Complaints about taxis in Sacramento – rude service, dirty vehicles, disheveled drivers – have gone on so long that something has to be done. The proposal endorsed by a City Council committee on Tuesday is a positive and necessary step.
While bigger cab companies back the rules, several independent cabbies and smaller companies complained to the Law and Legislation Committee that the requirements would increase their costs in a cutthroat market and likely drive them out of business.
They would merit more sympathy if they had done more to clean up their act already. As much as council members should avoid putting people out of work, they also must look out for customers – and the city’s image. Some hotel operators and convention officials say so many drivers are getting lost, fighting for fares and refusing to pick up passengers that it’s hurting Sacramento’s reputation among visitors.
Besides, the rules are rather basic. Cabbies would have to pass a rudimentary online test on knowledge of city streets, customer service and minimal English. They would be under a cleanliness and dress code – shirts with collars, dress slacks, closed-toe shoes. To protect tourists from getting gouged, there would be a $45 maximum fare from downtown to Sacramento International Airport and $15 for trips inside downtown and midtown.
City staffers agreed to one concession after meeting with taxi drivers; they could use devices on smartphones to accept credit and debit cards, instead of having to install card readers in cabs.
And at the committee’s direction, staffers will look at more ways to soften the ordinance before it goes to the full City Council. They will consider alternative dispatch systems for cab associations after several representatives said they can’t afford a 24/7 central dispatch office. Also, staffers will study potential exemptions to an 8-year age limit on cabs, perhaps if they have relatively low mileage and pass safety inspections. As it is, companies could phase in newer cabs over five years.
One provision the city and the taxi industry do agree on is to cap the number of taxi licenses at 450 (1 for every 1,000 people), down from an estimated 510 cabs on the street. If there’s a glut, it’s downtown, where cabbies compete ferociously for lucrative fares to the airport.
Whatever the impact from this ordinance, the evolving transportation market may soon have more impact. Online services that link passengers with private car owners, such as Uber and Lyft, came to Sacramento last year and are already cutting into the cab business. The ride services are regulated by the state Public Utilities Commission, which gave an initial green light last September.
As a general rule, governments should tread lightly in imposing regulations on businesses when public safety or health isn’t directly at stake.
But with persistent problems in the important taxi industry, this is an instance where City Hall shouldn’t shy away from stepping in.