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Crabby Cabbies 

If tourism is up, why are taxicab drivers so down?

Cabbie Chris Christman, working the Flats on a recent Saturday. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Cabbie Chris Christman, working the Flats on a recent Saturday.
"What I'm doing is illegal," explains cab driver Chris Christman to a passenger in his blue Ford Astro minivan.

It's about 8 p.m. on a recent Saturday evening in the Flats, and the former eyeglass-frame salesman is demonstrating one of the many quirks of the taxicab business in Cleveland: Slowing a cab to look for fares along Old River Road is a crime.

Although Christman goes unnoticed by police officers this time, cabs cruising the strip later will be ordered to keep moving. By law, cabs are allowed to pick up fares only at city-designated cab stands. Stopping, even near the curb to pick up or drop off people, is technically illegal.

There are just ten such stands downtown: at the bus station, hotels, and near a few major intersections. On the East Bank, the only cab stand is located on Front Street, adjacent to Fagan's bar and restaurant.

"The problem is that buses and limousines are usually parked in that space," complains Christman as he winds his way to the West Bank. "And people don't walk to cab stands. They don't even know they are there."

Parked at the foot of the Nautica boardwalk (also illegal), Christman runs down the snarl of restrictions that cab drivers face — along with competition from unregulated shuttles, like the white Fagan's bus idling in front of his van. This and other Flats shuttle services, which advertise with makeshift signs on the boardwalk, charge a dollar per person to run between the East and West banks.

Christman, who's been driving cabs in Cleveland for about eighteen months, watches as a group of six adults walks past his cab and boards the Fagan's bus.

"They don't realize it's cheaper to take a cab when you have a group," grouses Christman, who says he'll take seven people across the river for about $4.50. "But we are not allowed to solicit business or advertise our fare."

Fortunately for Christman, four first-time visitors from the Mansfield area approach his cab. "How do we get across the river?" asks one.

"You get in the van," Christman replies with a smile.

Christman is not ready to give up driving a cab, he says, because he can still clear about ten bucks an hour. Like many cabbies, though, he is becoming increasingly frustrated by the absurd thicket of city cab laws and aggressive enforcement of them. As proof, he pulls out a ticket he received during the Fourth of July weekend after picking up a fare at Nautica. He dropped off his passengers in front of Gund Arena, where another fare boarded. Before he could drive away, Christman was stopped by a police officer and ticketed for impeding the flow of traffic.

"Ninety percent of the stuff that happens to cab drivers is brought on by themselves when they make illegal U-turns or by speeding," he admits. "But I was just doing what the passengers asked."

Robert Schneider, commissioner of the city's division of assessments and licenses, which oversees the roughly 1,200 cab drivers in Cleveland, says changes are under way to improve cab service in the Flats and throughout the city.

"The Flats has been an ongoing issue the Mayor's Office is trying to improve," Schneider says. "[Plans for additional] cab stands are going through city planning and traffic engineering. We are just trying to work out the logistics."

Schneider says other changes are under way as well. The city plans to add thirty cab stands downtown and has secured promises from two of the city's cab companies to add a total of a hundred new cars to their fleets. City Hall is also working with the police department to "foster better communications and relationships with cab drivers."

For cab driver Terry Cucco, who heads the loosely organized Cleveland Area Professional Taxicab Drivers Association (CAPTDA), the meter already has been running too long on such promises.

"The last time we met with the city was in December, and we have not been kept up to date," says Cucco. "We were promised new cab stands by April, and we are still without them."

Specifically, Cucco takes issue with the fact that during rush hour — a prime time to pick up business travelers headed to the airport — cab stands on St. Clair Avenue and other main thoroughfares are closed. More recently, Cucco has been upset by news that the proposed cab stand at the new Browns stadium will actually be closed on game days because of anticipated traffic congestion. (A cab stand at the nearby Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum will remain open.)

"You see, you are applying common sense," she says sarcastically in response to a question about the purpose of closing a cab stand during events. "You can't do that."

Cucco also believes the city isn't doing enough to regulate shuttle and limousine services at the airport, which are cutting into cab drivers' piece of the growing convention and tourism business. According to the Convention & Visitors Bureau of Greater Cleveland, the city entertained 7.7 million visitors last year.

"Business is not great, even though this is supposed to be the peak tourism season," says Cucco, who is upset that the C&VB will not give cab drivers a list of ongoing conventions and meetings.

David Gilbert, C&VB director of community affairs, says such information is proprietary to its members, who pay about $400 a year. Since the cab companies are members, he claims it is their responsibility to pass convention schedules on to their drivers. "We have told the taxi companies it is incumbent upon them to distribute the information," says Gilbert. "If the drivers really want the information, their association should join."

The C&VB has been meeting with City Hall and taxicab drivers to discuss improvements, according to Gilbert, who professes not to see much need for them. "Our biggest concern is that we are customer friendly," he says. "We don't receive many complaints that transportation is poor."

Taxicab drivers found a friend in Mayor Michael White when, in 1997, the city raised the taxicab fares. White restricted the city's three cab companies — who lease their cabs to drivers — from increasing cab drivers' expenses more than 10 percent for two years, allowing drivers to take home a bigger piece of the fare increase. Whether their expenses will increase in January, when the cab companies are allowed to raise lease rates again, remains to be seen.

In the meantime, if you're looking for a cab, Christman says just raise your hand and wave. He and his friends will check the mirror for cops and pull over.

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