Can a taxi driver get rich without winning the lotto?
March 19, 2008 8:49 PM   Subscribe

What strategies do taxi drivers use to make the most money in the least amount of time, other than taking out-of-towners the long way? Do taxi companies impose rules on their drivers to distribute the work fairly? Do taxi drivers form alliances to help each other get the best work? (Not planning to be a taxi driver, just curious about how it all works.)
posted by pitseleh to Grab Bag (24 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
They drive like bats out of hell? They get paid per mile, not minute, so the faster they make the trip the sooner they can get onto the next one. The more miles they can squeeze into an hour, the more they take home.

That's the obvious one anyway.
posted by bizwank at 9:05 PM on March 19, 2008

A couple of months ago I had to use taxis several times. This particular cab company has a wireless computer-based system. When a driver is free and looking for a fare, he tells his local computer console where he is, and the computer shows him all the fares in his area that have called for a cab. He can then pick one, which takes it out of the free list.

All the drivers loved it. It meant they were driving fares nearly all the time.

But if one of them found himself in an area where there weren't any fares waiting, he could check to see if there was another area that was busy, and if so make a decision to drive there, and then get into the computer to claim a fare once he arrived.

All the things you're talking about aren't involved. It's first-come, first-served.
posted by Class Goat at 9:06 PM on March 19, 2008

Hack, by Melissa Plaut will probably answer all your questions and then some. (It's also a great, quick read.) Her blog has a bunch of stuff, too, although she stopped updating it after her book came out.
posted by greenland at 9:09 PM on March 19, 2008

When I drove a taxi I paid a set fee per day to the cab owner and kept whatever I made above that, filling with gas out of my pocket at the end of each shift. This was some years back, and jobs were assigned over the radio to the driver nearest to the pickup point -- we called in after dropping off to say we were free and where we were. Nowadays that part's computerized. Pretty much as Class Goat describes, in fact.

To make more money drivers would claim to be other than where they actually were, to get picked for the upcoming jobs. Driving faster wasn't necessarily a good idea, and adding extra miles was never a good plan -- too easy to get caught, and always more drivers than taxis so real easy to get laid off.
posted by anadem at 9:36 PM on March 19, 2008

There’s a pretty famous economics paper about cab driver behaviour: Labor Supply of New York City Cabdrivers One Day at a Time (PDF) you might want to take a look at. The interesting finding was that cabdrivers work fewer hours on rainy days. The paper is really technical, but it has some very interesting non-mathematical stuff.
posted by Jasper Friendly Bear at 10:39 PM on March 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Paging MeMail MeFi's own Ian A.T., cabbie extraordinaire in New Orleans.
posted by mumkin at 11:44 PM on March 19, 2008

Um. Paging or MeMailing. Why didn't I click Preview?
posted by mumkin at 11:49 PM on March 19, 2008

taking out-of-towners the long way
In San Francisco, cab drivers try to do the opposite. A driver who is constantly picking up and dropping off passengers is going to make more money than a driver taking a fare a long way. That's because the $/mile rate is small compared to the initial fare when you get in the cab. In the time it takes a cab driver to take someone on a long ride for $20, a cab driver staying in downtown can pick up 4-5 fares @ $8 each. It's the reason many SF cab drivers will refuse to take someone to certain distant neighborhoods. So a smart driver will always try to drop you off at your destination as quickly as possible and return to where the fares are. Again, the key is maximizing the number of fares to take advantage of the initial meter rate when you first get in the cab.
posted by junesix at 12:13 AM on March 20, 2008

When I drove a night shift cab in Portland, it was based on a computer queue system. You punched in the zone you were in and it put you in the queue. Wait long enough and you got a call , which you could accept or decline. If you were sitting around and there were to many cabs in your zone or things wers slowwww (dinner hour, etc.)you could check the monitor to see where the "waitng" calls were and if there were any cabs in that zone. Sometimes there were many waiting fares and no cabs, but that situation usually does not last to long as many other cabbies see the same thing and head over to that zone. When in transit there is a "soon to clear" button which tells the computer that as soon as the meter goes off I am going to be in zone x, and its puts you in the queue at that spot. A vary valuable button as that could make the difference between being 3rd or 10th in the queue and mean a fare or more waiting.

