Downtown View:Thinking About Taxis

February 10, 2017
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By Karen Cord Taylor

It’s oppressive. You can’t get away from the Trump chaos. Everyone talks about it. Walk down the street, meet a friend. Immediately they bring it up even if you don’t want to hear it. A friend who is skiing in Vermont emailed me about meeting for dinner. But then she ended with, “what’s to become of our nation?”

A Scottish relative even got into the fray when she took a bus back to Lossiemouth from Elgin. An elderly woman near her told her she pitied the “poor Americans.”

“They niver thought in a the days o man that that absolute fool o a man wid be in the White Hoose,” she said. “And now I hiv tae ging back into Elgin again the night tae join the protest.”

Who knew elderly Scottish ladies would be protesting in far-north Elgin at night?

I try not to think about the nation’s problems unless I hear something funny. Thank goodness for the online Borowitz Report and Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, the New Yorker’s Calvin Trillin and Rachel Maddow, whose news is filled with irony and glee at the latest absurdity.

My most successful tactic, however, is to think about banal things instead of scary ones. Taxis come to mind. Life in Boston would be better if we had better taxis. Let’s think about them instead of something else.

Like telephone booths and typewriters, they are a relic of another age. There are the same number of taxi medallions in the city as in past years, according to the media relations department of the Boston Police Department, but there seem to be fewer taxis on the streets. This is hard to verify, however, since no one can tell me how many are actually on the streets.

But taxis don’t have to become relics. They have one advantage over Uber and Lyft. You can stand at a street corner and hail them. And you can find them at taxi stands—the one behind City Hall and in front of 225 Franklin are particularly convenient. If you can find one quickly, they are quicker than Lyft, for whom you have to wait. While taxis are more expensive, it’s usually only a few dollars difference. It won’t break the bank.

But taxis make it hard to love them. Signs pasted on the dirty, clunky divider urge passengers to stay loyal. But who can stay loyal to cramped quarters, no indication that a cab is available when it approaches you, clumsy payment options, hostility if you pay by credit card, annoying blather coming from a small television screen and a lack of air conditioning in the summer?

If taxis are to remain on the streets of Boston, they must up their game. Here are some modest proposals.

Put a light on the top of every cab that says if it is available or not. New York City cabs can manage that simple piece of information. So can DC’s cabs. It’s welcoming and efficient to know that the taxi coming toward you can stop for you.

Get rid of the divider between the driver and the passenger. These were installed long ago after a couple of cab drivers were assaulted. But that occurs rarely. Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, DC, taxis do not have that bulky barrier that prevents easy exchange with the driver and air conditioning from flowing through. And those places aren’t as safe as Boston.

The unsightly barrier makes it hard for passengers to get in and out and have a place for their feet. A barrier-free ride would make a passenger’s ride more comfortable and make that passenger more inclined to take a taxi rather than Lyft, which is always more comfortable.

Make taxi service regional rather than city-based. Surely if Amazon can figure out how to deliver packages everywhere, some smart person should be able to plan how to deploy cabs all over Boston, Cambridge and Brookline, for starters, with efficiency and standardization. It is annoying to realize that the cab coming toward you near is not supposed to pick you up even if it is empty.

Boston also has its job to do. Taxi medallions are like liquor licenses. They should not be able to be bought and sold in a private market. They should go to one cab and be retrieved when that cab is out of commission. They should be affordable for individual drivers. They should be issued with public comfort and accessibility in mind and not for the benefits and convenience of big owners.

If the taxis don’t make these changes, they’ll descend into the junk yards where Compaq computers and Walkman devices have gone. No one will miss them or be sorry. And we’ll have to go back to thinking about Trump.

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