Taxi Cab Recession

Try hailing a cab in this car-centric town and you're likely to be left standing on a curb, waving your arm like a fool in a cloud of exhaust.

For many years, Los Angeles, unlike most other big cities, discouraged taxi drivers from picking up passengers on busy streets, often ticketing them for tying up traffic. Now the city has begun easing those restrictions, but cabbies have been slow to change their ways.

For many taxi drivers, high gas prices made it too costly to cruise for fares. Then the sputtering economy drove down business and made it too difficult to find customers.

The feeble response to the experimental Hail-A-Taxi effort has imperiled an effort to reduce traffic in the nation's most congested city and renewed a vexing question in the land where the car is king: Are Angelenos too attached to their own four wheels?

Abraham Denoz, who has been driving cabs in the city for 10 years, trolls for fares on weekends when people are going out, but said it is a waste of gas to drive around waiting for someone to flag him down on weekdays.

"It's like gambling," he said.

The pilot program was supposed to be a win-win when it was launched last summer. Officials eased traffic rules in downtown L.A. and Hollywood to let cabbies use no-stopping zones.

The theory was that if people could easily catch cabs in those parts of town, they would take public transportation to get there or leave cars in a parking lot once they arrived and rely on cabs for short hops.

Hollywood boosters hoped nightlife would improve if people could take a cab to hop between restaurants, bars and other hotspots. Advocates saw similar possibilities for downtown Los Angeles, which has thousands of new loft and condo dwellers, along with people attending games at Staples Center and concerts at the Nokia Theatre.

A city report said the program could also mean higher profits for taxi drivers.

James Moore, an urban transportation expert at the University of Southern California, said people in Los Angeles cling to their cars because there aren't enough taxis, buses and other forms of public transportation to get where they need to go quickly.

Los Angeles has roughly 3,500 licensed taxi drivers for a city of 4 million people. New York has about 47,000 cabbies for a city of 8 million.

"People are rational when it comes to their own convenience," Moore said. "If taxis become more available, people will rely and hail them."

To promote the Hail-A-Taxi program, hundreds of signs were posted around downtown with an image of a stick figure raising a hand. The signs say it is OK to flag down a taxi "anytime, anywhere," except in bus zones.

Some cabbies complained the program started when gas prices peaked around $4 a gallon. Other drivers said they still worry that police and parking enforcement officers will ticket them for stopping to pick up fares.

Those concerns have kept many drivers waiting for customers at taxi stands outside hotels and other established stops where they can score lucrative, long-distance fares.

During a recent afternoon, nearly 20 taxis idled outside a downtown shopping plaza, waiting about an hour for a fare. The number of tourists and business travelers taking taxis is down because of the recession.

"It's been very slow, and it keeps getting slower," said cabbie Hayder Negash, who makes about $100 in fares a day, nearly half of what he earned a year ago.

With few taxis trolling city streets, some residents don't consider them an option for getting around.

"I would love to take a cab rather than drive, but there are not enough of them circulating," said Robert Vargas, an artist who lives in a pedestrian-heavy section of downtown where he thinks people would take taxis to concerts, art galleries and restaurants.

"Even though the law was changed, I don't think the cabbies are in tune with what's going on here," Vargas said.

Carol Schatz, president of the downtown business improvement district, said it took about five years to persuade city transportation officials to ease the traffic laws for taxi drivers.

"They kept thinking that by allowing cabs to stop, even for just a bit in a red zone, it'll tie up traffic," she said. "That hasn't happened."

In fact, officials have recommended extending the program for another year. And the city's taxicab administrator expects the program eventually to become permanent and expand to other parts of Los Angeles.

"You're not going to change everyone's mentality overnight," Tom Drischler said, "but it's coming along."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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