Riding With Rebel Cab Companies Fat Taxi and RedCar

These businesses and ones like them are threatening OC's traditional taxi industry

Riding With Rebel Cab Companies Fat Taxi and RedCar
Photo: Riley Kern | Photo Assistant: Luna Azul Aguila | Design: Dustin Ames

"Get back in the fucking car!" the Yellow Cab driver screamed.

"No way! You were going the long way," one of the four of us responded.

Our meter for the ride home was $10 more than what it cost to get to our destination—and we weren't even home yet. It was around 2 a.m.

Fat Taxi will get you there safely for less
Riley Kern
Fat Taxi will get you there safely for less
Fat Taxi has become a fixture in 
Huntington Beach’s nightlife scene
Riley Kern
Fat Taxi has become a fixture in Huntington Beach’s nightlife scene

"I was not! Give me my fucking money!" he said, screaming in the middle of the street.

We told him he didn't deserve it because he was cheating us. We had brought this up in the car; after he haughtily disagreed, we decided to ditch the ride at a red light and just walk home. He continued to scream at us, frantic and shrill; we argued back until a resident of some nearby apartments screamed out the window to shut up. Eventually, we threw a wad of cash at him and walked home.

I admit it—we probably could've handled the situation better. But between the taxi driver's sour attitude throughout the night and his blatant attempt to overcharge us, we had to stand up for ourselves. I've rarely bothered with a traditional taxi since—and I'm not the only one.

Over the past couple of years, alternative taxi services have exploded in the form of small networks of independent drivers and providers who'll drive you home in your own car. Then there are apps such as Uber, SideCar and Lyft. They don't own any vehicles or directly employ any drivers, instead working as electronic middlemen to connect passengers and drivers of luxury sedans, but absolving themselves of any responsibility should you get hurt or have any problems whatsoever with the driver or ride. Despite such murkiness, these services have become so popular and taken away so much business from traditional taxi services they have caused controversy in major markets including New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. (Uber is the only one of the three to service Orange County, though SideCar says it plans to expand here soon.) LA bureaucrats even sent cease-and-desist letters to Uber and other such apps in June, essentially telling them to knock it off.

"It's basically the electronic equivalent of hitchhiking," says William Rouse, president of the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association (TLPA) and general manager of Los Angeles Yellow Cab. "People stopped hitchhiking a long time ago because of the known dangers."

Rouse admits ride-sharing and ride-dispatching apps have unquestionably affected the traditional taxi industry. He says these "bandit cabs" are undercutting the entire business structure because their services are not regulated by the Orange County Taxi Administration (OCTAP) or the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC, which sets the standards for the state's licensed cab companies), and don't ensure their drivers are either. They're less taxi companies and more a Craigslist of rides.

On the other hand, OCTAP-approved taxi companies have to abide by a myriad of regulations, including criminal background checks and drug tests for drivers; vehicle inspections including cleanliness and proper functioning of the car and meter; and set fare prices—all features that prove his industry's superiority, Rouse says.

"I'm not aware of a single regulator in the entire country that has endorsed the business model of these apps," Rouse says. "To us in the industry, it's patently unwise to have these operating on the streets. . . . There are decades and decades of regulations put there for a purpose. We shouldn't have to learn those lessons all over again."

Has the meter run out for traditional taxis? It's too early to tell, but it's too late to stop the rebel-cab revolution.

*    *    *

If you ask Ace ("Just Ace," he says. No last names, no first names, just Ace) of Fat Taxi, an independent black car and limousine service in Huntington Beach that's one of the local pioneers of the anti-taxi movement, the so-called bandit cabs are a long time coming.

"Taxi companies are in fear of services like Uber, and it's their own damn fault," he says. "[The taxi companies] changed the industry by letting [independent contractors] come in and wreak havoc. They overcharge, take the long way, try to pick up on the women. When I started, if a driver did that, they'd be fired."

The difference between Fat Taxi and a traditional cab is in the details. It's cheaper than any regular cab, determining its cost by mileage, not a meter. The fleet mostly consists of black Town Cars, with one limousine. It's a much smaller operation, with about five regular drivers, so it services mainly Huntington Beach and surrounding cities. The company doesn't have an app (hell, some of the guys still use flip phones), but it is a fully insured and licensed car service whose drivers have to pass drug and alcohol tests, have a DMV-provided driving-record check, and have to adhere to similar regulations as those of the legit taxis licensed by OCTAP, with others (such as Fat Taxi) by CPUC.

Ace, both a dispatcher and a driver, is a grandfatherly type, with a gray beard and a traditional cabbie cap. He's a storyteller who speaks with a deliberate diction and a collection of quips and jokes, including "Why do you make the ugly one sit up front?" to which he follows with, "Ah, that one's older than you are, kid."

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