Taking L.A. for a ride

If there’s a peak mating season between those oddly matched species, the Angeleno and the taxicab, it surely came at about 2 o’clock this morning, New Year’s Day, when “Auld Lang Syne” almost rhymed with “DUI.”

For the other 364 squares on our calendar, taxicabs are usually other people’s rides -- tourists and out-of-town businesspeople, poor people or anyone with an emergency and no access to wheels.

For years, I’d heard that it was actually illegal to hail a cab in Los Angeles. More about that in a minute.


The city wants to rehab our habits. Nearly six months ago, L.A. inaugurated a “Hail a Taxi” experiment downtown and in Hollywood. It eased some restrictions on cab drivers, put up 600 “Hail a Taxi” signs and delivered some big hopeful talk of turning car culture into cab culture in parts of town with resurgent urban comings and goings, night life and restaurants and residents. Riding in cabs could cut down on traffic jams and carbon outlay, save people time and parking money and still spare us that most L.A. of indignities: having to walk.

I just love the idea of popping in and out of cabs. It’s so “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” A pity that L.A.'s most memorable taxi film has been “Collateral” -- cab driver Jamie Foxx driving contract killer Tom Cruise from hit to hit across our vast urban plain.

Could it really work, hailing a taxi in L.A.? The program fizzled in its July debut, so the city relaunched it in December. The numbers aren’t in yet, but Amir Sedadi, who’s the assistant general manager at the Department of Transportation, says that it’s “going a little slower than we anticipated.” You can’t just pop open a can of Instant Cab Culture. It’ll depend “on both supply and demand,” on enough passengers looking for cruising cabs, and a critical mass of cabbies available for the flagging.

As general manager for the Administrative Services Co-Op, which runs five cab companies in the city, William J. Rouse believes “the city made the right move. We’re already seeing that culture shift with more residents in downtown and Hollywood. I think it’s got a bright future -- I just don’t think we should expect there to be a revolution.”

What we’re used to in L.A. is cab drivers waiting in hotel cab lines to snare surefire big fares to some distant $80 destination rather than cruise for eight $10 short-haul fares in the same time.

Remember that urban legend about it being illegal to hail a cab on an L.A. street? The truth is close. You and I could hail a cab, but if a driver stopped in a red zone to pick us up or let us out, or even in a parking space without paying the meter, he could and sometimes did get a ticket.

For this pilot program, the city ended that. Martin Manukyan, the president of the Yellow Cab co-op, says it makes a big difference when cabbies can stop and drop passengers exactly where they want to be and pick up passengers where they stand, instead of making them wait until the cab can find a legal stopping place, sometimes a block away.

The happiest cab fan I found was Kerry Morrison, executive director of Hollywood’s Business Improvement District. Until this program, Hollywood had only two taxi zones. “I’ve used the taxis a couple of times myself to experiment -- I held up my hand and they pulled over and I was so excited! Every time we see it, it’s like, ‘Yay, they’re using it!’ It isn’t quite like New York yet, but we’re hoping.”

As for downtown and “Hail a Taxi,” I have my own experience. Two days after the city relaunched the program, I went looking for a cab. I sauntered up and down Spring Street so often, I was afraid the vice squad was going to swoop in. I finally hoofed it to a hotel cab stand and headed to L.A. Live, where I had no trouble flagging down a cab for the return trip.

What do we need to get us in the cab habit? Do those “Hail a Taxi” signs need to be clearer? Would “Grab a Cab” be grabbier?

I brace for disappointment when the city launches a behavior-altering program. The powers that be have a way of dithering until ideas wither and vanish.

This one, though, is literally in our hands. In a couple of weeks, the city will review the program to decide whether to make it permanent. Start practicing that confident, taxi-hailing wave you saw on “Sex and the City.” At least we can try to get the “City” part right.