Thursday, April 26, 2018

Greetings From Holland, Ohio---Do You Remember "Joe The Plumber?" & 2 Taxi Stories & Origins Of The Current Port Of Seattle Sea-Tac Mess

I first stayed in Holland, Ohio during my September 2008 trip here to Toledo, set upon the mission of interring my mother's ashes next to her parents in the Roman Catholic Calvary Cemetery, which is how I know of that short lived media sensation, Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, more famously known as "Joe the Plumber," having less than a month later addressed a question to then campaigning Senator Obama right here in Holland.  Once a Fox News darling, poor Joe is now just another forgotten cultural footnote assigned to the nonsense cluttering up our collective societal mind.  At least he has something I don't have which is a middle name, a detail my bickering parents couldn't decide, leaving me destined to remain forever minus that connective middle appellation, essential not only to identity but life itself.

Now once again in Holland, this time at the local paper-thin Quality Inn, finding myself nightly serenaded by US Highway 23/475, eighteen wheelers singing their roaring tune.  Today I began my serious search, like a nomadic boll weevil, for a new Toledo abode to house everything I own but now stored for nearly $300.00 a month in Lakewood, Washington.  What is astounding is that my monthly mortgage could be little more than that for an entire house, fully displaying how Seattle and area has totally lost its economic mind, charging far too much for too little in return.

When I left Seattle on Tuesday I was filling up my cab at $3.15.9 per gallon.  Here I will fill up my rental car at $2.42.9 per gallon.  Is Seattle gasoline somehow better than Toledo gasoline?  I don't think so and neither do you which is why here in Toledo I will buy a house for between $40 to $60 thousand dollars, a dwelling that would now cost me between 800 thousand to one million dollars in Seattle.  Is Seattle that much better than Detroit or Toledo or Cleveland or so many other places here in the American Midwest, so wonderful a place that you would rather pay a $4000. a month mortgage than say, $500. a month?

Maybe back in 1973 it was when I first moved there during that distant January, but not now, it just isn't true, and while Mount Rainier is great, a natural wonder, when was the last time you drove over there and took in an inspiring hike in the park?   Toledo is a gateway to some of the greatest lakes on the planet, Lakes Erie, Michigan, Superior inland freshwater seas.  Grab a canoe and start paddling!  And perhaps a fishing pole too.

Two Taxi Stories But I Intended On Recounting Three

Yes, that's right, three fares brought me the idea to  transcribe them to the taxi page but the first one, the original incentive, remains lost somewhere in the cognitive neurons of my cabbie fatigued brain, an unfortunate example of what taxi does to you, wiping you out physically and mentally, your once illustrated cerebellum now a blank slate.  If I ever remember I'll write it down but I am doubtful, my brain cells scrambled like so many breakfast eggs.

Three Giraffes 

She was a character out of Tennessee Williams, a soft-spoken emotionally fragile woman in her mid-30s carrying a very important load: three large metal bronze-colored giraffes she had found at the Sodo Salvation Army store.  Very, very carefully I set the trio in the trunk, she the ever watchful mother over her metallic children.  "Don't worry," I reassured her, placing newspaper between them, "They will be okay."

On the drive to her mother's house in Renton, she kept repeating her voice was soft, which it certainly was, difficult to hear over the road noise.  Wearing a light blue parka with the hood pulled over, she was a Seattle Eskimo on her own personal African safari, having bagged her thrift store quarry upon the asphalt plains.

Carrying the giraffes into the house, there was her petite elderly mother garbed in a neat blue and white patterned house dress, sitting at the living room table credit card in hand.  The fare was $31.00, with Mom giving me an additional ten on top, making this fairyland ride both profitable and memorable, a brief incursion into a shattered world.

A Motel Key

A short man staggered out of the Mandarin Gate lounge influenced by whiskey, marijuana, and what he described as 25 small strokes.  Having fled the VA Hospital and a competency hearing, he was on his way back home to California but there was one small problem: he couldn't remember the name of his motel, and worst, that key in his pocket failed to identify which Aurora Avenue (State Route 99) motel he was registered to.

Thankfully he said it was here somewhere in the north-end and I believed him, knowing it made sense that the Yellow Cab taking him from the Greyhound would bring him to this locale and its string of cheaper motels.  He told me his story, how after avoiding his court dates, the judge dismissed his case and anyway, he could take care of himself and how his married stripper girlfriend was waiting for him but her husband was trouble, which I also believed.

Trying to make sense of the senseless, off we went on our search for a motel he had no memory of, not able to provide one second of description, not knowing whether it was north or south or on the west or east side of Aurora.  I stopped him from rolling a joint, telling him that was the last thing he needed, clarity obviously more essential.  As too often occurs, I was no longer just his cabbie, I was his life counselor.

As there were limited possibilities, I determined it had to be the Marco Polo Motel, and asking the clerk, he said it looked liked one of theirs, and trying the key, "Thank the Taxi Gods!" the door opened, his luggage just where he had left it, two very large bags for a troubled man again on his way to his own very measurable journey. 

