Steve Holt is a writer living in Boston. His work regularly appears in Civil Eats and Edible Boston.
Stop backseat driving.
Driving a taxi in one of America’s urban jungles is back-breaking work with little reward. The hours are long, most of them spent sitting or schlepping 50-pound suitcases to the trunk. The pay can be awful; if a driver doesn’t make enough in a night to cover the lease of the taxi medallion and gas, he or she might go home with $0—or, worse, owe the taxi company money. And then, on top of all that, there are the people: us. The taxi universe is the service industry on steroids, with drivers encountering the spectrum of humanity, sometimes behaving its worst.
This isn’t to say cab drivers are perfect. As in any industry, there are bound to be a few shady characters who overcharge customers, keep a messy car, or just behave rudely. But most of them are trying to do right by their customers and their families, says Emir Ayed, a 12-year veteran driver in Greater Boston. We asked him to share some of the rider habits that he and his fellow cabbies experience almost daily—faux pas that range from the annoying to the mean and dangerous.
1. You treat the driver like your servant…or worse.
When customers whistle at him to hail a cab, Ayed says he often chooses not to stop, on principle. In many foreign cultures, including Ayed’s Algeria, whistling to get someone’s attention is a low form of disrespect. “I am being treated like a dog,” he says of customers and doormen who whistle to hail cabs.
Then there are the customers who enter the car without greeting the driver, only frantically barking orders at him. Starting off this way creates a charged atmosphere, Ayed says, in which “the driver already doesn’t like you.”
Instead: Wave down an available cab with your hand. And when the driver stops for you, look him in the eye and say hello—you know, as polite human beings do.
2. Your destination is walkable.
Ayed tells me that long rides pay the bills. Short rides, especially ones that are over a fairly walkable distance, can amount to a loss for the driver—especially if he or she spent an hour waiting in line at the cab stand for a customer.
“They think they are making it easier on you,” Ayed says. “’I’m going just a short ride.’ As soon as they say that, they put you off.”
Instead: Walk it—if you are able—or do as one of Ayed’s Cambridge customers did a few years back. It was raining, and she was wearing heels, but knowing she was asking Ayed to take her only a few blocks after he’d waited for a half-hour at the cab stand, the generous woman offered to pay him $10—three times what he’d get if the meter were on.
3. You backseat drive.
Imagine someone coming to your job, looking over your shoulder, and telling you what to do all day. That’s what it feels like to a cab driver when customers holler turn-by-turn directions from the back of the car, oftentimes at the last second. Ayed says it’s the driver’s responsibility to know the fastest route to a destination, and if they don’t immediately know, to either ask the rider or look it up.
Instead: If you’d like the driver to take a specific route, Ayed says you should establish that before you pull away. Otherwise, keep your mouth shut and let the driver do his or her job. “Don’t use me as a remote control,” Ayed says. “But tell me which way you want to go, and I’ll follow it.”
4. You ask the driver to break the law.
Of course you want to get to your destination quickly rather than slowly. And, obviously, you’d like to do so while paying less for your taxi ride. Under no circumstances, however, should riders ever encourage a cab driver to break the law in order to get there faster—whether that means going around a roadblock, speeding through a red light, or blowing past the speed limit. The stakes are high for cab drivers caught breaking the law. Not only are they responsible for any fines, they could be removed from the road, Ayed says.
Instead: Plan ahead and don’t give yourself too little time to get to the airport or that job interview. Also, understand that legal stops are all part of the typical cab fare. Ayed says that when a customer complains about waiting at a red light with the meter running, he’ll sometimes offer to pay them back the 50 cents or $1 rather than risk the traffic ticket—but that’s the exception, not the rule.
5. You make out—or more—in the back of the cab.
Look, we get it. Sometimes it’s hard to keep your hands off that date of yours. Throw a little alcohol in the mix, and all bets are off.
Remember, your driver is a few inches away, hearing and seeing everything. Ayed, like all cab drivers, has seen and heard quite a lot in more than a decade driving cabs—and he speaks up when customers exchange more than a kiss or two.
“If they get one on top of the other, I say, ‘listen, I’m not your personal driver,’” he says. “I’m a cab driver. You owe me respect.”
Instead: Control yourselves, you crazy kids.
6. You bring food in the cab.
You’ve just left the bar with a bad case of the drunchies, so you stop for a quick bite. Bag of burgers in hand, you rip into the fast food like a ferocious animal. “They drop food, crumbs, leave the smell—and let you deal with all that in the end,” Ayed says, adding that when he allows food in his car, he keeps a few napkins in the seat next to him and asks riders to please clean up after themselves.
Instead: Eat your food in the restaurant, ask the driver if he minds eating in his car, or simply wait until you get home.
7. You’re way too drunk.
No doubt we all want intoxicated people choosing any transportation option besides getting behind the wheel themselves. But Ayed says he and his fellow cab drivers hate it when riders are so drunk that they vomit in the car, fall asleep, or otherwise cannot function.
Take the man he picked up a few years ago in Boston who wanted Ayed to bring him back to where he thought his car was parked. When Ayed got him to the area the rider believed he’d parked, the car was nowhere to be found. To make matters worse, when Ayed stopped the car, the drunk man stumbled away without paying.
Ayed decided to let him go, instead returning to the cab stand to pick up another customer. Who gets into his car? The same drunk man who’d stiffed him his fare. (He eventually paid up.)
Instead: Have fun, but be able to function—or party with someone who is.
8. You’re a lousy tipper.
Driving a cab is not exactly a lucrative career. In fact, it can be quite problematic from a financial standpoint, essentially amounting to “a $10 an hour job at Dunkin’ Donuts” on the best days, says Ayed, who supports a wife and two boys. On a poor night, the driver will walk away with nothing in his pocket after filling the car up with gas and paying the company $50-$100 for the medallion. (Part one of a 2013 Boston Globe investigative report detailed the frequent fleecing of cab drivers by cab company owners.)
This means tips are crucial to drivers’ livelihoods. Many customers don’t tip, Ayed says, or leave an insultingly low tip—pocket change, for instance.
Instead: Ayed says tips should start at $2 for a ride that is on the shorter side, $3 and up for longer rides; generally, follow the 15 to 20 percent rule.
9. You take Uber.
Setting aside for a moment whether Uber is a necessary disrupting force in the business of moving people around cities—or whether it is a positive development for consumers—one thing is for certain: traditional cab drivers hate it. Here’s why, according to Ayed: a ride with UberX in Boston or Cambridge is about 50 percent cheaper than a traditional cab ride, a discount that has dramatically cut into the number of trips a taxi driver makes in a given night.
“If we made $200 [in a night], we went home with $150 or $120,” Ayed says of his industry, pre-Uber. “Now, if we go home with $100, we’re lucky. Uber took away our livelihood.”
Instead: If Uber is your thing, take Uber. Just know that the startup is not loved by the traditional cab drivers who have seen their take-home pay decrease as a result. (Which is all the more reason to give them a little extra when you do take a cab.)
The bottom line
Be nice to your cab driver. Don’t trash his car, order her around, or underpay. Driving a taxi can be a thankless job, but for those who do it, it’s an attempt at making a living. We don’t have to make that attempt more difficult than it already is.