Click photo to enlarge
Taxi driver Safi Ahrari packs luggage into his trunk before taking a fare from the Oakland International Airport on Friday. (DEAN COPPOLA/STAFF )

Taxis in Oakland should be swooping in more to pick up fares at the numerous taxis stands around the city that were supposed to materialize from a much-needed plan last year to improve notoriously bad service.

Instead, the problem has worsened despite the overhaul City Councilmembers approved in October. The only thing that seems to have changed is that now the customers AND the cabbies are suffering. There are several reasons why, and none of them makes sense.

Cabbies are only allowed to wait for fares at taxi stands, which are hard to find except at 13th Street and Broadway. There are no stands at the Lake Merritt BART station, the Amtrak depot or the Uptown District, despite a fee created in the new ordinance to pay for added stands. Instead, the city took two away from the one place in town where taxis are guaranteed to be found: 13th Street and Broadway. They were moved a block away on 14th Street, creating havoc.

"Where am I supposed to go?" asked a frantic driver. They could try hustling for fares in other places where would-be riders might flag them down.

The police department slaps drivers with $30 to $100 tickets for waiting in parking places or at the curb or anywhere except the nearly nonexistent taxi stands. "That's like half a day's work on a slow day," another driver told me while waving his bright green $95 ticket in the air. No new sites will go in until the traffic engineering department has evaluated them. No one knows how long that will take. But it probably won't be soon with the way City Hall is understaffed.

Available medallions — the license that gives taxis a right to operate — are even rarer than stands. Four companies control nearly a quarter of all 304 medallions issued in Oakland. But three of them (Yellow, Metro and Friendly) are operated by Surinder and Baljit Singh. The Singhs managed to get a stranglehold on the taxi business in Oakland in part by scooping up permits in a 2001 lottery meant to give individual operators a shot at getting a permit. The Singhs already had a third of the city's permits. So they used the name of a family member and no one could do a thing about it because the maneuver was not illegal, according to Barbara Killey, who oversees taxi operations.

Veterans Cab controls another 43 permits. Neither have a good record of "working proactively with the city," in the diplomatic words of Killey. "They respond when required," she said.

Things got ugly in April when Friendly Cab drivers gathered in front of City Hall demanding that officials allow them to purchase their own taxi licenses so they would not have to lease the medallions from the family. When Surinder Singh declined to meet with the group of about 30, their union, the East Bay Taxi Drivers Association, called for a strike. Half of its 100 members went on the picket line. But the larger issues are still unresolved.

Even though taxi service in Oakland is more regulated than most cities, officials can do little to break the duopoly except find ways of increasing competition. Yet, the City Council backed off a proposal to issue 50 new permits — the first new issue in 20 years (2001 was a lottery) — because the Singhs and drivers swore the competition would kill their business. The timing was bad, but the idea is still a viable one because gas prices have come down and service hasn't improved, Killey said.

There would be more demand if people thought they had a chance of getting a taxi, according to Jonathan Bair, head of the Oakland Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee. Bair has complained for years that taxis are a missing link in the city's public transportation system, without which Oakland can't fulfill its transit goals. Now, as the city's entertainment venues bring larger numbers of people out after hours, cabs are more important than ever to reducing drunken driving and providing transportation late at night when walking the streets can be dangerous, Bair added.

"I don't have a magic bullet," he said. "But clearly our taxi policies are a failure."

The first review of service since October is in progress, and the No. 1 priority will be to test companies' compliance with a rule that no vehicles can be idle for more than a specified number of days. Killey said that's how the Singhs lost 10 medallions, and there are likely to be more based on her review.

So new permits will hit the market after all.

But adding more taxis is not the solution, according to Dhar Mann, whose parents are the Singhs. The 15-day rule is impossible to fulfill, Mann added. The process of hiring drivers takes too long to keep all the taxis in circulation, he said. "People aren't waiting around to drive taxis in the bad economy."

He said there are enough taxis to meet demand but the service needs to be more centralized and automated to improve coverage.

Mann said in a couple of weeks riders will be able to call a taxi online or through their mobile devices, as well as other features being implemented soon. "There are so many opportunities for efficiency."

The question is whether gadgets will finally get drivers to where they're needed, when they're needed. That's as much up to the drivers as the operators and the city. They all need to get on the same page to give residents a decent shot at good taxi service.

Reach Angela Woodall at 510-208-6413.