Taxi griper: Some immigrant cabbies think Sacramento's new policies stink

City’s effort to clean up industry proves contentious

The city of Sacramento is considering a new local law to clean up its taxicab industry that has some independent drivers upset.

The city of Sacramento is considering a new local law to clean up its taxicab industry that has some independent drivers upset.

photo by nick miller

Sacramento’s efforts to clean up its fractious, in-fighting taxi industry are leaving tire marks over some of the city’s immigrant cab drivers.

After more than a year of chatting with stakeholders, the Sacramento Department of Finance unveiled a host of new regulations to a city council committee on March 18. The eight policy recommendations are meant to straighten out an industry that hotel managers say is driving away tourists with bad behavior, poor hygiene and a lack of basic navigational skills.

By unanimous vote, the four-member committee advanced the drafted ordinance to the full council for a final decision, expected within the next two months. If approved, the new local law would require all cabbies to accept credit cards, pass a driving test that includes basic English questions and adhere to a dress code.

If last week’s meeting is any indication, the decision is sure to draw a lively debate about the fine line between good customer service and painting independent-business operators with an unflattering brush, especially as larger companies hoard government contracts and new car-service platforms siphon their customers.

“Our taxicab business is almost really finished,” said cab driver Kazman Zaidi. “There are so many competition—this Uber, this Lyft and also this airport-taxi [contract]. …. Do you think [about] how we are suffering and how we are surviving?”

Representatives of the local tourism industry and some of the larger taxi players support the new regulations, saying Sacramento’s reputation suffers because of cabbies who fight over customers, refuse short-distance fares, are unable to navigate the city and don’t make change for customers.

Yellow Cab Co. of Sacramento president Fred Pleines called the proposed regulations “the penicillin that will save [the industry].”

The drafted ordinance would also cap the number of city-issued taxicab permits, prohibit older vehicles unless they’ve been exempted, and require all taxi fleets to use 24-hour dispatch centers to schedule fares rather than doing so via cellphone.

Independent proprietors said dispatch centers, in particular, were too expensive to implement, while at least one unnamed driver took exception to the inference that cabbies are unclean.

“I need to give a message to the lawyer, from me and a lot of the drivers,” he said. “You insulted me. You insulted 400 other drivers. Shame on you. Shame on you. I see you on 500 I Street. That’s federal court.”

The driver was likely referring to the staff report’s justification for a dress code: “The city has also received complaints that some taxicab drivers have been dirty and unkempt,” the report reads. It goes on to state that a dress code would “consist of collared shirts, long or short dress slacks, and closed toe shoes,” and that drivers would have to “wear shoes at all times while on duty.”

The dress-code language doesn’t explicitly acknowledge the existence of female taxi drivers.

While independent cabbies grumbled that the new policies are insulting, two University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law professors contacted by SN&R suggested they were likely legally defensible.

Municipal governments have considerable leeway to license and regulate the people doing business within their boundaries, said Leslie Gielow Jacobs, director of the Capital Center for Public Law & Policy. “The constitution is just a floor— a really, really, really bottom floor for what governments can do,” she added. “What the cab driver would have to prove is some sort of purpose on the part of the city to discriminate against them.”

Cab drivers, by themselves, don’t fall into a protected class. But many in the city have emigrated from territories in Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.

McGeorge professor Charles Kelso said the city is within its rights to pursue policies that protect the general public, like ensuring cab safety, fair meter rates and that drivers are getting people where they’ve asked to go.

But the city also needs more than an anecdotal basis for instituting new policies, he believed. “If they have nothing but their thoughts that this is a good idea, that could be an issue,” he said.

As for regulating the aesthetics of a taxi experience, Kelso foresaw problems. “That begins to be a little bit remote from personal safety,” he said. “I don’t know how you go about defining what smells acceptable and what level of smell.”

Kelso said he’s ridden in cabs where the drivers didn’t recognize his intended destination or know how to get there. Just not in Sacramento. “I have a car here,” he said.

The finance department’s business permit manager, Dafna Gauthier, didn’t return a call for comment.