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Taxi troubles

Why it's hard to hail a cab in Little Rock.

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Patrick Houston says it's a truism that "there's never a cab when you need one." As a member of the local band Hell's Kitchen, he said he's seen intoxicated bar patrons stumble to their cars and drive home instead of calling for a cab. "I've called for cabs before and it literally takes 45 minutes to get a cab to show up," he said. But if there were taxis driving by that people could hail, "certainly someone would opt to get in a cab instead of driving home," he said. Houston also thinks taxis would do a good daytime business, ferrying workers who want to go out for lunch without the hassles of parking. But while hailing a cab might be a good idea, a city ordinance put the brakes on the practice, declaring that drivers can't "engage in cruising in the city for the purpose of picking up passengers." An ordinance passed last week, however, deleted the cruising part of the law. Taxis may not solicit riders, but they may pick up riders who hail them as they drive. Little Rock City Director Brad Cazort said the city board revamped the ordinance because it received complaints that other transportation companies - executive cars and limousines, for example - were "offering on-demand service" and taking walk-up passengers. Only taxis may offer on-demand service. The ordinance change, however, won't likely increase the number of taxi drivers picking up hailed fares. "It's a safety factor for the drivers," said David Wages, senior vice president of Greater Little Rock Transportation, which dispatches all the taxis in Pulaski County. Three cab drivers have been killed while on duty since 1990. Willie Williams has driven a cab for 14 years. He said he gets hailed two or three times a day, mostly downtown. He sometimes picks up hailed fares, but he "looks them over" first. "It's dangerous," he said. "The dispatchers don't have an idea of who you have. You're doing that at your own risk." GLR Transportation general manager Lynn Page complained that limousines have been stealing fares from the cabs by parking at clubs and picking up people who've already called for a taxi. "To someone who's been drinking and is ready to go home, five minutes can seem like a year," Page said. He said taxi drivers have become reluctant to answer calls to bars and clubs when they think the caller won't be there, he said. John Hanson, owner of Little Rock Limousine, said his cars don't steal fares, but said it does happen. There are two taxi stands downtown now, in front of the Capital and Peabody hotels, though taxis aren't always there. (A third stand is located at the airport.) Wages said the company plans to ask the city for permission to put more taxi stands on public rights-of-way downtown, including one at the Clinton Presidential Library site. They also plan to meet with bar and restaurant managers about the possibility of setting up taxi stands at the establishments. "If there's a place where [taxi drivers] can sit they'll definitely be there," Wages said. Page said taxi stands are preferable to picking up hailed fares because people can walk right up to the cab. City ordinance prohibits taxis from impeding traffic, and must pull up to the curb. In places like downtown where there is street parking and major street construction, picking up passengers off the street is difficult. "There are also more people standing around" at taxi stands, which Page said is another crime deterrent. Leroy Johnson, a cab driver killed in December 2002 by a man he picked up, could not call for help. His assailant cut his radio wires. GLR Transportation still uses paper to track calls for taxis. Wages said a computerized system will be in place in nine to 18 months. Wages said other cities - he cited Houston - have digital cameras inside taxis and use computerized dispatching systems. These high-tech measures have made drivers there "more amenable" to picking up passengers off the street. "Our first and foremost duty is to provide safe transportation and ensure the safety of the drivers," Wages said. "The last thing we want is someone to want a taxi and we not provide it."

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