Illegal Taxicabs Provide Valuable Service in Baltimore

The Baltimore Sun has an outstanding and unusually detailed story about the role illegal taxicabs play in providing core transportation services in the city. Taxicabs are tightly regulated in most cities, and a too often neglected side effect is the growth of an informal taxicab, or “hack,” service to meet unmet demand. This is what’s happening in Baltimore (as well as most major cities) where hacks provide essential services to customers for grocery stores and health food markets:

At some stores, supermarket hacking is a highly organized enterprise, governed by the protocol of a private club whose “captain” runs the operation like a taxi stand. The hackers are not store employees, but some markets run background checks before allowing them to pick up customers out front. That puts riders at ease even as it creates a startling disconnect: Businesses are making sure people aren’t criminals before letting them break the law on their property.

“We don’t call them hacks, we call them courtesy drivers,” said Bill Stanfield, assistant manager at Food Depot in Northeast Baltimore, which runs checks on drivers and provides them with store IDs. “All stores have what you call courtesy drivers.”

Supermarket hacks have been around for decades, and riders describe them as a community service as much as cut-rate cab. For many supermarkets, hacks have become an essential link to their customer base, which explains why they turn a blind eye or explicitly endorse them by running background checks and issuing IDs.

Life isn’t all rosy for those that use hacks; there are glitches in the system largely due to its illegal nature. Some hack drivers have ripped off customers. In an informal market, there is little legal recourse. A few cases of physical assualt on riders have also been reported, including rapes of female riders. A formal way to track and qualify drivers would make it easier to identify (and weed out) those that commit assaults. In fact, this is what many stores in Baltimore do.

Still, the vast majority of hacks, however, are legitimate drivers providing legitimate services.

Hack drivers and riders alike say supermarket hacking is safe because the same customers and drivers see each other week after week. They make a distinction between “courtesy drivers,” mostly older men who’ve submitted to background checks and have a store’s permission to hack, and the younger “jacklegs” who just show up.

The courtesy drivers belong to drivers’ clubs, each with its own “captain.” The store won’t do a background check or issue an ID unless the captain vouches for him. The captain also mediates any disputes among hackers over customers. Customers set the price for each ride, something drivers contend makes the service not only cheaper than licensed cabs but also legal. ([Police Spokesman] Guglielmi said it’s illegal no matter who determines the fare.)

Moreover, that’s why the more savvy businesses are running background checks and issuing IDs; they want to provide a level of quality control for their customers. It’s a win-win–customers win because they get service, the business wins because services are available for their customers, and hacks win because they can ply their trade to a needed market.

Needless to say, local regulators aren’t happy.

But background checks do nothing to make hacking legal or safe, said city police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi. “I don’t care if the grocery store gives you a red badge, you’re operating an illegal cab.”

Operating a hack cab is a misdemeanor, and the rider can face a charge of hitchhiking.

“When we spot them, we cite them,” Guglielmi said. But that can be difficult. “It’s not like they have a sign on their car, ‘I’m a hack.’ ”

Of course, there is a solution to this problem: Open up the taxi market by making permitting easy and an administrative process for anyone who wants to provide a legitimate transportation service.

The only weakness in what I think is a great article is the reporters didn’t evaluate the barriers to getting a legal license in Baltimore. In other cities, caps on the number of cabs, driver permits, dispatch companies and other rules make it difficult, if not impossible, for hacks to go legal. I wouldn’t be surprised if similar barriers exist in Baltimore.

For more on Reason Foundation’s work on taxicab regulation, see additional blog posts here, here, and here.