Thursday, January 26, 2012

Who Knew? It's Legal to Hail a Cab and Pittsburgh Transportation Group Wants to Promote it

Why do discussions about increasing urban convenience, vitality and reducing the parking footprint so rarely mention taxis or any other non standard transport like shuttle buses or mini vans? It's driving, big transit (perhaps biking) or nothing.

One look at the Burg told me this had the makings of a great cab city since so many of the key areas of town, The North Shore, The Strip, Downtown and The South Side are so close together. The problem is that it's hard to boost residential and business density in these areas without cabs and it's hard to run cabs without that density. (It's a whole lot harder if the land is hogged by mostly empty stadiums)

A new program by the biggest city cab company, Pittsburgh Transportation Group aims to dedicate at least 15 cars to just these areas.

From The Pittsburgh Business Times

"So here's the solution: Come March, Yellow Cab will roll out a fleet of black and white, newer model cars dedicated exclusively to the greater Golden Triangle Area-Downtown. South Side, North Shore and parts of the Strip District."

An ad campaign promoting the service will use catchy phrases like "What the Hail" and "Hail Yes" to promote the still foreign concept of flagging down a cab on the street here.

Personally, I have a few doubts about the service if it doesn't extend to include a slightly wider area like Bloomfield, The War Streets, the whole Strip District and most of Lawrenceville. Still, I like the thinking here.


a jen said...

If it would encompass the rest of the Strip, Bloomfield, Lawrenceville, and maybe even Squirrel Hill, I think we'd have a lot of happy car-less transporters. Sometimes we are late and can't wait for a bus. In those situations I'd be happy to pay for a cab.

Your Friendly Neighborhood PGH Cab Driver said...

This is cute. But it wont work.

Full disclosure: I'm a cab driver in Pittsburgh. But I don't work for Yellow Cab. They work for me, I'm their customer. I pay them for the cab, and receive no paycheck from them; my income is 100% commission based. The same is true for all cabbies with Yellow. This fact is often to surprising to people.

So if this service was going to work it would already be in place. But Pittsburgh isn't built for it. Lets use the obvious example, NYC. In the Big Apple a cabbie will drive for a half mile or so, someone hails them, they drop the customer off where they want to go, and repeat. That business model won't work in PGH because there isn't enough business covering the map. If I pick you up downtown and you want to go to Bloomfield, do you think I'll be able to find a hail there? Probably not. I have to come back to our tiny downtown. This type of orbiting from town to destination and back to town is time consuming, inefficient, and most importantly isn't profitable.

As the system works now, I have a computer in the cab that shows me every fare in the city. So I pick you up off a hail downtown and take you to Bloomfield. While we are en route, I'm combing the system looking for the nearest call. Lets say there is a fare in Shady Side. Close enough, I take it. Once I contact that fare and find out the destination, I'm already looking for something close in the system to where they are going. This idea of “chaining” trips is the most productive strategy for PGH cab drivers.

That's not to say we don't take hails. My Friday and Saturday nights dealing with the Carson Street Crew are 100% hails. Major events, such as Steelers games or concerts, are all done with hails. But for daily driving, no way. It just doesn't work.

And one real quick last point. In a town building it's future on livability, cabs here are a luxury item. This isn't an opinion, it's math. The cost of an NYC cab is 40¢ per 1/5 of a mile. PGH is 25¢ per 1/7 of a mile. A sample $20 fare from Manhattan would cost $16 here (approximately). Considering the difference in the cost of living between the two cities, the cost of a cab is much higher here in theory. In an interview discussing transit cuts increasing demand for cabs in PGH, the Yellow Cab CEO said himself that cabs are not typically economical for daily commutes.

I'm a transit geek. This town doesn't need more cabs. It needs more trains. Don't tell Mr. CEO I said that.

John Morris said...

Hard for me to argue. Right now, the business and residential density is not close to what it would take to support this. It's a chicken and egg situation cause having this available would be a big plus for boosting the density level.

Susan Constanse said...

Hiring a cab is still cheaper than supporting a car, in my opinion. I think, in the case of cabs in Pittsburgh, there is a declining business model for a lot of reasons. The consumer here has learned that cabs are far from a dependable means of transportation. Which decreases the number of cabs and forces up the fare, which means that less people will rely on them.

