If you've ever complained about a cab ride to a friend but never complained to the city, you're doing it wrong. Did you even know you could do that—complain straight to the city? You can. There's a hotline that's inside of cabs and on your cab ride receipt (it's 206-296-TAXI). It’s much better than just complaining to your friends or to the internet.
City council is about to vote on a proposal that attempts to level the playing field between innovative newcomers like UberX and Lyft and traditional cab companies. There was going to be a vote today rein in the previously unregulated newcomers (by capping the number of vehicles on the road), but that vote has been put off for another week. This just so happens to give consumers who have have had issues with cab companies an extra week to get involved and file complaints with the city, which they should absolutely be doing.
This whole conversation isn’t just about the dearth of available ways to get home from the bar—though that is a fair issue. There's also that thing about how the quality of service offered by traditional cab companies is, by many accounts, really, really lacking. And that isn't going to get solved if the cab drivers, companies, and consumer-protection organizations don't know about it.
I was reminded of this by a Reddit thread yesterday, in which a user from Seattle complained about a bad experience he’d had with Yellow Cab, and the company’s seeming unwillingness to hear his grievance. The thread now has close to 300 comments, many of which are similar stories from users who have experienced at best a level of unprofessionalism; others allege unsafe and potentially illegal business practices. This old KOMO story from 2005 details women who said they had been sexually harassed by cab drivers.
However, few people actually take the time to complain—officially—to the City’s Office of Finance and Administrative Services about infractions by cabs and for-hire vehicles. Craig Leisy, the manager of the consumer affairs unit for the city, says that for the number of cab rides (over five million per year), there are relatively few complaints from the hotline and website. "From the hotline, we get about 450-500 complaints per year," Leisy told me, adding, "I'm sure that people have more complaints than get called in."
Among the concerns consumers are encouraged to report, the city lists refusal of service, overcharging, and refusal to pick someone up. The complaints then go to the specific cab company, which is charged with handling them, either with a refund or—and this is adorable—a written apology.
Leisy says each complaint is examined to ensure that it has merit and is accurate (for example, that the license number and the company of the cab match). Those that are deemed valid are then investigated—which is why it's a good idea to make sure you know exactly what kind of cab you're riding in.
Of course, other services, like UberX, already have that information for you.
Additionally, says Leisy, complaints have historically led to policy change. In the 1990s, the biggest complaints were about the cab drivers' skill sets, including their geographic knowledge and ability to communicate in English. To cut down on those complaints, cab drivers must now pass a language test and go through navigational and geographical training.
In the numerous hearings I’ve attended regarding cabs and TNCs, neither customer service nor safety have been expressly addressed; the focus has largely been on the free-market aspect and how cabs, with their myriad licensing requirements, have a hard time competing. Possibly because there just isn't data—real data, not just shared experiences—about how many poor experiences consumers have.
Going through the hotline or website not only leaves a public record of the complaint, which city councilmembers weighing a decision could have access to; it also seems to be dramatically more effective than, say, calling the company directly. According to that Reddit user above, when he tried to call to complain, they hung up. I called Yellow Cab today to ask how they usually handle these kinds of allegations. They have not gotten back to me.
Leisy says that now, most of the complaints are down to things like wait time, or the fact that on a busy night, you may call a cab and get it dispatched, only to have someone else pile in and ride off in it.
It deserves to be pointed out that these are the kinds of problems that can be corrected not through a reduction of everyone else's service, but rather by innovating and improving the cab companies' level of service.
It may be that instead of/in addition to siding with UberX and a more free market, we may also need to simply demand more from regular cabs.
So, while writing to your city councilmembers is a good thing, and signing petitions is a good thing, if you’re concerned about the state of TNCs and cabs in Seattle, complaining through the city is another good thing, because it might actually make things better for everyone.