It is simple math, along with the crazy fact that there are over 3000 people licenced to drive a taxi in Seattle and King County. Professor Mundy stated the figure as 4000. Do the math, everyone, do the math!
The ride share number is unknown.
All Kinds of Surveys
Cooper and Mundy conducted all kinds of surveys, and I should know because me and Abebe T. were included in the stakeholder version, the good professors sharing tea with us at my favorite Chinese joint, Tai Tung in the International District.
The surveys were called public, institutional, stakeholder, and secret shopper, which were a total of 55 covert rides of various kinds. The surveys were designed to solicit opinion, much unfortunately negative toward the taxi industry in particular.
The institutional respondents were particularly scathing. These included restaurants, hotels, hospitals etc. They have a very poor opinion of the local taxi drivers. While I know some of the criticism is merited, I know from personal experience that much of it is plain and simple class bias. An example of that was when a University Hospital administrator had a poor interaction with a cabbie, the hospital taxi stand instantly disappeared, and for years afterwards drivers were harassed by security. I know as a living and breathing witness to this prolonged injustice. Certainly drivers must be at all times civil and professional but their sometimes bad behavior contains an explanation, beginning with how the City/County trains and licenses new taxi drivers.
Anyone who has ever seriously driven taxi understands that it is a "minor" hell on earth. The pressures, ranging from too many hours to traffic to outrageous costs to simply finding a fare can drive anyone, including myself, crazy. I can state definitely that no human being is prepared for the madness that is taxi. And the attitude that anyone and everyone should be inserted into the business without long preparation and consideration is just stupid.
But that is happening not only in Seattle but everywhere across the USA, innocents placed in a butcher shop, and you wonder at the screaming? The major failure of the surveys was the lack of recognition of how we have arrived at poor overall taxi driver performance. It is not accidental. The simple and quick explanation is the ill-prepared driver, often not knowing how to drive a car let alone a taxi, succumbs to the inherent pressures and loses his or her mind.
And if you think the governmental agencies licensing the new drivers care, think again. They collect the money, then boot the instant cabbies out into the public where everyone pays the cost for poor governmental judgement. With all of the months spent examining the local industry, Cooper and Mundy missed that most important fact.
One legitimate criticism beyond question is poor dispatching from the local associations, this tying into poor taxi response times
Personal reactions to the Cooper and Mundy report will vary I believe according to not only your knowledge of the current local transportation situation, but how you initially perceived the problem, the conundrum that is our taxi and related services. Professor Mundy said that, other than NYC, which has a long livery cab tradition in the outer boroughs, Seattle is the only major city to have inserted FHVs into the mix. To me it shows the poor judgement displayed over the years by City and County regulators, regulatory mismanagement creating a confusion placed on the City Council's lap. Given the level of the crisis the city council have overall been rather well humored, attempting to decipher a twisted equation. Did Cooper and Mundy achieve clarity? Were are the pegs placed in the proper holes? Yes and No.
Overall this taxi professor gives the team an overall B grade, giving James Cooper a B plus, especially for his overall effort; and Ray Mundy a B minus for not understanding why the sour taxi attitude. One of his final comments stated in part that no new taxi licences are merited because of the dysfunction revealed by the surveys. One of the weaknesses of the study was the near omission of regulatory responsibility. You mean we got to this dismal point all by accident? When looking at any cause you have to focus on who is providing official guidance.
Professor Mundy did rightly and correctly point out that the City and County have made subtanial improvements in both car quality and safety. Given that, why is the City/County allowing non-inspected ride share cars out on the streets and highways? Until the regulators begin understanding just how comprehensive they must be, the taxi industry and related services will remain in an utter state of confusion. The regulators have guided us here. Now what they are going to do is the question of the hour.
What impressed me the most concerning Professors Cooper and Mundy was what I see as their 80 to nearly 90% understanding of the local industry. Given the relatively short time, what was it, four or five months, they did a good job unravelling a riddle. In truth they were given what some might see as an impossible task and they nearly reached the summit. I can't fault them for the gaps. A grade B to B plus is nearly Ivy League if not the University of Chicago. Again, I personally appreciate the effort given.
Taxi Industry Response
Despite the seemingly cloudy scenario, the taxi industry have little to fear from either the report or perceived competitors. Heightened efficiency and adaption to new technologies will quickly bring us to where we want to be, the recognized leader in personal transportation. We already have most of the necessary infrastructure in place. All we need to do now is remove nonsensical attitudes and we will be fine. We have been our own worst enemies, and let this study serve as a much needed wake-up call. Recent examples show what a little effort and commonsense can achieve.
The airline industry, a mere five years ago were bleeding profits and ready for a permanent grounding. Now even American Airlines is showing real profits.
The American automobile industry was four years ago driving on three wheels and now they have come roaring back. We all know how great the Crowne Victoria is. And we too can quickly achieve a new sustainability.
My prediction is that in six to eighteen months, all the major Seattle associations will be fine. Whatever market share we might have lost will be regained. Our response times will be the best in the nation. And all of the complaints will turn to praise. I know this will happen. I know the talent we collectively have. Let us recognize our errors and move forward. I know we will be successful. Contrary to the criticism, our drivers are great people. A small refocusing and everyone will be okay. There was nothing in the Cooper/Mundy study we can't quickly repair. Now it is time to get to work and enjoy the journey!