Many visitors to Sacramento come for a taste of the Old West. Some end up experiencing a modern Wild West – when they get in a downtown taxi.
Tales abound of drivers' fistfights over customers, 90-mph rides and under-the-table payments. And then there's the story – recounted by the president of the local taxi drivers union – of the cabbie with limited English skills who took a passenger for a ride on Interstate 5 rather than where the person asked to go, Fifth and I streets.
With downtown leaders and even taxi drivers saying the industry needs to become more professional, especially with a new downtown arena planned, city officials say they will bring a series of potential regulatory changes to the City Council's legal committee this month or next for discussion.
On the table: Requiring taxi drivers to accept credit cards, implementing an English proficiency test and establishing higher standards for taxi age and maintenance. City business permit manager Dafna Gauthier, who is heading the review, said she will talk to council members about new radio dispatch protocols that would reduce the taxi lineups in front of downtown hotels.
Gauthier also will propose allowing passengers to use QR codes on their smartphones to review their experience or report problems right from the back seat.
"We have to make this a better industry," Gauthier said. "We want to make (downtown) a great place."
The city also must decide whether to continue limiting the number of cabs within its borders to 500 or allow more. Some drivers complain 500 cabs are too many, making it hard for drivers to survive financially in a downtown where taxi use is growing, but still modest.
Council member Darrell Fong said higher standards would improve the first impressions many visitors have of the city. But, he said, City Hall must not overreach.
"I don't want to become over-restrictive, and overburden businesses," he said.
A Sacramento Bee review of more than 100 complaints filed over the last few years, as well as code enforcement documents and interviews, paints a picture of a tense, low-income industry where drivers scramble and sometimes scuffle for riders.
Two taxi drivers were suspended this year for getting into a fistfight at the Greyhound station over a pick-up. One allegedly pulled out a Taser stun gun. Another driver was fired this year for repeatedly using pepper spray during disputes.
Shelly Moranville, general manager of the Residence Inn by Marriott at Capitol Park, was upset when a cab driver at her hotel refused to give a disabled out-of-town conventioneer a ride of only a few blocks because the short ride would be worth only a few dollars for the driver. She had to call another driver for the woman.
Council member Fong said that has happened to him as well, even though city regulations require cabs to take any rider.
Kazman Zaidi, a driver for National Cab Co. and president of the Northern California Taxi Union, said there is a strong economic disincentive for cabbies to make those short rides.
He and other drivers typically line up near one of several major downtown hotels to wait for a fare, and often find themselves on hold for hours before being summoned to the hotel door for a passenger. As a result, drivers may get only two rides during a work shift.
"If it's just a $5 run, you have a heart attack," Zaidi said.
The desire among taxi drivers for $40 airport runs has led to under-the-table arrangements between taxi drivers and some hotel employees.
Several taxi drivers told The Bee they pay hotel bellhops and valets $5 to assure they get a passenger headed to the airport, and not one wanting to go around the corner to the Capitol or to Old Sacramento.
Zaidi calls the payment a "tip." Another driver told The Bee he doesn't like the arrangement but accepts it. "Five dollars is a lot," he said, but "I need to work."
City officials said they have not been able to verify the sidewalk payments. Several hotel managers said they have told their employees not to engage in the activity.
Most complaints about taxis focus on bad driving. While most are minor, some are serious. One rider complained his driver topped 90 mph while weaving around traffic on the freeway.
A few complaints involve drivers who seem to take a roundabout way to get to a destination.
The city has issued a handful of warnings and $100 and $200 fines to taxi associations for indiscretions. It has ordered one taxi group to add a disabled-accessible taxi to its fleet and ordered another to clean its taxis. Two taxi associations were admonished for failing to have their offices open for consumer calls and complaints, and another for not posting required notices in a taxi, including a rate list and passenger bill of rights.
Local officials say the most important question the city faces this fall may be whether to extend its two-year moratorium on allowing new taxi permits beyond the existing 500.
Fred Pleines, head of Yellow Cab in Sacramento, supports keeping limits in place, saying they reduce infighting among drivers for fares and allow the city better quality control of the taxi industry.
"I can argue there are still too many cabs operating in Sacramento," Pleines said. "There are drivers trying to survive on two trips a day. We have the right amount of cabs on New Year's Eve. But that is it."
One potential controversial suggestion is to require taxi drivers to pass an English proficiency test.
Taxi union president Zaidi said he would be willing to support that, and also said he encourages the city to establish a dress code.
Bill Camp of the Central Labor Council, however, said an English test could be seen as discriminatory.
"Overwhelmingly, these cab drivers were not born in the U.S. and English is not their first language," Camp said. "We should be encouraging people to take language classes, but to make it a requirement is going to exclude a bunch of people."
Zaidi, who said his taxi union includes about 125 members, said he encourages the city to keep in mind its responsibility to help the taxi industry, not just crack down on it.
"We are desperate," he said. Some taxi drivers make do on $50 in fares a day, he said. Some do double shifts, sleeping in their cars. "This is a very sick industry, believe me. We need help."
Call The Bee's Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059. Follow him on Twitter @tonybizjak.