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The Strip

Step into a cab and you might get taken for a ride

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There are more than 2,200 medallions (taxi permits) on the streets of Clark County.
Photo: Leila Navidi
E.C. Gladstone

It was a rare bit of sunshine in an otherwise gloomy news season. Back in September, Hotels.com released the results of its annual taxi survey, declaring Las Vegas taxicabs the best overall among 50 U.S. cities, as rated by nearly 2,000 travelers. Oh sure, the deck was stacked in at least a few of the seven categories—“knowledge of the area” isn’t really fair when you compare the Strip to a confusingly laid-out city like Atlanta, and “availability” isn’t hard when taxis are only allowed to pick up fares at well-stacked hotel and airport stands or by dispatch at other businesses or residences. Still, that Vegas topped any list not starting with “Worst” was something worth talking about.

More recently comes news that drivers set a new single-day record for McCarran pickups during CES—nearly 15,000 fares on January 5. But if you think Vegas-based cabbies are among the few weathering the downturn here with ease, you couldn’t be more wrong. When I started approaching drivers asking for nothing more than reaction to the survey, an entirely different state of affairs emerged. Many didn’t want to talk, no matter the subject. Others laughed and shook their heads wearily. And those who would speak insisted their real names not be used. Every one.

"They're forcing these guys into a dishonest living," says one driver.

They opened up a litany of issues, complaints and accusations that might seem unbelievable if so many of them weren’t repeated at locations from East Tropicana to West Sahara, from the Strip to Summerlin, by drivers for several of Las Vegas’ 16 cab companies. In an era when corruption seems so antiquated that we’re creating museums to look back on it, drivers say one business still operates like a syndicate: theirs.

“We call them ‘tunnel rats,’” “Terry” (not his real name) tells me, driving down Harmon Avenue. His cab is typically dank and cramped and smells like a potpourri-scented locker room. “You come out of the airport, go through the tunnel that takes you onto the 215, to the 15” to get to the Strip. It adds about $10 to a fare, and is legal only if the driver offers it as an option to the passenger. The technical term for the practice is “long-hauling,” taking unwitting passengers the long way around—typically from the airport to the Strip (the most common route for nearly all cabs) but also from the Strip to Downtown—and it’s one of the major issues damning Las Vegas taxis today. One cabbie tells me of a driver who was caught charging a fare of $92 from the airport to the Hard Rock Hotel (let’s just say he took the scenic route: as most locals know, it’s less than two miles away).

“I love taking people back to the airport,” says a tough-as-nails veteran driver with a voice as chiseled as his face. “They always wonder why the fare is so much lower” than the cost of the ride in the other direction.

Yes, the Nevada Taxicab Authority does have its own policing force, and a chart on its website lists estimated cab fares—down to the penny—from McCarran to 70 major casinos, but the TA police have been far from effectual in keeping everyone honest. “We only have four officers per shift,” Taxicab Authority enforcement supervisor Rico Constantino told Channel 8 last summer. That’s one supervisor, and we have to answer to 8,000 square miles. So, there are not enough people.” That may be an understatement, considering there are more than 2,200 medallions (taxi permits) on the streets of Clark County. Elisabeth Daniels, public information officer for the Department of Business and Industry, which oversees the TA, admits, “There are no officers assigned specifically to long-route enforcement. It would be impossible considering that the taxicab industry in Clark County completed more than 25 million trips in 2010,” 3 million of which originated at McCarran Airport.

Last year, Taxicab Authority officials said they received 836 long-hauling complaints and issued more than 200 citations to drivers. Out of 3 million trips from the airport to the Strip, those figures are tiny, but some claim underreporting is likely by customers who’d rather pay up than deal with the process of formally filing a complaint. Is there a greater problem the TA Police need to monitor?

Even more disturbing are frequent claims by drivers that the taxi companies themselves tacitly encourage long-hauling, not only through quota pressures, but even suggestions that cabbies “be creative,” as one Whittlesea driver claims he was told by his bosses when taking passengers from the airport.