I leased my cab from the company for 12 hours, cash up front and had to return it clean and filled with gas, which on slow nights could be quite a pinch in my profit.

All in all, I made pretty decent money. It helped that I knew my way around, I gave good recommendations for things if the folks asked (I know this because they usually would call me to come and pick them up), worked the 6pm to 6am shift (almost all drunks after 10:30) but most of all just being personable seemed to help folks give more at the end.
posted by Asbestos McPinto at 12:31 AM on March 20, 2008

Argh...too many and were slowww. Post too fast!
posted by Asbestos McPinto at 12:34 AM on March 20, 2008

I'm actually in my cab as we speak, typing this on my Blackberry, so I won't be able to post more until tomorrow "morning." I was just going to wait until then to post anything at all in this thread, but upon reflection, I realized that not being able to talk about working my taxi because I'm too busy working my taxi is actually a pretty good answer to your question. In other words, here's a joke we tell the rookie drivers who find themselves intoxicated by the idea of being able to stop working whenever they want:

Q: What's the best way to make money driving your cab?
A: Drive your cab.

There hasn't been a bad answer in this thread, by the way.
posted by Ian A.T. at 1:16 AM on March 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Make sure the dispatcher is your friend.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 6:23 AM on March 20, 2008

I'm also a taxi driver and can confirm most that have been said, new systems incorporate GPS to automatically determine which car is closest to the fare.

There is no special system for distributed fares evenly, sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you don't, it basically evens out in the end anyways. Most rules applied by taxi companies are there to make sure even the less desirable fares get picked up, such as out of the way areas and such. This means you cannot skip too many offers given by the dispatching system etc.

And what Ian said about driving your cab.
posted by Authorized User at 6:32 AM on March 20, 2008

Suck up to the boss and try to get shifts on Friday and Saturday nights.
posted by flabdablet at 7:20 AM on March 20, 2008

Also knowing the town you're working and being where the demand is. Knowing when "Cats" lets out and being there. Etc.
posted by gjc at 7:28 AM on March 20, 2008

One point that I found interesting when my roommate and I were trying to launch a transportation-planning startup is that cab drivers are contractors, not employees, and the companies take pains to make that very clear, because it lets them avoid offering benefits and such. So a dispatcher can't call and say, "Joe, you're not carrying anyone, and you're a block away - go pick that person up." The best they can do is say, "is anyone near the corner of 3rd and F? We've got a fare out to the airport, who wants it?"
posted by spaceman_spiff at 8:30 AM on March 20, 2008

Note that much of the above doesn't apply to the single biggest cab market, New York City.

New York has a bifurcated system whereby ordinary yellow taxis only take street hails and taxi stand line-ups at airports. It is illegal for drivers (or their fleet owners) to take reservations, although they can use electronic dispatch systems to get to areas that are busier.

If you need to reserve a car, you call one of many different livery companies, which operate a parallel fleet of thousands of cars with voice or computer-based wireless dispatch system. It is illegal for livery cars to take street hails or to pick up from a taxi stand.

Depend upon whether you drive cab or livery your strategies are going to be different. A cabby wants more than anything else to avoid deadheading -- having to drive without a fare. The killer is any fare to an outer borough other than to an airport, because you only get paid one way, and outer borough people generally aren't out hailing cabs, forcing you to take unpaid miles and tolls back to Manhattan. Newark Airport and the suburbs can also be deadly because New York cabs can't pick up fares there -- if the traffic back to the city is bad it quickly swamps the supplemental fare and toll charge you collect.
posted by MattD at 8:47 AM on March 20, 2008

Some of the strategies I employed to max out my take when I drove a cab:

