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Cabbies tired of pickup lines

Times Staff Writer

Taxi driver George Stepanian was stuck idling again, inching toward the front of the stand at 7th and Figueroa streets in downtown Los Angeles.

In other cities, cabbies prowl the streets for customers trying to hail a ride. But not in L.A., where some of the toughest regulations in the country make the practice very difficult in many of the busiest neighborhoods.

Stepanian admits he occasionally picks up a passenger hailing a cab on a quiet street when no one is around but never during rush hour, when no-stopping zones are strictly enforced along many of downtown’s busy streets.

“I don’t risk it,” Stepanian said. “I cannot afford another ticket.”

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As a result, many L.A. cabbies spend more time idling than driving. Bill Rouse, general manager of Yellow Cab of Los Angeles, said his cabbies spend up to 60% of their time waiting around at taxi stands for customers.

But as L.A. becomes increasingly dense, there’s growing interest in creating a taxicab culture here, particularly downtown and in Hollywood, where more and more people are moving about on foot and where it’s so congested much of the time that it’s unpleasant to drive.

Councilwoman Jan Perry has asked the Los Angeles Department of Transportation to consider reworking its rules to allow cabs to pick people up in red zones and other areas where it’s now prohibited. Officials are considering a pilot program downtown and in Hollywood. Last week, a group of city officials went to San Francisco to study that city’s new rules aimed at making it easier to hail a cab. L.A.'s taxicab administrator, Tom Drischler, who was on the trip, said he hopes to have a proposal ready for the City Council by summer.

If new rules mean getting out of line and onto the street, it can’t come soon enough for Stepanian and his fellow cabbies.

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“What people want is what they want in any other big city -- to step out of the courthouse, step out of the Music Center, think, ‘Oh, I’m wearing high heels and my feet hurt, I want to get a cab,’ ” Perry said. “Why should that be a big deal?”

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Contrary to urban myth, it is not illegal to hail a cab in Los Angeles. But it is illegal for cabbies to pick up passengers in bus zones and red zones or along busy streets when no-parking regulations are in place. During rush hour, many of L.A.'s biggest streets become “No Stopping” zones, meaning cabbies cannot pick anyone up without risking a ticket.

And L.A. parking enforcement officers are known for being aggressive in giving tickets to those who slow the flow.

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Just ask cabbie Gennady Feynberg.

He slaps his knee as he tells about the $65 ticket he got for picking up a passenger who flagged him down from a red zone. He waves a $255 ticket that he received for dropping off a disabled passenger in a bus zone.

He introduces his friends: Isaak Erenburg, who was cited for letting a mother whose crying child wanted something to drink hop out of the cab for a moment to run into a 99-cent store. And Alexander Ratushnyak, who dropped off a customer with foot problems in front of the Westside Pavilion, only to find that he was being tailed by a parking inspector who issued him a ticket worth more than the fare.

So they wait -- and smoke -- at a favorite few of the city’s taxi stands. There are about 2,300 licensed taxicabs in Los Angeles and 600 stands throughout the city.

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If a call comes in over the radio, they dash to answer it.

One call sends Feynberg to a woman on a run-down block in L.A.'s Westlake neighborhood. When he pulls up, she’s standing outside, clutching an upright vacuum cleaner. He has to double-park to pick her up. He’s anxious that the time it takes to load the vacuum will mean a ticket from parking-enforcement officers, but luckily, no one’s around. The woman, whose name is Diane, gives him directions in broken English to a vacuum cleaner repair shop.

A few days later, Feynberg pulls into the taxi stand behind the Kmart on 3rd Street near Fairfax Avenue. Waiting for a cab are Mike Pendleton and Leila Tredmeyer, lawyers who live in the Palazzo, an upscale apartment complex nearby. They’re headed for a restaurant in Hollywood.

Pendleton and Tredmeyer frequently take taxis to dinner or a night on the town. And they’ve experienced firsthand the cabbies’ frustration. Recently, the couple flagged down a cab on Sunset Strip. As soon as they got in, a police officer gave the driver a ticket.

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“A motorcycle police officer . . . was hassling our cab driver, saying he picked us up in the wrong place,” Pendleton said. “Then all these drunk people started yelling at him, and the cop tried to arrest them.”

Feynberg nods in agreement.

After dropping off the couple, he heads back to the taxi stand. And waits.

Such is the reality of seeking a cab in L.A.: They don’t seem to be around when you need one, but many sit empty in long lines near big hotels or at taxi stands, hoping to land a big fare to the airport.

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And, as Feynberg is quick to point out, when you wait, you are not collecting fares.

By 2 p.m. that afternoon, Feynberg had brought in $100. He needs $250 per day to make it worthwhile, to cover the costs of the taxi license, repairs and gasoline and to reap a little for himself. He pays $1,200 per month to the taxi company, plus $300 for repairs and for saving for the next car. He owns his own cab.

A would-be driver seeking to get into the business typically buys a license from a driver who already owns one. Drivers say the cost of a license can run from $23,000 to as much as $60,000.

Feynberg says he usually works seven days a week -- taking time off only when he’s too sick to drive.

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“My parents are elderly. Last year my wife got sick, then I got sick,” he said. “I was in the hospital five days with kidney stones. But when you drive a taxi, you’re not paid if you don’t work.”

On a recent weeknight at the taxi stand in front of the Beverly Center, 11 cabs waited for customers, six on one side of Beverly Boulevard and five on the other. Drivers huddled together in the chill air, smoking and trading anecdotes.

“It’s a slow night,” said Ratushnyak, an aerospace engineer in Russia who has worked for 20 years as a taxi driver in L.A. “I checked by the Century Plaza. There’s a lot of cabs there too, so I came here.”

Southern California’s sprawl has never been hospitable to taxis; when the city’s car culture was developing, it just didn’t make sense to rely on a Manhattan-like system of flagging down cabs. Instead, people called taxi companies by phone, ordering a car for a specific time and place.

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And people worried: How could you tell if the driver was cheating you? What if the cab that came to pick you up was dirty or the driver unreliable?

In the 1960s, it was learned that many drivers had rigged their meters. The result of the scandal was a culture suspicious of cabs, as well as a very tight net of regulation.

L.A. cabbies must wear a uniform of black dress pants and white shirt. They must not smoke in the cabs (though many do), and they must comply with the onerous pickup and drop-off ordinances. To traffic engineers, such rules are vital.

“What if on Wilshire Boulevard at rush hour someone wanted to stop to get a quick 20 bucks out of an ATM, or run into Starbucks?” said Amir Sedadi, assistant general manager of the city’s transportation department. “A taxi coming in doing the same thing would pose the same safety issues and bottlenecks.”

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There are signs that L.A.'s cab culture is already starting to change, even without new rules about where customers can be picked up.

In Hollywood, cabs are beginning to cruise the streets after rush hour to find fares among people going to shows or frequenting the resurgent area’s restaurants and bars.

Downtown, new residents sometimes stick out their hands for a passing ride or walk to hotels where there are taxi stands.

Along Broadway, taxi driver Ramon Lopez says he’s established a solid customer base of mostly immigrant families who shop along the business district, then hail his cab.

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“They come in by bus,” Lopez said. “But they take a taxi home.”

But the changes aren’t coming soon enough for Feynberg and his fellow cabbies. “You see that girl over there?” he asks as he cruises west on Pico Boulevard one afternoon. He points to a woman at a bus stop. “Sometimes they get tired of waiting for the bus. They flag you down. But I can’t stop. She might be going on a $200 trip, but I’d rather not risk it.”

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sharon.bernstein@latimes.com

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