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Centralized Dispatching: A ‘win-win’ solution for cabdrivers and the riding public

By Peter Enger - Posted on 15 July 2008

I. A common experience

Has this ever happened to you? You take a dispatched call in your cab, drive 10 minutes to get to the address, asked for a callout, waited another 5 or ten minutes, and then get a message that the call is a “no show”? So then you drive another ten minutes to get back to a well traveled area where you might get a flagged call, but then get another dispatched call, so you take another chance to serve the public and get a fare, but this time when you show up, there is another cab from another company there already getting your fare. It’s just not your night, you tell yourself.
This scene happens all too often, and many more like them, with the patchwork dispatch system currently in use in the taxi industry here in Chicago. It’s a problem. The system as is wastes drivers’ time, money and emotional energy on a regular basis, in addition to not doing an adequate job of actually serving the public, the citizens of Chicago who may live in areas that are not well-traveled by cabs, and who also regularly need cab service.

II. History of dispatching system

Long ago, taxicab companies employed drivers to work for them as employees. When the radio dispatch system was introduced, companies could send their drivers to the customers wherever they were, because they were the bosses, and the drivers were their workers, who had to do what their bosses told them. A citizen who called for a cab could be assured of getting one because we drivers worked for the company and had to go where we were told. That is the nature of the employer-employee system.

III. Modern evolution

This all changed sometime in the 1970’s when most if not all cab companies figured out that they would be better off cutting their employees loose, and creating a system where cabdrivers were independent contractors who leased the cabs. This system is the main model for taxi companies in the US today. We won’t go into WHY exactly this happened, though we have many ideas about it.
How this affected the dispatch system was that the companies could no longer assign fares to the drivers, as we were independent. If we didn’t want to take dispatched calls, we didn’t have to. If it was inconvenient for us to travel 5 miles to pick up an eight dollar fare, we didn’t have to do it.
The larger companies kept and maintained their dispatch system, as they had a proven, loyal customer base who depended on them, and this was an added incentive for drivers to choose one company over another; whether they could actually provide radio calls when business was slow. For us drivers, a well-maintained, well-run dispatch system can make the difference in our income during slow days or weeks of the year.
At first, there were no independent owner-operators. When they finally entered the system, they were ‘affiliated’ with one company or another, in order to receive dispatched calls (and had to pay for the privilege). Eventually some of them opted out of that system completely, which is how we ended up with close to 2500 independent owner-operators in Chicago today.

IV. Current patchwork system

The current patchwork system has developed from this historical base. We have close to 20 taxi ‘affiliations’, or companies, in Chicago. There are four or five which are the largest, and who dominate the dispatched fare calls. Then there are about fifteen smaller companies, who are forced to maintain a dispatch system by the City rules, but who cannot come close to competing with the larger fleets in actually providing dispatched calls for their drivers. They just don’t have the numbers of cabs in the field to be able to provide an adequate service.

Look at it this way: if you were a potential customer, who would YOU call for a cab? A large company, such as Yellow, or Flash, which has hundreds of cabs working at any given time throughout the city, and who is more likely statistically to have a cab in your area? Or a small company like City Service or Top Cab, with substantially less cabs in the field?

Or take the point of view of the driver. If you decided you wanted to take radio calls in order to make more money, or to increase your chances of getting fares in the neighborhoods (the City’s so-called ‘underserved areas’), who would you decide to work for? A large fleet with an efficient dispatch system and a reputation among the citizens of Chicago for providing cabs to the neighborhoods? Or the small company, which receives almost no calls for cab service?

Let us further explain how the system currently works. This is an explanation I have to make to my passengers on a regular basis when they complain about a cab being late for a call, or if they don’t show up at all.

Let’s say you live on the west side, the south side, or the far northwest side of Chicago and you need a cab. You call one of the larger fleets, say Yellow, for example. Yellow puts out the call on their dispatch system. If a Yellow driver happens to have dropped a fare in the area, and if she or he happens to want to work in the area (rather than hurry back to downtown or Lincoln Park, where there are lots of people in the street needing cabs—what we call ‘flaggers’), and she or he happens to log in to the dispatch system while still in that area, then there is a chance this citizen who needs a cab might get one. If these conditions are not met, and no Yellow taxi makes it into that particular neighborhood and meets those same conditions mentioned above for the rest of the night, that potential passenger is just out of luck. Yellow cannot force any driver to leave downtown and drive to Englewood, or Hyde Park or Beverly, to pick up a fare.