* Got to know one section of my city really, really well. Thus, I became one of the go-to guys when there was a good fare out there. In other words, I made sure the dispatchers knew I could find any address quickly in a certain area and wouldn't leave fares out there hanging while I cruised around lost. (Our company covered not only our city, but outlying suburbs as well. People who could do the "deep west" could nail a $50-60 airport fare at least 2-3 times a week.)
* Created playlists on my iPod for certain times/places. Three years into my driving, I could easily extract a 50% tip from certain fares by playing certain music. Gotta know your audience!
* Before I knew my way around like a pro, I was honest about that fact. If I wasn't sure where I was going, I made sure the fare knew that, and knew that any mistake on my part wouldn't be reflected in the fare. More often than not, when I got lost I still got the full fare and a nice tip thanks to being straight-up.
* Gave my cell phone number to certain regular customers - people who take lots of cabs enjoy having a regular driver, and they'll pay for the privilege.
* Similarly, I kept in touch with several other drivers - we'd often call each other up when we found people waiting (more riders than we could take, or people whose cabs never came), or if we couldn't get to our regulars in a prompt fashion.
* The dispatcher is always, always, always right. They're usually assholes, but if you argue with them you just screw yourself out of money. Even after the automated GPS computer-dispatched system was introduced, a surly dispatcher could still make or break you. Only fools got into petty wars with dispatch.
* I learned to roll with it. If I let a bad run early in my shift irritate me, it would definitely cost me money. I kept detailed stats for a couple of months, which revealed that at least 50% of my take-home pay came from tips. A bad mood could cut those tips, so I paid close attention to that. If I got stressed out, I'd take an hour off rather than let it get worse. There's always more money out there.

I could go on, but those are the basics.
posted by Banky_Edwards at 1:09 PM on March 20, 2008

I don't understand this either. The other day I was in a cab and we were stopped at a red light for a long time, and the meter continued to tick up. This is was in Chicago.
If they charge by the mile, how the hell can the meter go up while we're stopped at a red light?
posted by Baby_Balrog at 2:04 PM on March 20, 2008

BB: I don't know about Chicago, but my meter runs on both distance AND time. It ticks every eighth of a mile or forty seconds, whichever comes first. However, you have to be going REALLY slow to not go an eighth a mile in forty seconds...less than eleven miles an hour, I think, but somebody check my math.

It's more of a consolation prize for being stopped than anything else. Believe me, we make way more money with the wheels rolling.
posted by Ian A.T. at 2:18 PM on March 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

having driven a cab in chicago (circa 1995), i can tell you that they have a rate for time and a rate per mile. the driver could (at that time, anyway) turn off the switch for one or the other (i forget which--i think it was the time meter) if they wanted to. (like for a pre-arranged fare.)

i only drove for a little while, but i can say that being a female helped a lot with tips. (pity. it was actual pity.) and i relied completely on instinct and experience to get through the day. there is really a big element of the gambler in a cabdriver--luck is everything.

at that time, there was a radio system that depended completely on timing for the answers--so having the dispatcher know you and like you (and know your voice) was important for getting "chosen." i didn't use the system because i was all about the street pick-up (with a supplement from a big ass car phone for "regulars"). also, i was too intimidated by the radio system to learn how to use it. so it was all about being in certain places at certain times of day--and hoping for an airport run. (though standing in the queue at the airport was never my idea of fun, so i didn't do that either.)

working the drunk shift is a good way to make money, but was also too scary for me as a woman to do too often. (during the year i drove, i was literally one of two women cabdrivers that i ever saw. all the other women drove livery.) we didn't have plastic barriers then, and there was enough scariness going on during the day for me.

some cabbies prefer the long waits in hotel queues or the train station queue to do well, but i did a combination of being at certain places and times and an occasional queue. i liked picking up hookers on North Avenue or North Clark in the pre-dawn. they loved that i was a chick and wasn't going to razz them for an "off-books" quickie, and they could relax. they gave great tips.

you would be amazed at the number of guys who work their cabs 24 hours, with snatched naps at the wheel. (i've told a lot of people this to get them to give some of the foreign drivers a break on the attitude--life sucks when you're trying to build up enough dough to bring your family to america.) i once read a newspaper story about a cabbie in chicago who worked his car 24-7 and ended up dying at the wheel. tragic.
posted by RedEmma at 4:27 PM on March 20, 2008

Wow, there are a lot of cabbies and former-cabbies on Metafilter. We should totally have a meet-up at a 24-hour diner or an off track betting parlor!

So anyway, now that I read through this thread, I realize that the New Orleans taxi industry is unique enough that going into detail about how I do my job would be useless to people curious about driving a cab in general. For example: I'm human-dispatched, my car looks like a taxi but is mostly a livery cab, and I have it 24 hours a day.

