In City, Personal on March 7, 2010 at 12:24 PM

Torontonians are tolerant people, but ask them about taxi drivers and they will slap you in the face with their frustrations. I’m no different.

Just the other day, my sister and I were going to a house party and we got this: “Can you tell me where that is? I forgot my GPS at home.” I shook my head and my sister rolled her eyes. We kind of smiled and stayed quiet, and then my sister asked him, “Maybe you should know where you’re going before you start driving.” She actually knew where it was, but I think we were both in agreement that this guy would have to figure it out. Maybe it was the brash way he spoke to us, or the fact that he put us on hold rather than the person on the cell phone, but we enjoyed watching him struggle.

On our way home that night, we settled into a cab and told him our destination, at which point he conveniently remembered that he had to be somewhere else. No eye contact necessary for this one. “Why couldn’t you tell us this before we got in?” “Why is your light on in the first place?” As we were getting out of the cab, a lone girl was about to get in and we didn’t allow it. “Oh, he’s got to be somewhere else!” and when he tried to talk to the girl we cut him off and told him to turn his light off and go away. At this point, if he was going to get another fare, it wasn’t going to be on this block. We were more than happy to waste our time preventing passengers from getting into his cab.

I understand why he did this. He was trying to be efficient. They don’t want my $12 fare, because those 10 minutes might cost them a $75 fare to Mississauga. In other words, it’s better to sit idle and wait for that fare instead of taking us home.

The best fares are a combination of distance and speed. You only need few of those to have a good night. But in fact, it is illegal for a cab driver to refuse a fare in Toronto (unless the driver feels threatened, or if you’re destination is out of Toronto).

Our taxi force is mostly made up of immigrants that can’t find work elsewhere and it’s getting crowded. It takes a mere 17 days to get a license. I talk to enough cab drivers to know that driving a taxi is just a bridge until something better comes along (taxis and security are the best jobs to have when you are looking for other jobs). It’s a treat to find a cab driver that is actually interested in being a driver. It begs the question: is there another way?

When it comes to Taxis, there’s the London way of doing things, and then there’s everything else. To become a Black Cab driver in London, England, there is a rigorous examination process that takes applicants, on average, four years complete. “The Knowledge” requires you to learn about 320 routes covering around 25,000 streets and landmarks.

This means being a taxi driver in London isn’t just a job, it’s a career. Because the process weeds out people who aren’t really dedicated or interested, it secures a better lifestyle for cabbies in London. It protects their income because only they can do what they are doing.

It’s also better for the city overall in terms of productivity. London is moving people around faster, which is obviously tough to measure, but a true benefit in a city riddled with traffic congestion.

However, there are downsides to having talented taxicab crew. Have you ever stumbled out of the bars in London at five in the morning? You won’t see any Black Cabs waiting. If you ask around, people will point you to the buses. Of course, you’ll completely laugh at this idea. If you ask around a little more, people will tell you a secret.

Depending upon your luck, a stranger will pull up in a car and ask you if you need a ride. He will urge you to quickly get into the car so the police don’t see this happening. The secret is that people in London make extra money in the evenings because they moonlight as unlicensed cabbies. These drivers profit from the fares that content cabbies leave behind. But this leaves lonely passengers susceptible to strangers with cars, a dangerous proposition for a simple ride home.

The way Toronto’s current system works is to let taxi drivers figure it out for themselves if they are making enough money to live. It is assumed that the ones that make the least amount of money will drop out. It’s self-regulated, dog-eat-dog style.

I’m not suggesting a massive reform to copy London’s system, but it can’t hurt to make the standards a bit higher. We would be protecting the income of cab drivers that plan to do it for a living. We would improve the quality of drivers on the road as well as reduce congestion. We can also stop raising fares so frequently, because the remaining cab drivers would have more work available (freezing fares and reducing the number of drivers helps the remaining drivers but not the cab companies, but I don’t worry about the companies based on the way they treat new cabbies).

I’ve had a lot of great cabbies, but there is one I’ll never forget. When I entered the cab, he asked my permission to avoid the highways because, as he put it, “I have to keep moving.” I looked at the clock and figured we had enough time to pursue his neurotic experiment. Was he actually planning on taking backstreets all the way to Pearson airport from downtown Toronto in the thick of rush hour?

That’s exactly what he did, and it took him less than 25 minutes. He drove like he was white-water rafting, recognizing the current and letting it take him, but only occasionally re-directing himself toward our destination.

When I asked for his card he said he didn’t have one. This guy knew the magic tunnels to the city and I was never going to see him again. I want to meet more cabbies like him. Don’t you?

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