By Brittani Coleman
Edited by Cam Powell
Hop in most Columbia cabs and you might get a mini-tour from a friendly, well-dressed driver. Jump in Alan Douglas' taxi, and you'll get a show.
Douglas, with 24 years behind the wheel, is the kind of ambassador city leaders hope other drivers will become as he offers riders visitor information while singing songs he's composed.
Underneath the banter, however, is tension over the city's new rules, which drivers say put them at a disadvantage with the companies that own their cabs.
Douglas and other drivers say making them get a new chauffeur's license every time they switch cab companies hurts their ability to negotiate over vehicle quality and leasing rates
A chauffeur's license is about $120 and requires a criminal background investigation, medical exam and drug and tuberculosis tests. Drivers say they do not understand why they must reapply for a new license when they already have one.
Columbia City Council imposed the regulations in October to build consistency among taxi services and ensure a good first impression for visitors, Mayor Steve Benjamin said. Having drivers renew licenses when switching companies is to keep track of drivers' employment records, he said.
"Under the old rules, a driver who got fired for repeated violations could simply take his or her license and move on to the next company with no oversight," Benjamin said. "By making that driver apply for a new license, we effectively close that loophole."
Most of Columbia's cab drivers lease their taxis for about $65 a day. They still have to pay for gas, oil and things like protective shields they want installed.
Douglas, who has driven for three cab companies since 1988, says that in a typical day he makes less than minimum wage.
Although there were no complaints about drivers, City Tameika Issac Devine said the city adopted higher standards to make the taxi industry more professional, a suggestion she said was based on other cities' regulations and from someone in the cab industry. Devine did not know the person's name.
State Ethics Commission records show Checker Yellow Cab and Blue Ribbon, two of Columbia's largest cab companies, contributed a total of $1,500 to the mayor's campaign in 2010. Benjamin that didn't affect his vote for the rules.
Neither Checker Yellow manager Peyton Greene nor Blue Ribbon manager Stephen English would discuss the contributions.
Douglas said making him get a new license when switching companies takes away his bargaining power.
Before the new rules, "If they give me a beat-up, broken-down cab and I wanted a different cab, I could say to them look, give me a decent cab or I'm going to go drive for somebody else," he said. "Now, I can't do that."
The cost and waiting two weeks for a new license aren't feasible, he said.
Some Checker Yellow drivers who wanted to remain anonymous said that last year drivers and refused to drive because the company increased lease costs.
"Drivers do not have the power to do that anymore," Douglas said. "From a cab driver's perspective, every time we would get more money, the cab company would take it from us."
But English said leases on Blue Ribbon vehicles increase every five to six years, around the same time the city increases fares.
"If the city gives a cab increase, then we increase the lease," English said.
With the regulations, the city increased fares by 50 cents per mile. Although Greene would not say if Checker Yellow had increased lease costs, Douglas said that on Jan. 23 the company increased daily leases from $61 to $65 and weekly leases from $325 to $350.
The new regulations say drivers must conform to a dress code, take a hospitality class and renew licenses every three years instead of 10. They must not smoke in vehicles or use cellphones.
Other cities have similar rules.
Drivers in Nashville, Tenn., for instance, must pass a Taxi Pro Hospitality Training Program. The classes also teach immigrant drivers English to help them communicate.
But a study of New York taxi drivers by Bruce Schaller, now the city's deputy transportation commissioner, said more improvement in customer service comes from financial rewards, better working conditions and protection against crime.
Douglas said he thinks Columbia officials assume that taxi drivers are not nice people.
"To me, the classes are insulting, and I think drivers would be more willing to serve the city if they were compensated," he said.
Benjamin said the hospitality classes are not designed to push drivers to provide better customer service, but give them the tools to do so.
Blue Ribbon driver Zelma Robinson said she took hospitality classes in the 1970s for fun. She said the classes are "common sense" and "if you got common sense, then you can do anything."
Checker Yellow driver Elijah Ngugi said he not only believes in the dress code, but would also like a uniform and badge. The thorough background checks mean drivers should be given a uniform to prove they are trustworthy, he said.
"All of us should be professional looking, clean-cut to attract the image of trusting," he said. "Also, it would help us to be better recognized as a professional."
Listen to Alan Douglas sing his songs