Houston Travellers and Taxi Riders, Listen Up…

I sat here, tonight, going through the stacks of papers on my desk, dating back three years in some places, and I came across the last major update to the Houston taxi laws. It made me think back on the conversations I’ve had with people, both in my cab, and on the street. See, I drove a taxi in Houston for three years. First with Yellow Cab, then with their sister company, United Cab, and finally with their biggest competitor, Liberty Cab. I spent a lot of time behind the wheel, and a lot of time learning the law so I would know just how I could legally maximize every cent from each and every fare.

Don’t kid yourself, folks, Houston taxi drivers are shrewd. A good many of us knew the law, inside and out. Those of us that didn’t, didn’t last very long. That man or woman behind the wheel may laugh and joke and say it’s about customer service; but believe me, it is most certainly about the money.

First, a little primer…

For those that don’t know, the only money a taxi driver takes home is what you pay them. Taxi drivers are not paid hourly, weekly, or monthly. Houston cabbies take home only what they make on their trips. In fact, we don’t even take home that much. EVERY hack in the Houston area has to pay a lease on their vehicle. That’s right, folks, we’re all independant contractors. Much like a franchiser/franchisee arangement, we pay the cab companies every day for the use of their vehicle, equipment, dispatch department, and name. Prices, in Houston, range from $55 – $110 per day for a radio/computer-dispatched cab. On top of that, we have to pay for our own gas, straight from the same pumps you use. I can’t count the number of times I prayed I would get enough money at the end of a slow day, just to have enough gas to get home.

Now that you know what you’re up against, it’s time to get down to brass tacks.

First, it’s important to know how to deal with your taxi driver. EVERY driver out there, at some time or another, has gotten in to it with a fare (customer). If you find yourself in a verbal altercation with your taxi driver, stay calm and collected. Keep your hands toward your sides, stay back from them, and don’t “step up” in their face. If the driver tries to “step” to you, stand your ground. If the driver gets physical, defend yourself, but I assure you, this rarely happens. Given the fairly ironclad contracts most drivers have, striking a passenger is a very, very stupid move.

Most drivers will be relatively decent. In fact, very few drivers will actually try to get in a conflict. The majority of the time, a conflict will arise when a passenger thinks they’re getting cheated. That’s where knowing the fare comes in.

Taxi fares, since August 22nd of this year, have gotten simpler. The current fare is $2.50 for the first 1/6 mile, and $0.30 (thirty cents) for each additional 1/6 mile. That works out to be $4.00 for the first mile, and $1.80 for each additional mile. However, you need to keep in mind that you are not just charged by the distance you travel. Any time that taxi is under a certain speed (speeds vary, but are always less than ten miles per hour), you will be charged “waiting time.” That is, you will be charged $0.33 (thirty-three cents) per minute, a total of $20.00 per hour. This way, the driver will still make money when you are sitting in traffic on the freeway, sitting through those dozens of long stop lights you may encounter on even a short trip, and sitting while waiting for you to “…run in to the store for a second.” One other thing to remember. For trips originating between 8:00pm and 6:00am, you may be charged an extra surcharge of $1.00 (one dollar). This is entirely at the driver’s discretion, but believe me when I tell you that asking the driver not to charge you the “night fee” will result in the driver making SURE to charge it, every time.

There is some hope, though. First off, senior citizens (defined as anyone over the age of 60 (sixty), receive a 10% discount off of their final fare. Secondly, most trips in Houston either originate or terminate at one of Houston’s major airports (George Bush Intercontinental (IAH), and William P. Hobby (HOU)). These airport trips are governed by flat “zone” rates. These rates are viewable at any of the above cab company’s websites. The rates range from $27.50 (to/from kingwood), to $36.50 (to/from downtown), to $85.50 (to/fom NASA/Space Center Houston area) for IAH, and from $21.50 (to/from downtown) to $44.00 (to/from Galleria/North Loop) to $70.00 (to/from Kingwood) for HOU.

Here’s where the magic comes in with the numbers. Those airport zone rates are “flat” rates; however, the driver can still charge you the $1.00 night fee. Additionally, these rates are valid ONLY when your trip originates, or terminates, within the city limits of Houston. Subhurbs, and “inner villages” (such as Memorial Village, Hedwig Village, etc…) are NOT included in the zone rates. Additionally, the zone rates are for direct door-door trips, only. If you make ANY stop along the way, even if only to use the ATM, the driver can charge you full fare. HOWEVER, here’s the biiiig trick. The law says that on trips where the zoned rate applies, the passenger is to pay either the zone rate, or the meter rate, whichever is less.

One more little airport thing to note, with fares. If you are picked up at IAH, the driver is allowed to charge you $2.75 additional. If at HOU, the driver is allowed to charge you $1.25, additional. These are fees that the driver pays out to the Houston Airport System for each and every trip they pick up at the airports (if you see your driver hand over a small yellow, blue, red, or white ticket to the taxi “starter,” that’s the “trip ticket,” and drivers must pay for each little piece of paper. These fares may only be charged if your trip originates at the airports.

Confused yet? Well, yeah. I was, too, when I first started driving. Back then, the rates were different, and it went by each 2/11 of a mile, instead of each 1/6. Talk about confusing.

I’ve given you a lot of commentary about what the driver gets out of you. Now it’s time to tell you your options. The Houston taxi ordinances are very specific. Here’s a list of things to be aware of.

