Report faults Boston cabs, oversight
Boston’s largest taxi fleet owner ignores calls for a cab nearly a quarter of the time, 99 of the city’s 100 handicapped-accessible cabs violate federal standards, and the police unit regulating the $1 billion industry struggles to properly patrol it.
Those are among key findings of a review commissioned by the city after the Globe Spotlight Team earlier this year chronicled routine financial exploitation of drivers by some of the biggest fleet owners, abuses for which they are rarely sanctioned by city regulators.
Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who is expected to release the report Thursday, said he is immediately adopting two of its recommendations. He will establish a new advisory panel to address problems chronicled by the Globe, some of which are underlined in Thursday’s report, and will make sure handicapped-accessible vehicles meet federal and city standards.
One day after the Spotlight report last spring, the mayor shifted regulatory authority over the 1,825-taxi fleet from a civilian supervisor in the police Hackney Division to a Boston Police Department captain.
Thursday’s report recommends that that change be maintained — for now. The hackney unit would be beefed up, its mission expanded, and the department would be given two years to improve its performance.
“If the BPD struggles, the creation of an independent department or commission is recommended,’’ said the report conducted by San Francisco-based Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates.
The wide-ranging report included some surprising findings, including the inability of Boston Cab, operator of the largest fleet with 372 cabs, to respond to 22 percent of calls for its taxi service. That is a “poor performance,’’ the report states.
The review, which is expected to cost the city $154,000, also found a striking pattern of handicapped-accessible taxis violating city standards, which mirror those in the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.
Kristen McCosh, the city’s commissioner for persons with disabilities since 2010, said she and other people in wheelchairs have for years been unable to use many of the rear-entry modified Toyota Siennas and Dodge Caravans because the wheelchairs could not fit inside or get up the vehicle ramp.
In June, McCosh personally tried to get into 98 of the 100 cabs; two others were out of service and inspected by someone else. Ninety-nine of the cabs violated government standards, and more than half of the 100 cabs were unusable for people in wheelchairs.
McCosh and the consultant said they believe earlier models of the handicapped-accessible vehicles complied with regulations. But at some point years ago, cab owners began relying on two machine shops to modify vans for people in wheelchairs, and the hackney division failed to inspect the vehicles.
Despite the consultant’s findings and Menino’s promise to immediately adopt two of its recommendations, critics of the taxi industry said the city should take bolder action. They said the proposed review board would be ineffective because it would have no power except to advise.
“Thirty years of exploitation isn’t enough?’’ asked Donna Blythe-Shaw, an organizer for the United Steelworkers and the Boston Taxi Drivers Association. “An advisory group has no standing.’’
The report relied in part on economic data taken from meters in the taxi fleet and from surveys conducted with roughly 80 drivers — less than 3 percent of the 3,000 active city-licensed drivers.
Will Rodman, the consultant’s project manager, conceded that the number of drivers surveyed was statistically insignificant. But he defended his report’s conclusions that shift drivers make an average of $60,000 a year.
That figure contradicts the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which puts an average Boston cabbie’s income at $27,000. The Police Department’s own estimate, based on meter and credit card data, is just slightly better than that, the Spotlight Team reported in April.
Shannon Liss-Riordan, a Boston lawyer mounting a multimillion-dollar class-action lawsuit against several taxi fleet owners, disputed the report’s estimate of driver income.
Liss-Riordan said that four cabdrivers named in her suit who leased taxis from different companies frequently had incomes below the minimum wage after expenses, based on credit card data she received from the companies.
Liss-Riordan was also incredulous that the consultant did not address the central contention of the lawsuit: that cabdrivers have been misclassified as independent contractors instead of as employees, as they had been for decades until the taxi industry changed beginning in the mid-1970s.
In June, a Suffolk County judge froze the assets of the largest medallion owner in Boston, Edward J. Tutunjian of Boston Cab, ruling that cabdrivers have a “likelihood of success on the merits’’ of the class-action suit.
Another judge has scheduled a Nov. 20 hearing on whether fleet owners have misclassified drivers.
The report only briefly addresses what many cabdrivers told the Globe: that they are pressured to pay small bribes to dispatchers to get keys to cabs they lease.
Based on the survey of 80 drivers about what the report calls “dispatcher tipping,’’ the making of such payments “does happen in some instances’’ but was rarely mentioned by cabdrivers in the study.
Paul Jean, a spokesman for Boston Cab, was pleased by what the report said about cabdrivers’ earnings.
“Contrary to speculation, the Nelson\Nygaard report conclusively shows that taxi drivers in Boston are able to earn a living wage under the current independent contractor system,’’ he said in a statement.
If more sweeping changes to Boston’s taxi industry are to result from judicial review or a pending federal criminal investigation into alleged financial improprieties at the taxi company Tutunjian operates from a gritty garage near Fenway Park, Thursday’s report could provide an outline.
It calls for police to regulate drivers who operate livery vehicles, the so-called black cars that now escape virtually any regulation and are the bane of taxi drivers, who say they unfairly drain revenue from them.
It essentially agrees with the almost-unanimous belief among taxi drivers that the processing fee they pay when their customers use credit cards — up to 6 percent — is too high and should be trimmed. It also calls for a reduction in the surcharge assessed to drivers who rent cars less than 5 years old.
And it concludes that the Police Department’s Hackney unit needs to be beefed up, calling for the addition of a police lieutenant to focus on the enforcement of industry rules.
“In April, I committed to a sweeping review of our city’s taxi industry,’’ Menino said in a prepared statement. “Our priority is the safety of our drivers and the consumers that use their service.’’
Menino in April said he would push the Legislature to mandate higher insurance for cabs, most of which now operate with the state minimum bodily injury coverage of $20,000, less than half the required coverage for bike messenger services and much lower than taxis must carry in many other large cities.
The report does not address that issue.
“The mayor wants to make sure the advisory panel is in place so this report and its recommendations are in the hands of invested parties to move forward and implement them,’’ Dot Joyce, the mayor’s spokeswoman, said. “But most likely it will be left to the new administration to follow through.’’