City Beat

Sacramento City Council votes for stricter regulations for taxi industry

Sacramento City Hall has sent a message to the city’s cabbies: learn English and put on a nice set of clothes.

Despite the objections of some drivers, the City Council voted 9-0 on Tuesday night to enact strict new regulations on the taxi industry. The rules will require drivers to take exams that focus on English language skills, proficiency in counting change and drivers’ knowledge of Sacramento geography, or acquire an alternative certification that tests them on similar skills.

Drivers will also be required to wear “professionally appropriate clothing,” although that requirement is loosely defined. Council members deleted a provision that would have required drivers to wear collared shirts, dress slacks and closed-toe shoes.

Cabbies will have to accept credit cards and drive vehicles that are less than 8 years old.

Councilman Steve Hansen, who represents the central city, said a taxi driver taking him to Natomas from downtown got lost on the trip. He said “there are great taxis” in the city, “but we’re always judged by the least among us,.”

“This is currently an industry in Sacramento that’s in crisis,” he said. “I really do believe that a well-regulated profession will make everybody better.”

City officials, taxi industry leaders, hotel owners and downtown interest groups have been crafting the new regulations for more than a year. The ordinance was written in response to reports of fistfights among cabbies, rude exchanges with customers and high-speed rides.

The new restrictions will cap the number of taxis downtown to 450, from the current field of more than 500. City officials said a limit on cabs will ease a hostile environment created by unregulated competition.

That aggressive atmosphere also led the city to prohibit cabbies from blocking customers trying to get into competing taxis and from blocking other taxi drivers attempting to park their vehicles.

Shelly Moranville, general manager of the Residence Inn Downtown Sacramento and a supporter of the ordinance, cited several other cities that already have taxi regulations, including San Jose and Pasadena. “We’re way past our time to do this,” she said.

Scott VandenBerg, general manager of the Hyatt Regency, said the regulations would please business travelers and convention-goers who “expect a clean, safe vehicle” when they call for a cab.

Much of the attention of the debate had been placed on a 17-question test city officials wrote that it proposed giving to cabbies. The test would gauge drivers’ basic English skills, with questions such as “Another word for taxi is: a) Car b) Cab c) Bus d) Amusement.” It also would quiz drivers on how well they can count change.

Kazman Zaidi, the head of the Sacramento Taxi Cab Union, said the new regulations would create a burden on an already difficult industry.

“We cab drivers are barely surviving,” he said.

New on-demand driver services such as Uber and Lyft have already cut into taxi drivers’ business, he said. And the downtown hotel business – the foundation of the taxi economy in Sacramento – is susceptible to “ups and downs,” Zaidi said.

Requiring 24-hour dispatch service and equipping cabs with the technology to accept credit cards will also cut into drivers’ bottom lines, Zaidi said. He asked that the city subsidize the taxi industry.

Zaidi also rejected the provision that requires cabbies to dress well and “be hygienically clean.”

“This is very, very bad,” he said. “We are human beings and everybody takes showers.”

Attorney Gabriel Vivas told the council that “the unintended consequence (of the ordinance) is that it will put a lot of immigrants out of work and out of business.”

It's already difficult to get rich driving a taxi in Sacramento. Average hourly wages for taxi drivers in the region were about $13 an hour last year, or about $26,000 a year, according to state figures. The profession is growing, though: State officials predict the region will have about 30 job openings for taxi drivers each year until 2020.

About 900 taxi drivers work in the Sacramento region, according to the latest figures from the state Employment Development Department. Most do business in and around the city of Sacramento.

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