Bad Cabs in Detroit

Detroit — The motor city has lots more serious problems than the one I am going to describe, but this situation is important for what it reveals about the city’s institutions and morale.

One would think that the automotive capital of the world would pride itself on the condition of its taxicabs. One would also think that a city with deep unemployment but with many large hotels would want a spiffy cab industry to make attendees at major conventions feel safe and comfortable at any legal speed. For years in my many visits to Detroit, complaints about cabs would be received by natives of Detroit with a blase look, implying “so what else is new?” Or as a Detroit News editor told me: “This is not a cab city, everybody has a car.”

I was reminded in the most insistent ways about Detroit’s taxis recently while attending the national convention of Social Studies Teachers last week. From the Westin Renaissance we hailed an authorized Checker Cab. Within second inside the cab we sensed fumes welling up from the floor. We opened all windows immediately while notifying the cab driver who was seemingly oblivious to an atmosphere that had seemingly rendered him content. Luckily it was a little windy and with our noses square in the crosswinds, we made it to our destination.

The next morning we hailed another cab to the airport from the front of a major hotel. Again it was a Checker cab painted green. No sooner had we entered and shut the door than the cabbie announced the fare which, by no coincidence, was $10 higher than the accurate fare. Having settled his aspirations down to the going rate, we quickly realized that his car was far from settled. Its springs and shocks were exhausted from previous exertions.

The venerable vehicle lurched from one side to another. Since the cab driver was quite comfortably adjusted to the rhythm, it occurred to me that this lateral dynamic was not of recent origin.

Then I saw on the glass partition a “notice to passengers.” It told us that the company (unnamed) that owned this cab was not responsible for the cab driver, the condition of the cab nor any fare. He was an “independent contractor” and we were on our own.

Once on the dividend highway he took the cab to 45 mph and the vibrations increased commensurately. Had eggs been in the car, they would have been scrambled. The driver was elsewhere, completely absorbed by a loud radio tape involving some Soviet-American spy story with sprinklings of Russian language exhortations. My associate peered over the partition and saw carefully folded newspaper rolls stuffed into holes in the floor. The driver, at least, wanted to stay warm. And not fall through the floor.

Arriving at the airport, we urged the driver to repair his car. He shrugged, muttering that it wasn’t his cab.

On route to the airline departure gate, I made a mental list of who failed over the years to pay attention to such cabs. There was the taxicab agency of the city of Detroit, the Mayor’s office, the insurance companies who insure these cabs, assuming they are not self-insured or going bare), the city police, the hotels, their trade association, and the city’s newspapers.

Assuring that a city has safe, clean, operating taxicabs is not one of America’s greatest challenges. It is akin to making sure that the floors are mopped regularly in public buildings. When something is below par, it is obvious for all to see and experience. And there are people being paid by taxpayers and consumers who are supposed to make sure that the cab companies are shipshape. But they don’t.

Call it part corruption, part laziness, part indifference, part “it’s the other fellow’s job, the facts are clear: people are being paid to do a job they decline to do. A few may be paid on the side to not do their job — such as has been found with taxicab inspectors in other cities.

Cities decline because such agencies and organizations collectively look the other way. They don’t do what they are supposed to do. Even newspapers, for which this cab story should be relatively easy to investigate and interesting to tell, have looked the other way, although reporters and editors do take cabs and quite often. But the assistant editor of the Detroit Free Press told me that in his ten years of experience there, he could not recall any investigative articles on Detroit cabs’ operating conditions. At the Detroit News, the city desk assistant editor said that in the four years he has been there, no such articles have been printed.

Ever wonder why one definition of democracy is “It’s all up to us.”

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