Atlanta’s taxicab industry might see changes

Taxicabs in Atlanta could soon be newer, with mandatory credit card machines and access for handicapped people and more courteous drivers.

At least, that’s the plan.

The city’s roughly 1,550 taxicabs and 2,500 drivers are a key part of the region’s $11 billion hospitality engine. But complaints from visitors about old, somewhat dingy cabs — along with grumbles from taxi operators about antiquated regulations — have led the city to consider a raft of changes.

Many of the changes are still being debated but could be proposed as law as early as next year.

At stake is the city’s first impression on hundreds of thousands of out-of-town visitors. Taxis give between 1.65 million and 1.77 million rides in Atlanta every year, according to one rough estimate.

A small advisory group — including taxi drivers and representatives of cab owners, hotels and City Hall — has met for about a year and is hammering out some ideas for eventual consideration by Mayor Kasim Reed and Atlanta’s City Council.

A consultant’s 148-page report prepared for city leaders and obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is expected to help with changing Atlanta’s taxi regulations.

“The taxicab and the drivers are often the first and the last business in the hospitality chain that visitors see when they come to Atlanta,” said Ron Fennel, executive director of the Atlanta Hotel Council. “It’s very important that cabs are as clean, safe and new as possible, and that the demeanor of the drivers is in line with our reputation for Southern hospitality.”

Some important issues — especially the cost of replacing cabs with newer ones, which could amount to millions of dollars across the fleet — have not yet been resolved, said Kevin Ross, who represents a group of taxicab company owners on the advisory group.

“We agree that the city of Atlanta needs to have an excellent taxi fleet,” he said, “but if you implement a lot of changes that involve a lot of costs without a way to fund them, that’s not necessarily helpful to the drivers or to the owners.”

David Bennett, senior policy adviser to Reed, seemed sympathetic to that view.

“You don’t want to impose some incredibly expensive change on someone that they can’t afford,” Bennett said in an interview.

Rate increases appear less likely, at least for now. But the city could require that companies upgrade their fleets with newer cars. More than a quarter of the city’s cabs are 9 years old and would have been required to age out on Dec. 31, but the city recently gave the industry a one-year extension.

Companies could get incentives to upgrade to hybrid or electric vehicles. And Atlanta could get rid of the “zones” that mandate flat fares between, say, Midtown and Buckhead. Hotel and restaurant professionals plan to donate free training for taxi drivers.

One of the most pressing issues is the quality of the fleet itself, Bennett said.

“A lot of people complain that the cars are old and not in very good condition,” Bennett said.

By requiring each car to have a transaction-tracking system, the city could get a better sense of how changing fares would affect the industry’s bottom line and ridership, Bennett said. The city lacks key data that would help inform those decisions, he said.

“Right now, we’re basically regulating in the dark,” he said. “I think the data-gathering part is an absolute.”

Meanwhile, Atlanta’s cabs do not make it easy to get around as a disabled person. Only five vehicles have handicap access, according to one tally. Bennett called that “shameful.”

The lack of taxicab access has been a problem “forever,” said Patricia Nobbie, deputy director of the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities.

“Transportation for people with disabilities is a huge issue,” Nobbie said. “There’s just not enough available.”

Another issue has been how the industry is regulated.

Ross said the owners of Atlanta taxicab companies have been pushing for modernized regulations since Shirley Franklin’s administration. One regulation required annual fingerprinting of owners and drivers.

“We thought, ‘Heck, people’s fingerprints don’t change year to year,’” Ross said.

A September report from San Francisco-based Nelson\Nygaard Consulting Associates Inc. argues that key constituencies, including the division of Atlanta’s Police Department that regulates taxis, acknowledge that the policy of directly regulating drivers has become impractical.

That system could be replaced by a system in which the city regulates the 21 taxi companies that operate in the city, according to the report.

“There are a lot of moving parts,” said A.J. Robinson, president of Central Atlanta Progress, a civic group that pushes for downtown improvements. “I think everybody would agree the visitors’ and resident impression can be improved. Where we have world-class assets in the airport, restaurants and hotels, when part of the connective tissue is not so good or could be improved, why not try to do it?”