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The driver must convey his fare by the shortest, most direct route, OR by the route designated by the fare.

This means that you have the right to tell the driver which route to take, and which way to go. If a driver refuses to listen to your direction, copy down his cab number, and make a note of the time of day and cab company. Then, call and report him.
The driver must charge what is on the meter, and only what is on the meter, unless a zone rate applies.
If a driver attempts to charge you more than what is on the meter, you are within your right to refuse to pay it. If it’s only a one dollar different, and the meter does not show an extra “$1.00” on the screen, AND it is at night, then the driver most likely forgot to key the night fee into the meter. Pay it, and don’t worry.
The driver may only discharge his passenger at a location at which it is safe to do so.
In other words, if a driver tries to make you get out of his cab in a moving lane of traffic, attempts to throw you out on the freeway, or attempts to have you leave in a location where you are prone to being mowed down when you get out, you may ask him to move to a different location
Passengers have exclusive rights to the taxi cabin.
You, and only you, may decide who rides in that taxi with you. Drivers are not allowed to have someone riding with them, when they pick you up. This is called having a “side rider,” and is strictly forbidden. The only exception to this is when both drivers are licensed by the City of Houston, and the taxi bears a sign stating “Driver in Training,” in a promiment location, on the interior.
Passengers may end their trip at any time, at any location, for any reason.
You can have the driver pull over, even before you reach your destination, if you choose to. This comes in to play if you decide you do not wish to ride with a driver, or you find it neccesary to get the heck out of the cab. You are, however, still liable for the meter fare up to that point.
Passengers have the right to choose their taxi cab.
If a driver comes to pick you up, and you – for any reason – decide you don’t wish to ride with him, you may refuse transport. Simply call the cab company back, explain your reason why, and they will dispatch another taxi. Additionally, if you are at a cab stand, or airport, you do not have to take the first cab in line. You may choose any taxi from that line to ride in; however, be prepared for some pissed off drivers, if you pick someone who isn’t next up. Some drivers just let it go, other’s argue, and some get downright ornery.
Smoking is allowed in a taxi by driver’s discretion.
If the driver says no smoking, sorry Charlie, you’re out of luck.
Animals are allowed in a taxi by driver’s discretion.
Tell the cab company you have an animal, when you call. The driver does NOT have to allow the animal in the taxi. If you have an animal travelling with you that is not in a cage, please bring a towel for the animal to lie on. The ONLY exceptions to this rule are guide dogs that are currently “on the job.” Guide dogs are always allowed in a taxi, per the American’s with Disabilities Act.
Credit Cards are accepted at driver’s discretion. No driver may charge a sur-charge for credit cards.
The driver may decline your credit card. Yellow Cab, United Cab, and Taxis Fiesta are the only comapnies in the city that require their drivers to accept credit cards. Tell the company when you call if you will be using a credit card.
Special Requests are at the company’s discretion.
Some companys will allow special requests, some will not. For instance, most cab companies will allow you to choose between a 6/7 passenger van, a sedan, or first availible. Additionally, Liberty will allow female passengers to request a female driver (be prepared to wait, as female drivers are a rare species). Additionally, toy may request a non-smoking driver, with any company.

That’s the basics. There’s a few other things to think of, though. If you call for a timed reservation (or a “time call”), be ready at the time you specify. Most of the time, the driver will arrive early and will be waiting for you. If you go on a short trip, please try to pay cash. Drivers have to pay a processing fee (percentage) on every credit card they take (this ranges from 5% to 7.5%, depending on cab company), and they are not allowed to charge this back to you.

It’s a lot of things to remember, yes? But keep in mind that taxi transportation is a cut-throat business, and these drivers are struggling to make every penny. The rates are set to be fare to the drivers and passengers, and to ensure the drivers make enough to live on. The laws are set up, mostly, for the passenger’s benefit.

I’m going to take one last moment of your time to talk about a rather important subject when it comes to taxis… Tipping. Yes, you heard right. Taxi drivers are service personnell, much like waitstaff. They are working for you. The norm for resteraunts (15%), is a good norm for taxi tipping, as well. A lot of people tend to go low, around 10%, unless the driver is helping with baggage, groceries, etc… That’s fine. Just don’t forget your driver. Most of them are working twelve hours a day, six to seven days a week, just to make ends meet. Believe me when I tell you that noone has ever gotten rich from driving a taxi.

So, now you know the rates, and your rights. If I didn’t answer your questions in the post, look at the taxi company websites, above… Then, if you still have questions, phone your cab company, or ask me. Feel free to drop a comment in this post, I receive all of them via e-mail. I’ll answer any question you have to the best of my ability.

It’s a big, wide world out there, folks… and taking a taxi is a great way to get around in it.

3 Comments so far

  1. digit (unregistered) on October 18th, 2005 @ 9:52 am

    excellent info.
    ive only used to cabs once and it cost me a fortune to get back from the airport.
    i would gladly use the taxis to get downtown on the weekends, but at 20.00 per trip i wouldnt have alot of fun money.


  2. Fahad Fateh (unregistered) on October 18th, 2005 @ 7:30 pm

    Hi!

    I would be travelling to houston soon and was wondering if there is a place on the net where I could hire a room for myself, you know something like a paying guest. I am looking for a place somewhere near the central. I dont want to stay in a hotel since it get a bit expensive.


  3. Jake (unregistered) on February 25th, 2006 @ 12:42 pm

    Pasadena Taxi requires all drivers to accept credit cards as well.



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