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.

Despite the increase in cabs, the number of complaints has not increased. In 2006, 125 complaints were filed. In 2013, it was 120.

“The number of complaints issued … are pretty minimal when you consider the number of taxicab rides that happen in the city,” said Cap O’Rourke, a lobbyist working on behalf of the taxi industry.

Wilson said the city takes the complaints seriously and investigates each one. If his inspectors find that the complaint is valid, the city sends a violation letter to the driver. A second offense brings a $200 fine. Any other violations bring additional, costlier fines.

One man who complained to the city, David Dominguez, said he was practically kidnapped by a taxi driver who did not want to accept his credit card.

“We called 911 and told him to let us out,” he said. “When he stopped at a red light, we ran out.”

Dominguez filed a complaint with the city. Wilson said the city was unable to take action against the driver because Dominguez couldn’t identify the taxi company or cab number.

‘OK, then call the police’

As the swarm of bar patrons descended on downtown streets in Minneapolis a week ago Friday night, so did taxis.

Two Star Tribune reporters tried to hail a cab around 2 a.m. to 19th and Stevens from Hennepin Avenue. It took one reporter eight tries to find one near 7th and Hennepin.

One cabdriver pulled over and asked where the reporter was going. The driver said someone was already paying him $40 to go to Burnsville.

“Are you giving me $40?” the driver asked. Another driver refused to take a credit card for payment. When told city law required him to take it, the driver responded: “OK, then call the police. I’ve got to go.”

In less than an hour, the reporters, who were taking a 1.5-mile trip, were turned down 17 times by taxi drivers.

Down the block, on 6th and Hennepin, a reporter observed two young black women and a man trying to hail a cab. Kaylena Greenwell said her group had been trying to catch a cab for over an hour.

“I’m not trying to pull the race card, but it seems like taxicabs don’t want to stop for the black people,” she said.

Minutes later, a driver let them into his van but demanded they pay him $20 up front before taking them to 1800 S. Washington, a 2-mile ride.

Eventually, the Star Tribune reporter tried to hail a cab for the women. Four cabs stopped. One cabdriver said he was picking someone else up. Two other drivers, including a Skybird driver, said they could take the reporter, but when the women and their male friend approached, they drove off.

Bari Niaz, president of Checker Cab, a sister company of Skybird, said it’s against company policy to refuse a ride to anybody. He said he cannot speak for why the driver refused to give the women a ride but said drivers sometimes don’t feel safe.

“It’s a very risky business and a lot of things can happen,” Niaz said.

One driver finally took the group, but he started his meter at nearly $15, instead of the required $2.50.

Told what the reporters observed, Council Member Jacob Frey said, “Not picking up somebody because of the color of their skin, or where their home happens to be, is inexcusable.”

UberX, Lyft prices soar

Greenwell said her group would have turned to Uber and Lyft that night but their prices soared because of high demand. By 2:30 a.m., Uber was charging three times normal rates with a $20 minimum fare. Lyft fees shot up 75 percent.

Mebrahtu said it’s unfair that Uber and Lyft get to increase their prices during rush hour, while taxi cabdrivers have to stick to the city’s rate schedule.

Lyft and UberX, which are currently operating illegally in Minneapolis, are seeking special regulations at City Hall that differ from those that taxis must follow.

Frey has been working with the city’s regulatory staff to come up with an ordinance that would make the newcomers legal but also allow for regulation.

To win over the taxi industry, city officials are considering changes intended to relax regulations for its drivers. The latest proposal, released Friday, would allow companies to use older cabs, nix requirements to have a physical dispatch office and accept drivers with Wisconsin licenses.

Drivers would have some new rules, such as ensuring that the fare is visible at all times, and being placed out of service for not accepting credit cards.

The City Council’s regulatory committee may vote on the new ordinances July 8.

“Healthy competition will not eliminate all of the issues that are being experienced,” Frey said. “But the goal is that at the very least, it will make a dent.”


alejandra.matos@startribune.com 612-673-4028

eric.roper@startribune.com 612-673-1732