The last surviving taxicab company in New Haven is called "Terminal Taxi Co."
The entire taxicab industry, in fact, will soon be a terminal case without effective therapy. Last year 17 taxi companies went bankrupt in California. Between 1974 and 1976, about 1,000 cab companies across the country went out of business, says Richard V. Gallagher of the International Taxi Association.
This is not only a loss to the owners and drivers and a further inconvenience to well-to-do people in a hurry. It also is a blow to the efforts to establish a functioning public transportation system. And that, in turn, is essential for lifting the brown cloud of pollution over our cities and for giving fair break to those who can't or can't afford to drive their own cars.
Taxis account for 40 percent of all public transportation in this country.
Richard S. Page, who heads the Urban Mass Transportation Administration and formerly the director of Seattle's transit service, has for many months promised a policy statement that would acknowledge the importance of taxis as a member of the "family of services" essential to break the life or death dependency on private cars. They are needed not only in the city but also in rural areas.
Bureaucrats refer to vehicles that come when you call them and take you where you need to go as "paratransit." They have designed what they consider an ideal prototype, a cross between a van and a compact car, which comfortably accomodates four persons, one in a wheelchair. A fold-up ramp allows the person in the wheelchair to board without assistance. The new wheelchair cab is supposed to be quiet and nonpolluting.
UMTA is still vague about how and when this paratransit vehicles is to be produced. With 12 million Americans in wheelchairs and even more elderly and youngsters unable to get around, it obviously has a huge market. The big automobile manufacturers have shown no interest in developing even a decent taxi that can got in and out of. The Checker taxi cabbles say is hard to get and expensive.
UMTA hopes that three manufacturers will pick up the paratransit vehicle, build three of them each and test them for a while. The best may go into production in two or three years.
The future of Page's paratransit policy (as opposed to his paratransit vehicle) is also vague. While stressing the needs of the handicapped and the elderly, the proposed policy urges local communities to include reliable taxi dial-a-ride, jitney, community minibus, subsription bus service and other forms of shared rides in their transportation planning.
If the planning make sense to UMTA, the federal agency is prepared to subsidize such operations on the part of private and public operators, provided they offer shared services. In other words, a private cab company can be subsidized for regular contractual services to an old age home. It cannot get a government handout for taking businessmen to the airport.
The policy and the promised subsidies would, of course, be a great boon to public transportation.
Rail transit, as Washingtonians well know, is very expensive, although you have to ask yourself compared to what. Nobody mentions what the loop freeways that threatened to strangle downtown Washington 10 years ago would have cost today. We do know that just one mile of New York City's proposed Westwat along the Hudson will cost $250 million. That makes the 100-mile Metro rail system look cheap.
Bus transit also has its limitations, being locked into fixed routes. And off-hour bus service, though essential, is often unprofitable.
Miami transit authority had discontinued night bus service but will send a cab on call at the regular bus fare. The customer gets home. The transit authority keeps its riders.And the cab company has a steady contract. The cabs cost half as much as a bus would cost.
This illustrates the potential of cooperation between public transit authorities and public or private taxi, paratransit, dial-a-ride, or whatever you call it.
Richard Page's promising policy statement, however, is still being held up - mostly, I understand, because the bus drivers are afraid paratransit will threaten their jobs. UMTA doesn't want to tangle with them because it needs their cooperation to improve bus service.
In Seattle the union agreed to let the transit authority hire part-time drivers. That helps overcome the income gap between rush hour (when many drivers are needed) and regular hours with fewer runs (when rush-hour drivers are paid for waiting around).It would be of great help, of course, if union locals elsewhere would also agree to part-time work.
Another solution to the rush hour problem also was pioneered in Seattle. In the city's 145-square block downtown business district, bus rides are free. Fare boxes were first closed in 1973 and bus ridership has since tripled, traffic congestion has eased, business has picked up and the air is cleaner. This cost the city $155,000, paid to the transit authority and the city councilmen think it is well worth it.
Free bus rides, except during rush hours, have also been adopted in downtown Denver and Trenton.
They are, of course, no substitute for intensive taxi service in various forms - if only to provide healthy competition between various modes of urban transportation. Some of this service is rendered by social organizations that operate their own fleets of vans and minibuses to assist their "clients." Most fail for lack of experienced management and flexibility.
A better idea is for social service organizations to contract private cab companies. The Red Cross, for instance, does this in several cities to everyone's satisfaction.
The cabbies prefer "user-side" subsidies to subsidized companies. That means that persons who need rides but can't afford them get coupons that the driver can cash in at the social welfare agency. It works well in several cities, Oklahoma City, for instance.
UMTA's proposed policy, if it is ever issued, would speed these essential auxiliary public transportation services and thereby help all public transportation.
What is needed most, however, is to give the taxi industry a lift. Why do insurance rates go up year after year? Why can't taxis get a federal gasoline tax rebate as they now do in Michigan and Virginia? Why do most municipalities prohibit jitney service?
If all transportation modes are to be treated equally, as the Carter administration has pledged, the cabbies should not be forgotten.