Taxicab drivers skirting Minneapolis laws

Refusing short fares, credit cards and people of color are a few of the infractions.

Minneapolis is vowing to crack down on taxi drivers who troll for the best passengers, in some cases refusing fares to people who want to go on a short ride, pay with a credit card or who are black.

Records obtained by the Star Tribune show that the city has received nearly 200 complaints since 2012 against cabdrivers who appear to have violated city ordinances, which bar them from refusing most fares.

Two Star Tribune reporters who recently tried to hail cabs at bar-closing time in downtown were turned down a combined 17 times for wanting to go short distances or pay with a credit card.

They also witnessed two cabs drive away after learning that their passengers would be black women.

The city has promised action.

“I am incredibly concerned about the short-fare refusal at bar rush because the drivers are obviously cherry-picking and hoping for a long run,” said Grant Wilson, who runs business licensing for the city.

The city sent out two undercover officers at bar-closing time on Thursday night, part of its routine inspections. They issued seven violations to cabdrivers: one for overcharging, one for turning away a fare, and five for credit card-related issues.

Yemane Mebrahtu, president of the Minneapolis Taxicab Drivers and Owners Association, said all drivers are trained and required to transport all passengers, but he said some drivers do not follow those laws because it means they will be making less money.

“The city has a 40-year-old law that does not favor the driver,” he said. “The drivers are not coming home with enough money.”

The city regulates almost every aspect of taxicab operations, from driver attire to a requirement that they carry street maps. Drivers must accept all passengers willing to pay the legal rate, regardless of their destination within the city. They have to accept credit cards and are not allowed to solicit passengers.

Competition escalates

A Star Tribune analysis of the 193 complaints logged with the city from 2012 to April 2014 showed most were about overcharges, refusing to take credit cards or refusing to make a short trip.

About a fourth were for dangerous driving, including talking and texting while driving, causing an accident or reckless driving. In 2012 and 2013, taxis were involved in 290 accidents, but the records do not indicate who was at fault.

In addition, sparked by complaints about racial profiling, the city’s inspectors and the Police Department set up two couples, one white and one black, on Hennepin Avenue a year ago.

“People of color were refused a ride, where a white couple down the block was picked up,” Wilson said.

While the official complaints represent a fraction of the number of annual taxi rides, the quality of the taxi system is being debated in cities across the country as upstart consumer ride-sharing firms such as Lyft and UberX enter the market. These services match anyone who needs a ride with a person who has a car.

The taxi industry says a City Hall proposal to legalize those companies creates an uneven playing field by letting them charge sky-high rates with little oversight.

Even before the added competition, cabdrivers were having a harder time getting a fare in Minneapolis. The city lifted a cap on the number of licenses in 2006, which sent the number of vehicles from 373 in 2007 to 854 today.

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  • Photo gallery: Taxi troubles

    Saturday June 28, 2014

    Minneapolis is vowing to crack down on taxi drivers who troll for the best passengers, in some cases refusing...

  • A couple looked out from inside a passing taxi cab as two women waited for an available taxi outside First Avenue near the Target Center on Saturday. Some cabs were refusing to take credit cards, give rides to certain passengers or pick up short-ride fares.

  • After bar closing at 2 a.m., two people try to hail a taxi near First Avenue Saturday, June 28, 2014, in downtown Minneapolis MN.] (DAVID JOLES/STARTRIBUNE) djoles@startribune Last January, Gabriel Keller told the city he saw a taxi driver “intentionally” running a red light, “followed by three stop signs without slowing down, all of which were next to a school. Another resident complained that he was trying to pay the driver with a credit card, but the driver refused and “would not let us out of the car.” In the past two years, the highest number of complaints have...

  • After the 2 a.m. bar closing, a fight broke out between two groups of women outside First Avenue where the competition for taxis got contentious at times Saturday, June 28, 2014, in downtown Minneapolis MN.] (DAVID JOLES/STARTRIBUNE) djoles@startribune Last January, Gabriel Keller told the city he saw a taxi driver “intentionally” running a red light, “followed by three stop signs without slowing down, all of which were next to a school. Another resident complained that he was trying to pay the driver with a credit card, but the driver refused and “would not let us out of the car.”...

  • who gets the cab? Competition for taxi service got contentious outside the Minneapolis club First Avenue as two groups vying for a taxi exchanged words in the wee hours Saturday. Some cabdrivers are violating city regulations, while complaining that two ridesharing services operating illegally in Minneapolis, UberX and Lyft, are unfairly eating away at their business.

  • WHAT’s NEXT

    July 8: City Council’s regulatory committee expected to vote on proposed ordinances regulating taxis and for-hire private vehicles.

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