Too many taxis in Iowa City


The Press Citizen reported today that Iowa City has more licensed cabs per capita than the three largest cities in America.  262 cabs for a city of 68,000 people, or roughly one cab for every 260 people.


The above statistic (cited below still) is inaccurate.  There are 13 cab companies in Iowa City, at least several of which have the legal bare minimum of 4 cars–for the statistic provided by the Press Citizen to be true, each company would have to have an average of more than 20 vehicles.  The mix-up seems to stem from a confusion over the total number of cabs and the total number of cab DRIVERS.  See the list at this link for the list of licensed cab drivers in Iowa City.  As of today, there are 264 people with permits to drive cab in Iowa City (including myself).

Iowa City taxi-to-resident ratio higher than three biggest U.S. cities from the Iowa City Press Citizen, Feb. 21, 2012

With 262 registered taxis as of Monday and a population of about 68,000 people, Iowa City residents have a better chance to hail a cab than the 8.2 million residents of New York City, which has almost 50 times the number of cabs in Iowa City, but 120 times the population.

Chicago and Los Angeles also have a lower ratio of cabs to residents than Iowa City with 2.7 million residents and about 7,000 taxis in the Windy City and 1,650 cabs among the City of Angels’ 3.8 million residents.

Libertarians and other small government people will (and do) argue that this is the free market in action, and that Iowa City’s very limited regulations have created a great balance between services needed and services supplied.  As a veteran of the Iowa City taxi business, I can tell you that while it might be easier to get a cab, the quality of taxi service has decreased markedly as the number taxis and taxi companies have shot up over the last decade..

I was hired to drive for Old Capitol Cab on 9/11/2001, a day after moving to Iowa City.  I drove full time for the next three years as I established residency and attended graduate school.  At the time there were three companies in town:  Old Capitol with around 15 cars, Yellow Cab of Iowa City with around 15-20 cars, and Hippie Cab which had at most 4 cars.  Fun fact, I watched the last Hippie Cab burn from an engine fire on North Clinton in front of Burge.  In those days it could be difficult to get a cab at bar close, but we were able to keep up and get everyone home safely in a reasonable amount of time.

The author driving cab Halloween 2002 or 2003

Cut to ten years later, and Old Capitol Cab is no longer around, but there are now no less than twelve other companies in its stead.  After the demise of OCC, I began driving for Yellow on a part-time basis and continue to drive for Hawkeye home football games.  Now there’s little problem getting a cab downtown, but the quality of service has gone way down.  Given the myriad companies, car designs, and drivers, coupled with the average inebriation level of the nighttime clientele, admittedly anecdotal evidence of price gouging is way up.  Additionally, the increased competition has led to lower sales and lower wages for drivers.  Over time, this will drive dedicated professionals from the business and leave a driver pool that is less qualified and less dedicated.

So what’s the city to do?  A good start would be to fully enforce the ordinances that are on the books, namely the following:

B. Minimum Qualifications: Each taxicab business shall meet the following minimum requirements:

1. Except for pedicabs, horsedrawn vehicles, and airport shuttles, provide taxicab service to the public twenty four (24) hours a day, seven (7) days a week, and have a business office location and phone that is answered twenty four (24) hours a day, seven (7) days a week. All dispatching shall be done from the office.

2. Except for pedicabs, horsedrawn vehicles, and airport shuttles, provide a minimum of four (4) qualified licensed taxicab vehicles of which a minimum of one vehicle shall be in operation at all times. All taxicabs must comply with the vehicle requirements of this chapter.

A lot of these companies swoop in at rush times and then park the cars for the rest of the day.  While this might make business sense, it doesn’t serve the needs of the community to have regular professional transportation services available for all people at all hours.  Additionally, many companies will dispatch by cell phone from the cab.  This is both a shady and dangerous practice.

I realize that there are bigger issues for the Iowa City police to deal with (those drunk college kids downtown won’t arrest themselves) but I think that ensuring safe and reliable transit for Iowa Citians should be a goal for the city.  If enforcement of existing code proves ineffective at limiting the problems of price gouging and unreliable service, the city should then explore the need for additional regulations for the taxi industry.


One Comment on “Too many taxis in Iowa City”

  1. Rodney, a.k.a. DailyDisgust pere says:

    Regulatory controls work best when tightly focused on the basic problem. Central dispatch and a minimum fleet of 4 cars does not assure safe cabs but it does reduce competition. Madison, WI has taxicab requirements similar to those in Iowa City – the result has been no entry into the market since the early 1980s and rates that are among the highest in the nation. However, most of the cabs are reasonably clean.

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