Origins of the Current Sea-Tac Taxi & Flat-rate Operational Crisis 

There is a new crisis concerning Eastside-for-Hire's contract servicing Sea-Tac's taxi (and flat-rate for-hire) operations.  No one involved appear to very happy about much of anything, with lawsuits filed, picketers waving signs and fingers pointed in every which direction at all available targets.

Next week I hope to post an extensive explanation and analysis detailing the issue from all sides, presenting each position and argument for and against.  My purpose will be to both clarify and demystify the issues, thus perhaps rendering some stability upon the stormy taxi seas, but admittedly, knowing this won't be easy due to history, of how the argument began.

In reality, many of the current players have nothing to do with the root cause, that being very bad decisions centered upon the back of the City of Seattle; and alleged  actions perpetuated  by Seattle Yellow Cab when they last held the Sea-Tac service contract.  As I hope to quickly point out, actions taken by Craig Leisy (of Seattle Licensing & Enforcement) to encourage the purchase of available flat-rate for-hire licenses, along with the Seattle City Council's decision to uncap Uber & Lyft from 250 operators to unlimited entry brought the situation to where we now find it.

As someone who opposed both proposals, all I can say is, I told you so, both actions bad ideas, knowing little good would come from them other than chaos, which is what we got and now have.  Didn't anyone understand what and who they were dealing with?  No!

Over 8 years ago we in the taxi industry were begging for more City of Seattle taxi licenses to be released.  No, no, and no was the response even though more could have been authorized.  Craig Leisy thought he had a good solution to the problem: releasing the licenses of a kind of livery cab  created jointly by Seattle and King County.

Nobody knew anything about them until Leisy released the flat-rate licenses upon the starved taxi populace, who in turn quickly grabbed them up, approximately 250 City licenses having been  released.  King County, in its lack of wisdom, said you can buy as many KC versions as you would like, one million, two million not mattering.

The result of this licensing "feeding frenzy" was the creation of a business model that didn't have one, setting up those who had taken the plunge to operate in any fashion they could to survive and pay the bills.  Fast forward to when the Sea-Tac contract was reopened for bidding, allowing Eastside an opportunity, reaching for it, and to everyone's surprise, actually winning!

Most don't know that the Seattle City Council, led by then Council President Sally Clark, conducted a 1 1/2 year study to determine just how many passengers annually used Seattle taxi-like services, even hiring the transportation professors James Cooper and Ray Mundy to lend their expertise to the process.  A side note is that Mundy openly wondered just what were these strange transportation animals called flat-rate vehicles?

In summation the City Council determined that Uber and Lyft should be capped, which should have been the end of the story but upon a new mayor's intervention, new discussion ensued, giving us the situation we now have today, a survey in today's Seattle Times stating that taxis have become Seattle's last transportation choice.  Once Seattle condoned Uber, King County and the Port of Seattle followed, giving us the saturated market we face today, overwhelming the taxis and flat-rates now serving Sea-Tac.

Yellow Cab's part in the current Sea-Tac was their alleged under reporting of trips, thus angering Port of Seattle managers to the point that anyone but Yellow was going to win the new contract, allowing Eastside, as I said, to get very lucky.  But as it is often said, be careful what you wish for because Eastside's tenure so far has been miserable for them, lawsuits and Teamsters Local 177 barking at their heels.

And that my taxi friends is how the three-ring circus we now know as Sea-Tac was made manifest, everyone unhappy save the Sea-Tac passengers more than content to be taking Uber home from the airport.  If you don't believe Uber isn't dominating the airport, I offer as evidence the amazing fact that a Port of Seattle Police Officer allowed a passenger on the upper curb to get into my cab.  With me telling her no, the passing officer told her, "I don't care. Take the cab."   What this told me is that he has given up after watching countless Ubers illegally pickup passengers, all openly disregarding the rules as written.  To say I was shocked is more than an understatement.  I was stunned.

Cab-Jacking Update

As of Monday, SPD was still holding Ted's cab after finding it abandoned the day after it was stolen.  If they are doing forensic tests, they are taking their old, sweet time of it.   Ted would certainly like to get his cell phone back.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Cab-Jacking In Seattle & We Can Now Pickup At SafeCo Field? & Taxi Computer Problems

The rarest of events happened late Wednesday night when my friend Ted was both robbed and made to leave his cab, with the two assailants driving away in his taxi.  The short version of the story is that a man approached the cab in a darkened place beneath the Alaskan Viaduct (State Route 99) with a rifle wrapped in a blanket, forcing Ted to stop.  After robbing him, the man and his female companion drove off.  Making this bad story worse was the response of the Seattle police, refusing to do an immediate search because Ted didn't know the license plate number but given the cab was, one, a big Yellow Ford Crown Victoria, and two, the taxi's number 516 clearly posted on the sides and rear, it should have been somewhat easy to spot but no, SPD has their procedure and there would be no deviation from established policies, of course allowing the couple to get away.

One surprising part of the story is that the criminals knew enough to turn off the cab's computer, meaning dispatch lost the ability to track it.  Twice the car was spotted by Yellow cabbies but in one case my friend James hit a big pothole which unfortunately deflated two tires because if anyone could have stayed behind the fools it would be James.