It's a frustrating situation, especially when one needs transportation that is beyond what can be accommodated on public transportation.

I'm not following how increasing the availability of cabs increases density, though. It seems to me that density would create a market for more cabs, not the other way around.

John Morris said...

I would think anything that increased the ease and options to get around would raise the value of living or working near the core. In places like NY, one certainly has a virtuous cycle happening-with more cabs, meaning more density-meaning more demand for cabs. (not exactly perfect since, NYC strictly limits the number of cab medallions/ licenses)

Our cab driver commenter does sy he can't get enough business to do that here. This is because there just are not enough people and stuff near the core.

Your Friendly Neighborhood PGH Cab Driver said...

Couple of things,

1. A Jen, The Downtown Service they are proposing, while in my opinion misguided, are at very least somewhat tangent in area. To extend the service any farther, (and specifically to Sq Hill) wouldn't be logistically feasible. The current system covers all those areas. For this new service, I don't see business being decent aside from in the heart of downtown. You could make a case for Oakland on Forbes between the Universities, but then that brings me to the following obvious question. Why isn't the Hill or Uptown included in this? If you think you have a hard time getting a cab in Sq Hill, try moving to either of those areas. If anyone needs help getting access to our services its those people.

2. Susan, you are correct that for most transportation outside of going to Carson Street or the Airport, cabs are terribly unreliable, but you are thinking of it as a supply and demand situation. This is not the case. Cabs are regulated by the Public Utilities Commission. They decide how many cabs are on the road, not demand. They also set the price. Better service or competition wont create a better market.

3. I would argue that a cab is cheaper than a car. Well, let me say this. You get what you pay for. If you are in Sq Hill and you want to go to Giant Eagle on Murray, calling a cab isn't going to cost you very much. You also wont get a cab 70% of the time. I'll explain it like this. I have personal friends who live in North Hills. They love to go out to this local bar about a 5 minute drive from their apartment and call me for a ride home. I picked them up just once. The drive from town and back cost me about $4 in gas. The metered fare came to about $5. They gave me $7. This is easy math: $3 profit, not including the cost of the cab itself. The half hour the trip took on a busy weekend night the means the opportunity cost for me was much higher. I lost a substantial portion of my most profitable night. Point is, the cost of getting a reliable cab isn't just whats on the meter. It's knowing the actual value of the trip you are taking and paying accordingly. This usually isn't cheap.

4. I also failed to mention that this was the first I have heard of this plan. There hasn't been a peep mentioned to the drivers, and those new cars have yet to be purchased, or at very least are well hidden in some other location. 15 new cars in the lot would have every driver in town flocking to the office trying to call dibs.

John Morris said...

This is slightly off the subject but ---IF IT WAS LEGALLY, ALLOWED, what role would you guess a smaller van type service might add to the mix?

The NYC area, has a lot of vast holes in the transit system, particulary on the bus routes which get poor and infrequent service.

An informal network of Dollar Vans has grabbed market share, in spite of intense resistance from the traditional transit opperators.

Often these vans offer much higher frequency service, which is I think a huge selling point.

Your Friendly Neighborhood PGH Cab Driver said...

Legally, you have Super Shuttle, who actually own Yellow Cab. They are a van service, but are pretty much on par with, if not more expensive than cabs. From the airport to town is $38 bucks in a cab, no matter how many people. In a SuperShuttle, you play about $27 per person. Thats the key difference.

But legality doesn't really matter. If you want to see how little they actually patrol the Jitneys go on down to Carson Street tonight. In the past 6 months or so, every jitney in town bought a car topper light. They look somewhat official, and they are everywhere. But they will rip you off, and sometimes worse.

John Morris said...

I will likely do a separate post about this, but wht I'm thinkiang about falls more into a shuttle type service.

PGH has a lot of routes that seem to lend themselves to high frequency, short shuttle service. Say, a shuttle from downtown to lower Lawrenceville; downtown to South Side or the downtown Oakland link.

Many transit studies show that frequency and reliability of service are the biggest factors in popularity. A bus that runs fast but come once or twice an hour is not of great value. Small busses are better suited to high frequency service.

My guess is that at this point most of the bus service is so bad, there's a big opening for private shuttle services on many key routes.