Also, there have been some pretty good answers already. In fact, isn't this the TRUE lesson of AskMe, that no one's knowledge is unique? I feel like I'm constantly seeing answers that I feel I'm uniquely qualified to answer, only to read the thread and see I got scooped within the first five comments.

So instead of talking specifics about my gig, here are some things I try to keep in mind as I'm working.

1. Get them in, get them there, get them out.
As almost everyone else has said, the most important part of driving a cab is turnover. (Apple turnover, judging by the physiques of my co-workers.)

The take-away from this for non-cabbies is that accusing us of trying to take people out of the way presumes an almost offensive level of stupidity on our part. My meter starts at $3.50, and adds twenty cents every eighth of a's not possible for me to take a passenger two miles out of their way without even the most clueless tourist realizing something is up.

And I wouldn't even if I could. As RedEmma says, a huge part of the cabbie psyche is knowing that every fare is a roll of the dice...and the next one could be the big one. Most of us who have been doing this more than a year or so know EXACTLY how much the meter will read and how much you're going to tip, pretty much to the dollar. This sounds really mercenary, but on a financial level, the ride is over the second we find out the destination...the rest is just the business of getting you there. We know how much we're getting and we've already added it to our mental tally. Why waste time milking another buck? The next fare could be going all the way out to the airport...or Biloxi.

That's not to say that cabbies DON'T take fares out of the way. But this isn't because they're trying to rip you off, it's almost certainly because they don't know the shortest way. Which brings us neatly to:

2. Be good at what you do.
Mostly, the only way to do this is to just keep working, but a big part of it is also just CARING about being good at it and learning from your mistakes. I know this sounds like some PBS Kids shit, but it's true.

This is by no means a scientific number, but I'd say that about a quarter of our fleet at any given point is composed of people who have been doing it less than a year. The job isn't for everyone and we lose a lot of drivers every month.

(There's a story about a researcher who tried riding with cabbies to measure their stress levels as they worked, but had to give up after a few hours because just watching them do their job stressed him out too much.)

You're pretty much completely lost the first six months, and then you're on shaky ground for the next six months. After that, you sorta have an idea of what you're doing. After two years, you've officially qualified to call yourself a rookie. Seriously.

But what's interesting is that the people who stick around past the first year are here forever. In this business, you're either a newb or a lifer. It's either the worst job you ever had or something that feels a little bit like a revelation: a job you actually want to do, and that you actually care about being good at.

Imagine a Venn diagram with Would Be Good At Driving A Cab on one side and Is Willing To Drive A Cab on the other...the overlap would be pretty thin, but those of us who fall in it are remarkably satisfied with our careers. (Interestingly, I've found that most of us who are pretty good at it are failed veterans of corporate or academic circles. I've sorta written a little bit about this, and how I started driving a cab over here.)

Fares, and often my friends, find it disconcertingly amusing to think that being a cabbie involves any sort of skill or ability. You're just driving people around!

But there's actually quite a bit to know, and the actual driving is only about ten percent of it. The rest is stuff you only learn by fucking it up so many times that you finally remember. In fact, almost all of us say that if we'd known all the stuff we were going to have to learn before we got into this, we never would have started.

The bulk of this extra knowledge is particularly in the area of interpersonal relations. Every fare is a beautiful and unique snowflake, of course, but there are only so many interactions, each with only finite possibilities, and you're going to have them over and over again every single night of your life. Soon you begin to recognize all the different variables that, with a lot of practice, you can begin to control.

This excerpt, from an interview with Seth Rogen about his stint writing for The Ali G Show, sums up exactly what I'm trying to say:

Q: "Since much of his shtick involves interacting with other people, what would you script beforehand?"

SR: "A lot of what he says is scripted. There's a real science to it. It's almost like a magic trick. You get better at guessing what other people are going to say, and you can almost write it. If all goes according to plan, it is almost completely scripted."

(I talk a bit more about this aspect of my job in this previous thread.)

Those of us who are good at what we do take an enormous amount of pride in it. You know how on The Wire they're always talking about "real PO-lice"? It's the same with us. A constant insult at the cab garage--probably the most lovingly antagonistic place on Earth--is "You're not a cab driver, you just pick up fares."

