Mondays are usually busy for taxis, so the Valley Cab Co. has 80 of its red-and-white cars cruising streets from Pacoima to Woodland Hills. But the calls are few and far between on this day, and the drivers are antsy.
“Do you realize that right now we have 30 cabs sitting around doing nothing?” says one cabbie.
For the past five years, Valley Cab has been the only taxi service licensed to work Los Angeles streets north of Mulholland Drive. The territory is inordinately large but traditionally barren when it comes to riders.
The folks at Valley Cab say there’s just enough business to keep them going.
Now a Burbank company is trying to muscle in on the action, saying the Valley needs two cab services. The city’s Transportation Department, which grants taxi permits, is taking 10 weeks to study the situation and see whether Valley Cab can perform to par, like picking up passengers within 15 minutes after they call for a ride.
So local cabbies are looking over their shoulders.
“We’ve got 80 cabs on the street and there isn’t enough work as it is,” said one driver. “Why do they want to bring in more cabs?”
The management at Valley Cab isn’t pleased either.
“If you had two companies, it wouldn’t change the small demand for cabs,” said Tom Hefferan, the general manager. “You’d just be splitting the rides and both companies would go out of business.”
Los Angeles isn’t much of a cab town to begin with.
This isn’t New York City, where the streets are teaming with honking, swerving yellow sedans. This isn’t Washington, D.C., where taxis hover around government buildings and national monuments.
A metropolis of loosely connected suburbs just doesn’t lend itself to such service. And if Los Angeles isn’t exactly a taxi driver’s dream, then the Valley is a nightmare.
There are almost no major hotels here, no large bus or train stations. Burbank Airport isn’t included in the territory. Office buildings, hospitals and shopping malls--frequent taxi destinations--are spread thinly from North Hollywood to Chatsworth.
“The Valley being so big, it makes taking a cab expensive,” Hefferan said. “It costs $30 to go across the Valley. You can rent a car all day for that.”
Most visiting businessmen do just that, according to the bell captains at the Valley Hilton and Warner Center Marriott, who hail only five to 10 taxis a day.
So Valley cabbies make a living from odds and ends.
“We get a lot of old people going to the doctor or the grocery store,” said a driver who, like most of those interviewed, was eager to comment but not so eager to have his name in the newspaper. “In the afternoons, we get maids who need rides from the Encino hills down to the boulevard where they catch buses home.”
Valley Cab also gets “emergency” business, people whose cars break down or whose friends don’t show up to give them a ride. Stranded, they have no choice but to call a taxi.
“It’s a last-minute decision,” Hefferan said.
And, according to 1989 Transportation Department statistics--the most recent available--the people who ride Valley Cab take relatively short trips.
“Less than 1% leave the Valley,” Hefferan said. “We’re like a small community separate from the city.”
Groused a driver: “It’s old people. You get paid $2 for driving around the corner and holding their groceries.”
A few miles east, in Burbank, Glendale and Pasadena, the Babaeian Transportation Co. has been running cab services for nine years. Recently, the company asked for permission to add the Valley to its domain.
“It would be a natural expansion for us,” said Masood Babaeian, the company’s president.
His cabs cruise Burbank Airport and take 300 to 400 people into the Valley each day, he said. Many of these people need return rides later, but the city of Los Angeles doesn’t allow Babaeian to accept these fares. According to city regulations, none of his rides can originate in the Valley. He has to refer them to Valley Cab.
Also, Babaeian says his cabs get 100 calls a day from Valley residents. He has to give this business away, too, and it irks him.
“We’re locked into this situation,” he said.
A third, albeit smaller, service figures into the competition.
Super Car operates what amounts to a modified limousine service in the Valley. Its cars look like taxis, save for a dome light. But the service is not allowed to advertise in the “taxicab” section of the telephone directory, and that limits its business.
Nevertheless, Super Car has expanded in recent years, according to a company official. Babaeian cites this success as proof that the Valley has enough riders to support more than one cab company.
City officials tend to agree.
Soon, the Transportation Department will fully implement its “coupon” ride program in the Valley. Elderly and handicapped riders can buy $2 coupon booklets that are worth $24 in taxi fares--the city pays the difference.
This municipal program has been successful in other parts of Los Angeles.
“In downtown and the Wilshire corridor there is a big demand from senior citizens,” said Ken Cude, a city transportation engineer. “I think the Valley will eventually be the same.”
Valley Cab argues that a similar state program is already in effect here, so the additional city coupons will increase demand only slightly. Hefferan also said, in response to Babaeian, that Valley Cab takes passengers to Burbank Airport but can’t pick up there.
Said Babaeian: “There’s enough business. They just don’t want the competition.”
Protests aside, Valley Cab has apparently done well enough for itself. According to city statistics, the company grossed $4.35 million in 1989, which ranked in the middle of the Los Angeles cab pack.
The drivers did even better. Their taxis took in an average of $161 a day, the highest per car average in the city. They lease the cabs for a comparatively high cost of $80 a day, but tips usually pay for gas and they keep everything beyond that.
Plus, the Valley’s streets are fairly easy to memorize. And the neighborhoods are safer than in other parts of the city.
“We don’t see a lot of cab drivers as victims out here,” said Lt. Robert Gale of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Valley Bureau.
But if a second company comes in and competition for riders stiffens, the drivers worry that they will become victims of another sort. Babaeian is perched at the edge of the East Valley, where fewer people have cars and hacks get most of their business.
“The drivers won’t be able to make enough money,” a cabbie said. “Do you want some guy who makes $40 a day driving you around?”
For now, the city is making random calls for Valley Cab and noting the response time. Officials are also concerned about some of Valley Cab’s older cars, which tend to creak and grind a bit. Hefferan says his company will replace these older models by Feb. 1.
Two months later--April 1--the transportation commission will vote on whether Valley Cab’s level of service merits authorizing a second franchise.
“They won’t allow it,” said a driver on a recent Monday. His words betrayed more worry than conviction.
And, in the next moment, he said: “Nobody worries about the driver.”
Only 1,300 Cabs Work the Streets of L.A.
* Los Angeles has only 1,300 cabs on its streets, about one-tenth as many as New York and one-fifth as many as Washington, D.C.
* Eight cab companies are licensed to operate in various parts of the city.
* L.A. Taxi, a company that works primarily downtown, gets hailed by as many as 3,000 riders a day. Valley Cab Co. does well to get 1,200.
* Even though the Valley includes 35% of Los Angeles’ population, its lone taxi service does only 10% of the total business in the city.