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.
"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."
He let me ride along with him on a Friday night. We chatted about his 40 years of experience as a driver on both sides of the debate. That shows. He didn't have to ask for an address the whole time during his shift, instead remembering where customers live and the location of just about every damn bar in Huntington Beach. He takes each of the incoming calls and dispatches to the other drivers on duty with skill. A caller to Ace will be greeted with "Y'ello," or "Yes, sir." He ends with "10-4."
Ace began driving in 1973 with a traditional taxi company when he was 21. "I started because I was young and dumb," he says. His grandma took taxis, and the owner happened to drive her. "Who's that long-haired kid who walked you out?" the man asked one day. "Oh, that's my grandson," she replied, mentioning he was looking for a job. He said, "Tell him to cut his hair, and we'll give him a job."
"'Course, I didn't cut my hair," Ace says. "I got a short-haired wig. For a while there, people thought I was brothers because I had long hair and my short-haired wig."
Despite this act of youthful rebellion, Ace says, the cab company trained him and his fellow drivers on honesty, integrity and service. But the game changed in the early 1980s, he recalls, with a new set of taxi regulations and the use of independent contractors.
"Cab companies found it was cheaper for them to have independent contractors," Ace says. "It used to be drivers were employees. When you were an employee, they told you where to go, and it was 'Yes, sir.' Now they do as they please."
Since the majority of drivers were no longer paid hourly, but rather after they recoup however much it cost them to lease the taxi from the company for a specific amount of time, the temptation rose for drivers to take longer routes to drive up the meter. Service slowed; instead of being dispatched in a rotation, many drivers can pick and choose which fares they want to pick up. If it's only going to be a $10 ride, some cabbies say, many independent contractors will pass on picking you up altogether because it's not worth the trouble.
Ace himself had to become an independent contractor because of the industry's change, so he started trying out different parts of the county—including Santa Ana and Newport Beach, which he didn't like at all ("The streets are narrow and the people are rude and obnoxious")—before settling in Huntington Beach.
"Among the drivers, they say, 'Ace went to Huntington Beach, picked up a beautiful blonde in a bikini smelling of coconut oil and never came back,'" he says with a chuckle.
He eventually joined forces with another local driver, Tiny, who drove a 1996 Lincoln limousine. He had been thinking about striking out on his own, and when 2007 rolled around, his car was no longer legal because Orange County taxi regulations only allow drivers to use cars that are 10 years old or newer. Instead, Tiny got his Transportation Charter Party (TCP) license, which allows him to carry customers legally, and hit the road as a free man. Tiny and Ace became categorized as Charter Party Carriers, or a personal car service—not regulated by OCTAP, although they still adhere to the CPUC's safety standards.
"I was tired of all the bull," Tiny says in Fat Taxi's common meeting ground, a parking lot off Goldenwest Avenue, as we wait for the next call to come. Tiny is a tongue-in-cheek nickname for him, as he is a Bunyan of a man with a magnificent white beard and a penchant for B-movies, which he likes to watch on his downtime. "Then Ace joined me, and it was all downhill from there," he continues in his typical self-deprecating way.
Fat Taxi has since become a fixture in Huntington Beach's nightlife scene. "I love the ones who get in the car and say, 'Oh, my God, I finally get to ride with you! I've heard so much about you,'" Tiny says. "Or the people who run up to you at a red light saying, 'Oh! I owe you $10 from last time.'"
During the ride-along, customers laud Ace, one even going so far as to say he's a local celebrity. "Let me be the 1 millionth guy to say we all think the world of him," says regular rider Greg Garlich.
When we pick up Fat Taxi regular Debbie "Cool" Kuhl, I move to the back seat because the front seat is her seat. She recalls the time when Ace dropped her off at Main Street in Huntington Beach. She called him back about an hour later and asked him to pick her up as soon as possible. Kuhl stumbled from the bar and threw up in a bush. Someone had spiked her drink.
By the time Ace got her home, Kuhl was nearly incapacitated, so he walked her upstairs to her apartment, told her to go to bed and went back to work. Kuhl expressed her gratitude to me, saying she felt other male drivers may have used her state to their advantage, but Ace was a perfect gentleman.
(Mentally, I compare this scenario with the time a traditional cab driver dropped off my twentysomething female roommate, my man and I after a night in downtown Fullerton. As the gal and I went upstairs, the cabbie told my guy as he was paying, "Hey, if you need any help, let me know," adding a creeper's wink.)
Ace almost wasn't there to save Kuhl. On Oct. 16, 2010, at about 1:06 a.m., a drunk driver hit him at the intersection of Warner Avenue and Bolsa Chica. The accident left him with a cracked skull, concussion, six broken ribs and a broken shoulder blade. Thankfully, there were no customers in the car. A nearby witness immediately dialed 911.
"My lawyer told me [the drunk driver] was found with a quantity of illegal drugs, though I never found out which, and he had just been released a few months earlier for drugs, so this was strike two," Ace recalls. "He got three years on a plea bargain."
