As the sun sank over the horizon, Robert Petrosyan turned in to Santa Monica Pier and joined a slow procession of taxi drivers cruising for a fare.
Parents hurried by, carrying sleepy children back to their hotels, but no one hailed a cab. Petrosyan did a U-turn and drove away with his car still empty.
"Too many cabs, too many drivers," he said, shaking his head.
City staffers agree. They are recommending that the City Council establish a franchise system to reduce the number of taxis allowed to operate in Santa Monica. An ordinance will be presented to the council for approval in late April, Deputy City Manager Elaine Polacheck said.
Santa Monica is one of the few local cities of its size and visitor appeal that does not limit the number of taxi firms or vehicles plying its streets. Anyone with a clean driving record and no criminal history can get permission to operate a cab, provided the vehicle meets set standards, Polacheck said.
The result is that anyone looking for a taxi has plenty to choose from, but the fares and quality of service vary, she said. The Santa Monica Convention and Visitors Bureau regularly fields complaints from tourists angry about the inconsistent fees and rude behavior of some drivers, said Misti Kerns, who heads the bureau.
City officials complain that the number of cabs cruising for business near the pier and other popular destinations ties up traffic and increases air pollution in the environmentally conscious beach-side community.
A study commissioned by Santa Monica last year identified 55 authorized taxi firms, including 18 that had only one vehicle. Together, they provided 412 cabs for a city of 84,000 people. Since the study was completed in July, Polacheck said the number of licensed cabs has grown to 454.
"It's just too many," she said.
City staffers are recommending that Santa Monica reduce the number of cab companies to between four and eight and invite bids for the franchises. They also want to cap the number of vehicles operated by the franchises at about 200 in all. Council members have expressed interest in the idea but also want to consider other ways of regulating the industry.
Under the staff's proposal, taxi franchises would be required to maintain a fleet of at least 25 vehicles, with a dispatch system and a staffed office. Independent drivers could continue to operate if they formed an association, Polacheck said. The city would impose a pricing structure, including a discount for senior citizens.
Council members had also wanted to include a requirement that the firms use cabs that meet the same low-emission standards adopted by Santa Monica for its city-owned vehicles, said Dean Kubani, the city's environmental programs manager. But, he said, courts overturned similar requirements in New York and San Francisco because they exceeded federal guidelines. Santa Monica is now looking at ways to encourage the use of low-polluting, energy-efficient taxis through the bidding process, Kubani said.
Many taxi operators support the idea of a franchise system, provided the city meets their need for sufficient passenger stands. Now, they say, anyone with a car can slap on a coat of yellow paint and call themselves a taxi driver.
With so many taxis around, Petrosyan said, he is lucky to take home $45 at the end of a 14-hour day and has to work six days a week to cover his vehicle costs.
"It's no good for me, no good for the passengers and no good for the city," he said.
But others aren't so sure about changing the system.
"A lot of people are going to lose their jobs," said Hakob Moroyan, who bought a cab last year to subsidize his college education. "And this is a bad thing in this economy."
Husband-and-wife team Wendy and Ayman Radwan started off 14 years ago with a single cab. With their partners, they now run an award-winning fleet of 60 vehicles and 90 drivers called Taxi! Taxi! Although Wendy Radwan agrees with many of the city's recommendations and says their firm already includes 10 hybrid vehicles, she worries that she has never prepared a franchise bid before.
"It's nerve-racking," Radwan said. "We don't want to lose everything that we have worked so hard to build."