Regardless of anything, Ted thankfully was not hurt and the cab was found the next day and is now currently sitting in a SPD parking lot, scheduled to be released sometime Monday or Tuesday.  This is the first time in my 30 Seattle taxi years I've heard of this happening, meaning that while Seattle cab driving will drive you crazy your chance of being murdered is very small unlike in cities like Chicago and New York.  But given that it happened to someone with more taxi miles and years than me also says something, suggesting that Seattle is changing for the worst, not the better.

The Seattle Police Department Likes Uber?

Damn was I surprised when picking up at last night's Seattle Mariner's game at SafeCo field given the SPD's indifferent to me and ALL THOSE UBER & Lyft CARS blocking traffic around the stadium.  The usual story is the past has been harassment from Seattle's finest but last night they didn't say a word to anyone as I picked up three times, my last passenger taking me to Bellevue and $42.60.

Clearly SPD has been told to lay off the Ubers and consequently, at least for the taxi moment, we cabbies too are also provided a free pass.  Why I am so pleased that if I see Uber's founder walking down the street I might even kiss him.  As yes, instant love or maybe not, the chance of infection too great even for a toxic ridden cabbie to take!

When You Can't Authorize your Credit Card 

A major drawback of taxi dispatch computers is when they crash you are left without any option except to wait it out.  Last night we were all presented with a unique scenario when it wasn't at all apparent the system was down when we did the commonplace, authorize a credit card payment, me and everyone else getting the message, "Buffeted Transaction," meaning the computer authorization was in an "intermediate stage" which until last night resulted in quick completed authorizations.  Talking to friends and colleagues it seems all of us all didn't understand what was happening, that the transactions were faulty, endangering our ultimate payment.

Unfortunately this might all turn into a huge argument with Puget Sound Dispatch if it turns out that hundreds of credit card authorizations failed to process.  Too often in my many years all responsibility is always put on the cabbie even though it isn't our fault, having done nothing but pay our fees and trust the associations to treat us fairly.  Our weekly $180.00 must come with some guarantees other than heartbreak.  When the computer goes down, how is it our responsibility?  I would like to know.

Monday, April 9, 2018

An Open Letter To The Current City of Seattle City Council President, Bruce Harrell, April 9th, 2018

Dear City Council President Harrell,

With great interest I have been following the city council's proposals and deliberations concerning the well being of Seattle's Uber and Lyft operators, the council supporting efforts to not only unionize but also to increase the Uber minimum rate from $1.35 to $2.40.  Clearly there has been much discourse as to why they are not making enough money to survive, yet I find it interesting that  you and your fellow council member are searching for solutions for something created solely by your own actions, voting, as I am sure you remember, to toss out the city council bill capping all ride-share companies at 250 vehicles each.  The real reason ride-share drivers can't make a living is due to there being 57,000 thousand of them competing in the very small market that is Seattle.  Yes, Uber might be immoral but that isn't why their market is saturated.  Again, the core reason all this is occurring is because the city council decided to open the ride share industry to unfettered expansion, minus any real enforceable regulation and oversight. 

Surely you remember, because I certainly do, as I was sitting directly in front of you as you agreed with Sally Bagshaw that the council's excellent work of 1 1/2 years (quoting then Council President Sally Clark) deserved to be rescinded, for what reason I was never clear upon.  The vote was 8 to 1, with only Mike O'Brien seeking a delay.  With that motion, you and the city council, along with Mayor Ed Murray openly embraced Uber, embarking on a relationship you now say is fraught with disparities, challenging your corporate spouse, saying this isn't what we expected when we in the city council said "I do!" kissing the technological monster firmly on the lips, vowing forever to be true.

My question to you from the local taxi industry as a whole is, why did the city council do this, and why are you now contradicting yourselves minus the obvious that all of you, save Mr. O'Brien, were completely wrong to capitulate, allowing Uber and Mayor Murray to rule the day?  It is something I've puzzled over for years, still not understanding the City's incentive promoting Uber over the nearly 100 year old local taxi industry, a quick bureaucratic romance now requiring some annulment.  What, I ask, is exactly going on?

And this isn't the first time I've asked this question, from the very beginning suspicious because the details as to why and how have remained hidden from public view, to the point that I contacted Danny Westneat  amongst others to see if they were interested in prying open the locked door.  Having gotten no takers, it appears its solely left to me to question the city council's and Ed Murray's ultimate motivations concerning their business dealings with Uber.

At this point, it appears confusion reigns, with your council throwing anything and everything at the administrative wall, seeing if it sticks, including a proposal to lower current taxi rates to $2.40 per mile.  Thanks but no thanks, as again, given that you folks started all this, why do we cabbies have to take on your burden?  Collectively we are not pleased to be tied to your whipping post.  What did we do to deserve this?  Just what is our crime?  What are our sins requiring divine governmental penance?


Joseph (Joe ) Blondo

former chair, The Seattle & King County Taxi Advisory Commission

former president,  The Alliance of Taxi Associations