Issue 27

Taxi Trouble

Taxi Trouble

It was just after midnight on one of those unbearably hot and humid summer nights and my friends and I were ready to drift to the next bar.

On a night like tonight, we realize, there was no way that any of us could drive. When we couldn’t find a sober driver, I grabbed the cell phone from my pocket and dialed Happy Cab or Safeway or, well, one of those. The cab arrived an hour later and, after a blurry goodbye to friends, we hopped into the cab in West Omaha. Problem solved, right? That’s what we thought until the driver dropped us off downtown…and demanded $80 for the cab fare.

Sobering cab prices, long waits and misunderstandings regarding cab fares have stopped many Omaha restaurant and bar visitors from calling a cab after a long night of drinking. To avoid long waits and uncertain cab fares, many Omaha residents choose another option on Friday and Saturday nights: driving home themselves.

There were more than 3,600 DUI cases prosecuted in Omaha in 2007. DUIs cost impaired drivers approximately $650, which doesn’t include attorney fees that can range from $500 to $2,000. On the low side, these cases are costing citizens $4 million annually. How does this affect the bar and restaurant industry?

According to John Bastolla, owner of Stoli’s Lounge, “The increased threat of a DUI is obviously a threat to me because people [who’ve landed a DUI] will drink less.” However, Bastolla notes that DUIs are a revenue generator for the community – money goes to the county, Police Department and local lawyers.

The $4 million doesn’t just hit DUI offenders. Consider this: first-time DUI offenders in Nebraska face the following penalties: a misdemeanor charge; 7 – 60 days in jail; and a 60-day to 6-month license revocation.

I recently spoke with a woman who had her license revoked after choosing to drive home after a pool party the day before college graduation.

“I had been drinking during the day, but I didn’t consider taking a cab because it always seemed like a hassle, and I hadn’t been drinking for the last few hours,” she said. She didn’t make it far and was dealt a DUI.

“When it was all said and done, I probably spent about $3,000 with attorney fees, the interlock device on my vehicle, and getting my license back. I even had to take half of a day off of work to drive to Lincoln to get my license back,” she said. And when you have no license, the decision to go out to eat or out for a drink is no longer an easy one. It depends on the others around you. It seems that the need for daytime cab service in Omaha is growing, but it’s not to the same level as the need in other major cities.

“I had to depend on my friends for transportation. I still went out, but I wouldn’t drive anywhere. A lot of times I went to friends’ houses instead of going out,” our DUI offender said.

It’s not just the obvious loss of revenue that impacts local bars and restaurants, Bastolla said, “When people get pulled over, they will say just about anything. They could say they’ve been at my bar, which could raise red flags with the local authorities.”

Although the Omaha Police Department, the state government and organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving are actively working to decrease impaired drivers, having a good cab system would also help.

Some people believe that cabs in Omaha are too expensive; much like I did after my expensive cab experience. Consider this: The first 1/6th of a mile will cost you $1.95 and every 1/7th of a mile after that costs 30 cents. If there is a traffic delay, you are paying 30 cents per every 43 seconds and on top of that, with gas prices between $3.70 and $3.99, you will most likely be charged a surcharge of $1.40. All of this leading to an average Omaha cab ride that costs about $15.81 (based on the average U.S. trip of 5 miles with 5 minutes wait time).

This price is actually comparable to other cities in the region. The same cab ride would cost you $15 in Kansas City, $14.50 in Des Moines and – this is the bad one — $23 in Lincoln. However, in larger cities like Chicago and Denver, the cab fares are a bit cheaper, ranging from $12.70 to $13.23 for an average trip. This price difference between Omaha and larger metros doesn’t go unnoticed among Omaha consumers.

“After coming back from trips in Chicago and St. Louis where we took cabs everywhere, my friends and I are disappointed when we take cabs in Omaha because it’s more expensive,” says Allison Osborn, a recent college graduate from Omaha.

Cab rates in Omaha are set by the Nebraska Public Service Commission (NPSC), and the last time they were adjusted was in 2006. They will stay the same until one of the companies requests a rate change. At that point, a hearing is held and the Commission determines whether or not to grant the request.