And the reward we get for this pride is compliments from our fares about how we're so professional, not like this one guy they had once, which leads into a near-identical story we've all heard a million times about some terrible cabbie who took them out of the way or tried to overcharge them. (Why do they think they can get on our good side by insulting our co-workers!?)

IAN: With all due respect, buddy, this is a story I have to hear about ten times a night...I'd much rather talk about that great Hornets game last night. Did you see it?

FARE: No, I TOLD HIM to take the interstate and get off at Esplanade. Instead, he takes Claiborne all the way! I'm not racist, but he was one of those Pakistani motherfuckers...

IAN: [drives into phone pole]

3. Know the city COLD.
But not for the reason you think. Most of your fares, if they're local, know where they're going and believe me will let you know how to get there whether you need the help or not. ("Do you know where the French Quarter is?") The real reason you need to know the city is so, when the dispatcher has orders, you can know which one you're closest to. Time is money, remember

Look, I love my GPS--it's opened up entire sections of the city for me; if it's a slow night, I'll take an order without even knowing where it is--but a GPS is no substitute for coming correct. It's easier and faster to know the city on an almost genetic level than to muck about with a tiny screen and chiclet keys. Plus, who wants to drive a fare around while some robot lady gives him directions? Try to have some dignity in your life.

I think London's The Knowledge is overkill of massive proportions--you learn just as much in six months giving out free rides because you fucked up as you do following a map around on some little moped--but learning the city is vital to your job.

Just like with everything else, confidence is key. If you're on the 1300 block of Jackson Avenue and your fare wants to go to the 7600 block of Oak St., and then they ask you what way you're going, you need to be able to instantly spit out "I'm taking Jackson to Simon Bolivar, which turns into LeSalle, then I'll hit the dog-leg at Lousiana and get on Freret. I'll take Freret to Broadway, Broadway to Oak, and the 7600 block is five blocks down, between Hilary and Adams. 7612 is on the left hand side. It's the bar Snake 'n' Jake's."

Of course, I'd never actually SAY that, because I'm not a tremendous asshole--well, maybe I would if he phrased "Where are you going?" in that incredulous tone of voice intended to make me feel like a money-grubbing kidnapper--but I need to be able to say "Freret to Broadway, over to Oak."

That sort of confidence helps to preclude a lot of unneeded effort on their part telling me how to get there. I don't want to veer into "I work in the service industry and I hate my stupid customers!" schtick because, seriously, fuck those loathsome pricks, but if people treated their bartenders the way they treat their cab drivers, here's how they'd order a drink: "I'd like a Jack and Coke. Do you know how to make that? It stands for Jack Daniels and Coca-Cola. First, take a highball glass..."

4. As I said last night, actually work.
Consistency is the key. The big money-making nights are great, but there no substitutes for consistent work. Any goof with a taxi can make cabbage on Halloween night, but the real cab drivers are the ones who wake up on September 1st and go back to work.

I know that "Don't work hard, work smart" is a mantra among the Getting Things Done cult, but you can really undermine yourself in the pursuit of working smart. At the end of the day, you drive a cab for a living...get over yourself. Go drive your cab around, come home eight hours later, do the same thing four more times, then take a couple days off. It ain't rocket surgery.

5. "It all spends the same."
There are about fifty drivers--and I'm proud to say I'm one of them--that the dispatchers call The Low Riders. This sounds like an awesome name, and there is a certain affection there, but as with everything else involving my fellow cabbies there's a fair amount of mockery mixed in: they call us The Low Riders because we're "always scraping the bottom of the barrel," taking orders that could be a hassle in undesirable neighborhoods.

So it's 3 am and there's a guy in the projects with a wheelchair and a dog he doesn't know the exact address of where he's going and he only has a hundred dollar bill? Great, let's go.

Why? Because the ten bucks he gives me is going to spend the same as ten bucks a millionaire supermodel gives me.

The surest way to decrease your income is to start getting finicky...the older drivers call it cherrypicking. "You're too good for that order now? You must have forgotten what you do for a living."

6. Be nice.
This is a tricky one, because I don't want it to sound like I'm saying "be nice to increase your tips." Be nice because the world is a lonely and upsetting place and we only have the kindness of others to make it bearable.