We drivers often are accused, either by city officials or the media who don’t understand this system, of refusing to serve the neighborhoods. It’s not like that at all. We would be happy to go anywhere we knew that people were waiting for us with money. The problem is that most of the time, even if we happen to be in an area, say Beverly, where someone needs a cab, if we drive for Yellow, and the citizen calls Flash, or American United, or some other company, we will never know that someone needs a cab 2 blocks from where we are! This situation undoubtedly happens numerous times during any one week, or even nightly. It also explains why citizens will call multiple cab companies when they need a cab, in order to increase their chances of actually getting one.

V. City tries to make it workable to serve public

The City attempted a few years ago to institute some reforms in this system in order to serve the public more efficiently. Chicago is a large city with many far-flung neighborhoods, with citizens who deserve to have cab service when needed. The problem is that most of those neighborhoods outside of downtown, Lincoln Park and parts north along the lake don’t feature enough of a taxi-riding public in the streets to warrant a cabdriver cruising around in them in order to pick up fares and serve the citizenry of Chicago who live there. For instance, I could drive up and down South Kedzie from the Eisenhower to 130th Street all day long, and I would be lucky to pick up one or two fares in a 12 hour shift.

The City’s solution to this problem was to put the burden of extra work on the drivers and the affiliations. They designated certain areas as ‘underserved areas’, and required all lease drivers to take one verifiable fare per day from these underserved areas, basically all parts of Chicago outside of downtown and west of Ashland from Roosevelt up to the border with Evanston. These fares would be verified by the records kept of dispatched calls by the affiliations, and the drivers would have to bring this paperwork proving they had done this in order to renew their chauffeur’s license.

Although we believe the City was well intentioned in deciding to implement this policy, we also believe that they did not have the foresight or creativity enough in trying to find a way for the taxi industry to better serve the citizens of Chicago. What has resulted in the last few years is basically a culture of corruption in the drivers’ and the smaller affiliations’ attempts to meet the City’s rules.

In practical terms, it works like this. The larger affiliations have the calls and the dispatching system that are adequate enough that their drivers are assured of having enough opportunities to take calls in the neighborhoods. The fifteen or so smaller affiliations do not. Let’s say you are a taxi company with 100 cabs in the field. Since most people don’t know you, you don’t get very many calls for cab service. If you’re lucky, maybe you get 15 or 20 calls a day from passengers who know you, some of your drivers, or for some other personal reason. How can you possibly provide one call a day to the 100-150 drivers you may have working every day? (Some of the drivers will be sharing a cab in 12 hour shifts).

What happens in real life terms is that the companies will ask their drivers to fill out their own paperwork when they pick up passengers in the neighborhoods. If a driver doesn’t pick up any passengers that day, he’ll have to invent one to fulfill this duty. If a driver forgets to fill out this paperwork, a garage office manager may offer to fake the paperwork for a small compensation. This situation leads to an atmosphere of corrupt practices all around. The greater damage done to relations between the drivers and the City, is that the City is given a false impression of how much income drivers are actually making, since they ostensibly believe we drivers are getting tons of underserved area calls which we aren’t.

VI. Our solution

We in the UTCC would like to offer a solution to this inefficient mess of a system for serving the cab-ride-desiring citizens of the city of Chicago. This solution would consist of a central dispatching system that would dispatch to all of the taxis in Chicago. For one thing, this would eliminate the redundancy of many companies having to provide a dispatch system to follow the rules of the city. For the smaller companies, which can’t even possibly provide the services they’re supposed to, either for the riding public or their lease drivers, this would be a substantial economic savings. For the larger companies too, for that matter.

This system would benefit both the drivers and the citizenry of Chicago, especially those living in the underserved areas and neighborhoods of Chicago. No longer would a caller needing a cab have to take her or his chances on calling one company in the hopes that they had a cab in the area.

A central dispatching system could potentially tap any cab out of the city’s 7000 taxi fleet that might be in that particular neighborhood. For us drivers, when we drive someone out to a far neighborhood, we would be more likely to be able to take a dispatched call from a central dispatcher. No longer would we have to drive 20 or 30 minutes without a fare in order to get back to high trafficked areas with flaggers in them, or bars, nightclubs and theaters letting out.

The City already has a central dispatch system in place, for wheelchair accessible vehicles. This is a model that could be used by the city in planning how this new system could work. We see it as a system that would be paid for by fees collected from medallion owners who wanted to opt in to the dispatching system.