According to Mark Breiner, Director of Motor Transportation Department for the NPSC, determining the rate depends on expenses, cost of living and gas prices. If a cab company is facing a large workers’ compensation claim, the rates may also go up. Breiner says that they also strive to keep the rates comparable to other cities. Additionally, there’s a surcharge policy in effect for Omaha. The reason for long wait times: cab drivers in Omaha are independently contracted and therefore set their own hours, many choosing to pull their keys before the 1 a.m. bar close.”

“The surcharge is the best way for a company to recoup some increases in expenses when the price of gas goes up. Otherwise, they have to go through a 60-day process to increase rates,” says Breiner.

This surcharge has helped Omaha cab drivers survive recent, frequent hikes in gas prices. The surcharge was imposed after gas prices rose above $2 per gallon. Drivers are not forced to charge the extra money, but may choose to if they wish. But, because they must pay for a lease to operate the car, as well as the gas it takes to run that car, they will most likely choose to impose the surcharge. Any money that the driver makes above the lease and cost of fuel is his to keep. With the economy and gas prices as they are now, it doesn’t look like any cab company is going to ask for a decrease in rates soon.

One way a decrease might be suggested is if the demand for cabs rises, offering more opportunities for drivers to make money on fares. According to John Davis, director of operations for Happy Cab, the franchise that also runs Yellow Cab, Checker Cab and Cornhusker Cab, there are approximately 200 cabs in Omaha. Happy Cab is the larger of two cab franchises in Omaha and operates the majority of the cabs in town. He says their busiest times are Friday and Saturday nights, when they receive about 125 calls per hour and 70% of the fleet is active. During the week, most of the service is centered on business travelers, people without cars (like our DUI friends) and the transporting of people for insurance companies, alternative schools and the special needs community.

It seems that the need for daytime cab service in Omaha is growing, but it’s not to the same level as the need in other major cities. Some cities offer cab stands and the ability to hail cabs for service, in addition to a dispatch office. But in Omaha the system is run through a dispatch office only except in the occasional instance that someone hails a cab that is not occupied or traveling to a customer.

When drivers begin a shift, they choose a designated area or zone to work in for the duration of the shift. As calls come in, the dispatcher matches the nearest available cab in that specific area with the caller. Because of high-tech GPS systems, the office is able to track the location of every vehicle. The dispatcher will send a text message to an available driver in the correct zone who then must accept the assignment if he is available, at which point he has 30 minutes to complete the trip.

Long wait times are another common complaint heard when standing outside a bar at 1 a.m. “I’m not going to wait for a half hour to an hour to get a cab after going out,” says Dustin Axtel, an Omaha homeowner. The reason for long wait times: cab drivers in Omaha are independently contracted and therefore set their own hours, many choosing to pull their keys before the 1 a.m. bar close.

“Some drivers drive until the bar rush and then go home,” John says, because the drivers would prefer not to deal with the intoxicated passengers that they must sometimes transport at this time of night. Happy Cab’s drivers range from a UNO professor to recent immigrants to a woman who chose to drive a cab in her free time.

So it seems that everything comes down to supply and demand. Omaha is plagued with higher cab prices than we’d like for a growing metro and consumers who are disgusted with long wait times when they do use the system after late nights out.

There are some opportunities for cab companies and consumers. Some cab companies offer incentives for drivers to stay out after midnight. Omaha cab companies do not, however. A number of cab drivers will offer their cell phone number to riders who enjoyed their ride. And some of these drivers build up enough of a “customer base” that they choose not to get calls from dispatch.

Customers also have the option of calling either one of the cab companies or the NPSC to voice complaints and concerns. With our metro area burgeoning and the increasing demand for economically efficient transportation and fewer intoxicated drivers, I suggest that Omaha’s restaurant and bar-goers begin to use the cab system and demand change.

This article is just a small piece of something much larger that Food & Spirits has decided to delve into further. There are many more questions regarding how the cab system is run in Omaha and how it not only affects the bar and restaurant industry, but how it can be improved. Omaha is transitioning from a small metro area into a larger city and therefore has a need for a better cab system. We will continue to explore this story in further issues of the magazine.


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