Ace was left bedridden and unable to work. When local bars such as Fitzgerald's, Redz and Johnny's Saloon heard about his situation, they rushed to his aid, raising $11,500 collectively through benefit nights. ("It still tears me up," he says.) It wasn't the first time H.B.'s bars had rallied around Ace. Shooters Sports Bar held an "Ace Appreciation Night" on New Year's Eve, 1997, tricking the homebody into attending his own celebration by getting a lady bartender to go on a date with him.
Disabled and depressed, Ace decided it was time to retire and move in with his mother in North Dakota at the end of April 2011. But Huntington Beach never strayed too far from his mind. He went for a nighttime walk one night, after about four months in the Midwest, and then it clicked: He had to come back. He was homesick. He missed driving. Specifically, he missed driving his regulars in Huntington Beach.
"You guys are like my kids," he tells me.
So he returned to Huntington to be with his "kids" and hit the streets again on Sept. 9, 2011. He still has to bandage his ribs, though only on busy nights now. "It's getting better. Used to be I was wrapped up from the bottom of my ribs to armpits just to hold myself together," he recalls.
Today, he has more of a Charlton Heston attitude about retiring. "The day I retire is the day they pry my cold, dead hands off the steering wheel."
* * *
Joel Zlotnik, spokesman for Orange County Transportation Agencies (OCTA), says he doesn't have an opinion on ride-sharing apps or Town Car services, mostly because the agency only permits taxis and taxi companies. "I don't know that we've seen any effect [on the taxi industry]" from alternatives to taxis, he says.
Asked what OCTAP-permitted taxis offer that apps or Town Car services don't, he wasn't exactly sure. "I don't know specifically what you're asking."
What's the difference between the two services? "I'm not familiar how those companies operate or what safety standards they adhere to," he says.
According to Zlotnik, complaints about traditional taxis are rare. "I haven't heard of any complaints, but as a regulating agency, we'd be somewhere [people] could go to for that," he says. After checking the OCTAP website, he clarified that customers should address issues with the cab company first, and should that go unresolved, they can fill out a form at www.octap.net.
Nevertheless, the proliferation of alternatives to taxis continues. If Fat Taxi represents the elder statesmen of the anti-taxi movement, then RedCar is the opposite: tech-savvy, app-accessible—and featuring hot-chick drivers.
"Our main drivers are girls; we are young and not old and creepy," says Marlena Chiarella, president and a driver of RedCar. "A lot of women get in cabs and don't feel comfortable. As a driver, I get women who tell me they feel a lot more comfortable and a lot safer when a woman is driving." And hey, guy customers aren't complaining either.
RedCar is a relatively new luxury-car service. All drivers are employed by the company and must undergo background checks, drug tests and an ongoing review of their driving record through the DMV. This eases concerns riders have with apps such as Uber, which takes no measures to ensure whether its drivers are unlicensed, unregulated, criminals or high. Though RedCar plans to launch an app in the fall, it assures customers it isn't associated with Uber or other ride-sharing apps to distance itself from the controversies and risks.
Husband-and-wife Gio and Marlena Chiarella were deciding what they wanted for their next venture after Gio sold his ambulance-driving business. They mentioned the idea of RedCar to Johnny Kresimir, owner of Johnny's Saloon in Huntington Beach.
"Gio and Marlena had an idea for an app different than the others that are out there," Kresimir recalls. "So we took another shot and said, 'Let's do this!'"
Being in the bar business, Kresimir says, it has always been his top priority to get people home safely. He has referred customers to Fat Taxi for many years—so many that Ace says, "If I had a son, it would be Johnny."
In April, RedCar launched its Safe Rides service, which drives customers home in their own cars. It's a popular alternative to taxis due to price and convenience. "I see the No. 1 reason why people drink and drive is because they don't want to leave their car at the bar and get towed," Kresimir says. "And then they have to take another cab to their car in the morning. We're giving them attractive alternatives."
Safe Rides is currently on hiatus while the company focuses on building the Town Car service and launching the app. Gio, consultant for RedCar, explains the app will find a customer's location and call the nearest car with the press of a button. Users will see where the driver is in real time on a map and be able to communicate with the driver via text on the app.
"Me being a cab user, I've been stuck in the cold in front of Harbor House, wondering where my cab is," Kresimir says. "And then when you call, the dispatcher's rude. To be able to see where the cab is in real time is awesome."
Users can create profiles and even a music playlist the driver can play during the ride. Customers can rate the driver on the app after being dropped off. It'll also have reviewable profiles for local bars and restaurants that people may want to get a ride to.
"It's first-hand, user-driven recommendations for Orange County," Gio says. "It's meant not only to service clients, but also as a resource for small, local businesses—and it's good to partner with them because we're all intertwined."
Ultimately, RedCar wants to go against the grain of the traditional taxi industry, Gio says. "Having a good-looking, energetic staff is the business model we want to have."
Kresimir says RedCar's priority is overwhelming, over-the-top customer service. "Our goal is to reinvent the business," he says. "We need to change how things are being done."
Funny thing is, Ace at Fat Taxi says it's the fact the service hasn't changed in 40 years that has kept people coming back.
"We're just operating how we were taught 40 years ago," Ace says. "If the industry hadn't changed and everyone still worked like that, Tiny and I wouldn't stand out at all."
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