BOSTON — It’s a frigid cold Sunday night and a group of young people are huddled together outside a bar, shivering. All they want is a cab. Well, that’s not entirely true. They also want to pay with credit. But none of them are particularly hopeful.
“A lot of times they’ll say they take credit cards and then the machine’s broken,” one man says.
“I’ve been in a cab and tried to ask them to drop me off at an ATM machine so I can get cash because I don’t want to go through the s*** of trying to use my debit card,” a woman says. “It kind of sucks.”
It has been about a year and a half now since the city of Boston mandated that all 1,825 of its cabs have credit card machines installed in the back seats — and that drivers must accept those cards when the passenger asks. But all you have to do is bring it up and everyone seems to have a story of what happened last time they or one of their friends tried.
Policing The System
The folks at the Boston Police Department have heard it all. Especially Mark Cohen, the director of licensing for the Hackney Division.
“We probably are receiving at least five or 10 complaints a day on a bad day,” he told us when we visited him at police headquarters, to see how his team is handling regulation of the system.
There isn’t actually much to see, though, in Hackney, where most of the policing is being done digitally. The complaints usually come in by e-mail. Cohen had received this one the day we visited:
When we were asked to pay, I took out my credit card, but was told there was a minimum of $10 in order to use it. This had not been mentioned at the beginning of the ride. I became more skeptical of the driver’s claim when the credit card began to process and asked me for a tip amount. He hastily reached into the back and pushed cancel. I don’t know his intention, but this isn’t the first time this has occurred.
Of course, there is no minimum dollar amount for a credit card transaction on a cab ride.
So the next move is for an officer to call the driver of the cab in for a hearing, to get his side of the story. But given that all these transactions leave digital footprints, it’s pretty easy for the police to figure out who is telling the truth.
“Nobody keeps records like banks,” Cohen jokes.
owner, Top Cab and City Cab
If it turns out the driver was the problem, the police slap him with a three-day suspension. It is in Hackney’s interest to take these claims seriously — a year and a half into the program, Cohen estimates one-third of all cab transactions are already by credit.
And he is convinced that many of those transactions are customers who would not otherwise have taken a cab, because a few months after the machines went in, he said, cab ridership in Boston went up for the first time since Sept. 11.
That’s why the cab companies like the new rules, too. John Ford, the owner of Top Cab and City Cab, two of the seven accredited taxi companies in Boston, said his business is up 15 percent since the machines became mandatory.
“From my end of the business, which is the boss, I think the credit card machines are absolutely the best thing that’s ever happened to the cab industry,” he said.
So Ford has no tolerance for resistant drivers. In fact, he doesn’t hesitate to hand them over to Hackney. “If the same guy is continuously doing this to customers, we will turn him in,” he said. “Because it hurts everybody. He hurts my business by doing that; he pisses off my customers.”
The View From The Front Seat
If the cab companies love the new regulations, and the police department loves them and it is meaning more business for everyone — what exactly is it that is motivating these drivers who give you a hard time when you try to swipe?
We recently hailed a cab outside our studios on Commonwealth Avenue and met Tony Mwokeji, a driver for Independent Taxi Operators Association, and asked him if the credit card machines are costing him money.
“Oh yeah, big time,” he said without pause.
Mwokeji lists two major reasons: the 6 percent fee he’s charged on all credit card transactions and the fact that he has to wait 24 hours for the transactions to go through, meaning he’s shorter on cash.
“Sometimes I don’t have cash to buy lunch because everybody uses credit card,” he said.
Boston cab driver
But it was the 6 percent fee that was easily the biggest complaint we heard from drivers. The payment system is set up between the cab companies and the two credit card processors who run those services for all Boston taxis, Creative Mobile Technologies and VeriFone.
The drivers have no control — which makes Mwokeji furious. “They make you take the bank that you don’t want to deal with,” he said. “I don’t like Bank of America. I have my own bank.”
Then there are the technical issues. The same morning we got in Mwokeji’s cab, he’d had trouble getting his credit card machine to work after taking a customer from Logan Airport to Newton. The customer didn’t have the $68 in cash, so Mwokeji had taken down the man’s credit card number by hand on a piece of paper, along with his cell phone number in case of any issues.
“I don’t know whether anybody will cash this for me,” Mwokeji said, holding up the slip of paper. “Sixty-eight dollars, that’s risky business.”
And this was one of the good customers. Mwokeji says there have been many cases where the machine goes down and a customer just flat out refuses to pay. Often, he says, they think he’s lying because drivers have earned that reputation. But there is nothing he can do about it.
“It’s lost money,” he said. “I have [a] wife and four kids and my mortgage to pay. And every day I come out, I have to take risks like that. It doesn’t make sense.”
‘Change Doesn’t Come Easy’
Back at the police department, Cohen would dispute a few of these claims.
He says finding out whether a machine was working or not is as simple as checking the records. As for the 6 percent, “the requirement for every taxi to have this kind of equipment was paid for by the last rate increase,” he says. “We built in a percentage of rate increase to cover that 6 percent.”
And, while Cohen doesn’t love to say it, he admits that an undeniable part of all this revolves around the nature of the cab industry itself.
Ford, of Top Cab and City Cab, is more blunt.
“Change doesn’t come easy, especially in this industry,” he said. “These guys don’t like change at all and it’s tough to get them into new ways of thinking.”
Most of the drivers, Ford says, have already come around. There are more than 6,000 cab drivers in the city and the majority will accept your credit card without a word. But that small group of stubborn holdouts are the ones you are always hearing about.
But Ford thinks they are part of an era that has now almost past.
“I’ve been in the business since I was 17 and it’s almost 44 years,” he said. “I have seen this industry from shaggy, shifty, sleazy to where it’s pretty much all spit and polish right now, and high tech. So I’ve been the whole gamut of this industry and right now it’s the best it’s ever been.”
And, in the end, taxis are a service industry, which means the customer is king. Just keep in mind, if the driver says the machine is not working, there is a chance he’s telling you the truth.