“If a driver is conscientious and doesn’t use the tunnel, he isn’t going to make book,” another driver explains—“make book” meaning keep your daily averages high. “Sometimes the only business out there is the airport. If you just work the Strip, you’re never going to make book.” Not keeping averages high (call it a quota, or not) means you’ll be assigned a bad cab, fewer shifts or just weekday shifts, say the drivers. Desert Cab operations manager Jesse Lira says the only repercussions for consistently low averages is “They get talked to. They don’t get penalized.” Calls to six other local cab companies for comment were not returned.

“They’re forcing these guys into a dishonest living,” says another driver, letting an insistent “working girl” hire the next cab while he talks to me at Palace Station.

“There has been no evidence that the certificate holders [taxicab companies] encourage or fail to discourage their employees from taking a longer route than necessary,” says Daniels, sidestepping the question of whether the TA has ever investigated the matter.

This situation shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s paid attention to the plight of the Vegas cab system over the last few years. Channel 8’s George Knapp did an extensive series on the problems in the taxi system last year, which seems to have been greeted by those in charge with at worst a yawn and a belly scratch and at best suggestions of change that have amounted to little progress.

In July of last year, Taxicab Authority Administrator Gordon Walker proposed a plan to set a flat rate of $20 from the airport to any resort destination on the Strip, well over the TA’s estimated fares to most Strip locales, like the $16.84 (including wait time in traffic) it should cost to reach the Wynn. Walker also considered a $500 fine against drivers who took passengers the long way around, with the fine doubled for a second offense. “Ultimately, there was no support for the flat rate, particularly from the taxicab industry,” Daniels says, “so the proposal was not pursued any further.” You read that right: Companies would not support a proposal that would, theoretically, bring them more revenue per trip and take away a long-standing stigma.

Cab drivers don’t like Vegas’ high rates (some of the highest in the nation) any more than you do. Those rates downwardly influence tips and discourage people from using cabs. Drivers also don’t particularly like waiting in long lines at casino resorts just to satisfy a law that makes it illegal to pick up a fare virtually anywhere else unless directed there by dispatch. (Las Vegas Municipal Code also calls for the establishment of open taxi stands on city streets, of which there are none.)

Intriguingly, Walker and fellow TA executive Joe Dahlia left their positions in the fall (Joseph Wingard, a veteran lieutenant of the Highway Patrol, is the current interim administrator). But drivers don’t seem to feel new blood will change anything unless the system changes, too.

Drivers, who work 12-hour shifts as full-timers (14, if you include before-and-after processing at the cab companies), estimate their annual incomes at $25,000-$55,000 before taxes. Almost all work as independent contractors, having to pay for their own gas and receiving few of the benefits usually associated with full-time work (no holiday pay, no overtime, no sick pay, limited insurance benefits).

And with reduced demand in recent months, it would appear the number of cabs on the streets (currently 2,217 medallions, only 247 of which are barred from picking up at the airport, Strip or Downtown) undercuts a driver’s profitability, despite higher fare rates. Some drivers even admit that the pressure of making book with so much competition forces them to drive more recklessly. “I eat lunch in the cab. I don’t take breaks,” says one Desert Cab driver.

One might presume big convention weeks help compensate for dry periods, but the TA actually issues temporary medallions during trade shows like CES, further increasing the number of cabs on the street.

“I’d compare it to an old Civil War plantation where the owners are the overseers and the drivers are the slaves,” driver “Terry” says near the Hard Rock Hotel.

Another contributing problem: limousines. Any local resident has undoubtedly noticed more luxurious cars-for-hire over the past few years. Competition is fair, of course, except when the laws regarding that competition are routinely ignored: laws that should dictate how close private limos can “stage” (wait) near taxi stands; the ways limos may be hired near taxi stands (hint: no soliciting); and how limos may interact with taxi valets. “Anyone going to strip clubs gets diverted to limos,” a Desert Cab driver informs me, naming properties where I can witness it happening regularly.

Driving a “hack” has never been a glamorous profession—at least in this country. Generally, it’s what a person does when he or she is willing to accept long hours and tedium in exchange for independence from an office or warehouse. And, to be sure, hard-luck employment stories are not hard to find in Las Vegas these days. But while Terry’s owner/slave metaphor might seem extreme, working conditions for Vegas cab drivers distinctly recall the archaic practices of the sharecropper and company-town coal miner eras.

“We could bring this city to a halt if we wanted to,” says the driver at Palace Station, looking into the distance.

If visitors or residents want a fair system, it seems they might have to.

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