AUSTIN (KXAN) — Getting from point A to point B in Austin is growing more and more difficult as a population boom clogs highways and streets and eats up valuable parking spaces downtown.
Ground transportation is regulated by the City of Austin to keep riders safe – and to keep just anyone with a car from profiting without regulation.
Every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday for three years, cab driver Johnny Rushing has watched, frustrated, as drivers pull to the side of the road on Trinity Street between 7th and 8th streets in downtown Austin and unload people headed to the 6th Street district.
Rushing says when the night is over, the same vehicles pick them up in the same spot and head back to Austin’s West Campus area, near the University of Texas. All of this is done for a lower fare than cabs charge, undercutting legitimate cab drivers and avoiding the legal permitting process.
“They are playing by their own rules,” Rushing said.
They are also breaking the law.
The process to become a cab driver is arduous, with reviews and background checks to keep the taxis safe and accountable to city officials.
“You have to have your background check. The city reviews it to make sure you are legit,” Rushing said. “Every couple of years, you have to renew your permit.”
The State of Texas does not require taxi drivers to have a commercial driver’s license, but the required proof of permits, insurance, and inspections are on his windshield. The vehicles taking away potential customers from Rushing lack those same permits, signage, and certificates.
“They are beating the system without paying the fees that we have to pay,” Rushing said.
Instead, the vehicles look like regular SUVs and 15-passenger vans. Their popularity and clientele have grown large enough to be easily recognizable by many college students who know what to look for. Many already have the driver’s cell number programmed on their phone.
While riders may be able to save a little money on fare by taking a ride in one of these rogue taxis, police say they are sacrificing a measure of safety beyond the permits and inspections required for legitimate cabs.
“We have more confidence when people use the sanctioned cabs, and we prefer that,” said Austin police Lt. Christian Malanka. “There are consequences involved with having an unpermitted cab. It is difficult to police them.”
Malanka explained the dispatching system involved in the taxi industry helps track when and where calls are made. That system can play a vital role in an investigation if any crimes or improprieties were to occur.
It’s an issue Rushing sees every time a large group piles into an unpermitted cab at the end of the night.
“They have no idea who these people are they are getting in the car with,” Rushing said. “They are taking a chance that the operator or owner of the vehicle is not adequately insured to cover possible medical expenses.”
To get a better idea of how unpermitted cabs operate, a KXAN crew secretly caught a ride with a couple of drivers we suspected were operating as rogue taxis.
The first was a man who went by the name of “Cowboy Joe” and drove a black 15-passenger van.
“Based on what I make on Thursday, I usually do 200-300 people, 10-20 at a time every 15 minutes,” he said, “starting at 7 p.m. until 3:00 in the morning.”
Later in the conversation, Cowboy Joe revealed he is one of multiple drivers working in operation together.
“I drive with D-Man. It is D-Man Shuttle Services.”
On Facebook, you can find a page advertising D-Man’s Shuttle Services and owner Daimenion Shelton. However, neither D-Man Shuttle Services or Shelton can be found on the list of permitted services in the City of Austin. For a ride from West Campus to 7th and Trinity, Cowboy Joe charged a group of three people $12.
“Usually it is only $3 a person, but it is a $12 minimum,” he said as the KXAN crew began to exit his vehicle.
On another ride, the KXAN team rode in a white limousine and a driver known on Facebook as “Limo Cedric.” During the ride, one person asked Limo Cedric if he had ever been in trouble with police.
“We go through stuff,” he responded. “We have been through stuff and may go through stuff again, but all you ever have to do if they ask you anything is say, ‘No money was involved and we are just friends,’” he said.
HARD TO POLICE
The “just friends” explanation may be a good one. Austin Police and the city’s ground transportation department say they have to be able to prove some kind of payment is being made in order to ticket a driver.
“If we have the opportunity to observe, they are not difficult to identify,” said Lt. Malanka with the Austin Police Department. “Our disadvantage is being at the right place at the right time.”
A search through court records shows 381 citations over the last three years were written in Austin for unpermitted cab and chauffeur services. Shelton received two of those citations and paid $375 for one, while another was dismissed. A ticket is only a Class C misdemeanor punishable by a fine no greater than $500.
“Sometimes the citation is not a deterrent unto itself,” Malanka said.
Austin police have taken steps before to impound the vehicle of violators in an attempt to slow down the illegal rides.
“We do get complaints from citizens and complaints from other service providers,” said Gordon Derr, the assistant director of Austin’s transportation department. “It is an ongoing issue we see each year.”
Derr said the department has three regulatory officers out past midnight on some nights trying to spot unpermitted drivers. Big festivals like SXSW, Formula 1 weekend, and the Austin City Limits Festival always bring out the illegitimate business, Derr said.
“It is a mixture of people in town who see it as an opportunity to make some money, but also people from out of town,” Derr said.
Austin police officials say they also conduct special operations targeting unpermitted vehicles.
We checked the hot spots for illegal taxis ticketed in Austin. Austin-Bergstrom International Airport had the most, followed by the Warehouse District and 5th and 6th Streets downtown. There were also some citations in the West Campus area.
Police have been giving fewer tickets over time. From 150 in 2011 to just 111 in 2012.