The case for cabs: a story

One of the hot topics in Austin politics is taxicabs and the rules that govern them.  This post won’t get into the rules but rather make the case for why it’s important to have adequate capacity in taxicabs and other forms of getting rides.

A few months ago, a friend of mine had a medical emergency and needed to go to the emergency room urgently.  The wait time for a cab would have been 40 minutes, unacceptably high.  I only live a 20 minute walk from the hospital, so we set out on foot.  Unfortunately, we didn’t make it and I ended up having to call 911.  Both a fire truck and an ambulance came and a $10 taxi ride turned into a $500 ambulance ride (plus whatever the firetruck costs the city).  On the way home, we again had to wait 40 minutes for a taxi ride because, the dispatcher told us, Friday night was a popular night for taxicabs, and the hospital was out of the way of the normal downtown-to-West-Campus routes.

There are a few aspects to this story: first, it made me feel like a pathetic friend to not be able to provide transportation in a time of need.  I could practically hear the voices telling me to stop messing around, grow up, get a license, and buy a car, because health is more important than lifestyle.  I would frankly be terrified of raising a child in Austin without a car for exactly this reason.  However rare they are, these are the kinds of situations that make people permanently car drivers: medical emergencies, missed plane flights, missed business meetings, etc.  But having a car has high overhead costs in both time and money and once you’ve made that investment, you’ll probably use the car for everything.

Secondly, it’s important to note that there’s no technical or market reason why a taxicab couldn’t have come faster.  There’s not a shortage of people willing to drive taxicabs; the ride itself only takes 5 minutes and I live in central Austin, close to where many taxis hang out.  The reason for the 40 minute wait was due to a policy decision on the part of the city to cap the city’s taxicab capacity.

The hospital trip was an extreme example, but it’s hardly uncommon for the limits on taxis to be detrimental.  Less than a week ago, a friend had family in town who wanted to see what Austin night life was about, but in the end they decided against it, because they didn’t want to put up with the trouble of getting a taxi home at 1:00 AM.  Austin simply does not have enough taxi capacity to handle its existing population in anything like a robust, reliable manner, let alone what will happen if more people decide to ditch their cars.

The case for cabs: a story

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