But also, be nice to increase your tips. I'm sure someone will now post that episode of This American Life about how mean waitresses make more money, but first of all, you're going to take advice about a blue collar job from Ira Glass!? Second, there's a word for a person who makes others miserable solely for financial gain, and you don't want to be that person.

7. Finally: don't worry about it.
Seriously. If you go out and work eight hours, you're gonna make a living no matter how slow it is. Some nights you make a little more, some nights you make a little less no matter what you try. It all evens out in the end.


As to your bigger question of "Can a taxi driver get rich without winning the lotto?" I guess I'd answer: "Can anyone?"

I make a decent living. My yearly income fluctuates by a few thousand depending on a couple variables, like if my transmission falls out, but what I make is pretty solidly in the middle-class range.

Besides, driving a cab has advantages that aren't strictly financial, so it's hard to think about it in just economic terms: I work when I want. I stop when I want. I don't have a boss. I don't feel like I have to cram my life in on the margins of my job. I get to talk to people I might not otherwise get to talk to. (Girls.)

On the other hand, nobody respects me, and my friends and family are disappointed in what I've done to my life. LOL!

But mainly I like my job because it's one of the only professions I know of where I can ride around and help out strangers in a meaningful way. I take people to work, to the hospital, to booty calls. Because of me, people can go out to dinner, visit their friends, or get to the airport. Sure, I get paid for helping them, but so do cops and doctors.

Kenneth Longerman said it way better than I ever could. In his movie You Can Count On Me, he plays Pastor Ron, who talks about what he likes about his job to Terry (Mark Ruffalo):

RON: You know, Terry, a lot of people come to see me with all kinds of problems. Drugs, alcohol, marital problems, sexual problems, health problems.
TERRY: Great job you got.
RON: Well... I like it. Because even in this little town, I feel like what I do is very connected with the real center of people's lives. I'm not saying I'm always Mr. Effective, but I don't feel like my life is off to the side of what's important. You know? I don't feel my happiness and comfort are based on closing my eyes to trouble within myself or trouble in other people. I don't feel like a negligible little scrap, floating around in some kind of empty void, with no sense of connectedness to anything around me except by virtue of whatever little philosophies I can scrape together on my own...

(If you ever get in my cab, ask me if I like my'll hear that speech delivered so effortlessly you'd never guess I was reciting movie dialogue...)

What can I say? I guess we all have our own plate of beans to overthink in this world.
posted by Ian A.T. at 6:28 PM on March 20, 2008 [36 favorites]

of course i didn't mention that one of the most dangerous short-term ways to make more money as a cabbie is to rig the meter. (dangerous because you lose your license if you are found out, and because you could get your ass beat by a customer.)

when i was at my first garage, which was--no shit--the worst garage in the city at the time (i was a noob, but it happened to be the closest to my apt), i discovered that the night shift guy had rigged my meter. (basically, he'd broken the inspection tape and messed with it so it would tick faster.) because i was a noob, i wasn't certain of it right away, but it didn't take long for me to realize that *all* the daily to-work riders weren't bitching for nothing.

i'm not sure why anyone would risk it, but i'm sure it happens once in a while--and tourists more than likely wouldn't have a clue.
posted by RedEmma at 8:18 PM on March 20, 2008

This ex-driver agrees with everything Ian A.T. has just said. Everybody should experience driving a cab for at least a couple of months.

I contract-drove for a taxi company, and the deal was, I'd get half the take and they'd pay for fuel and car wash and maintenance and licensing out of their half. It was was really nice to have no plant, no capital, drive a night shift however I damn well pleased, dump half the take into the night safe, and walk home at 4:30am with cash in pocket. If your attitude is right, the job is very low-stress.

Most of the time, driving night shift is just a really enjoyable thing to do. The occasional drunken arsehole who fills your back seat with vomit just adds a little spice to the evening :-)

But I mainly just popped back in here to explain a bit more about how taxi meters work. There's a flagfall, which applies as soon as the customer accepts the ride; a per-kilometre rate that applies while the cab is in motion; and a detention (timed) rate that applies while the cab is stopped. That's why the meter still ticks over while you're sitting at the red light. All the rates should be clearly shown on the meter, if you care to look.
posted by flabdablet at 10:23 PM on March 20, 2008

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