Driven to death

A taxi medallion system would provide needed benefits for cab drivers, but Halifax city councillors are refusing to even hear the proposal.

When I was in college, I worked as a cab driver to supplement my loan money. It's a difficult job, with long hours, uncertain income and dangerous conditions---statistically, driving cab is more dangerous than being a cop, firefighter or soldier. I stopped driving soon after another driver in my town was shot.

Haligonians have a difficult relationship with cab drivers, but most of the problems that customers see are endemic to the industry in general: The greatest demand is in inclement weather and at bar closing time, but it doesn't make sense economically to have enough cabs to serve just those periods. People get frustrated, and that frustration is increased when they run across unprofessional and discourteous drivers.

Still, there are lots of good drivers out there, working full-time to raise families, putting themselves at great risk to deal with the demanding public. These drivers provide a worthy service.

Drivers Al Deslaurier and Dave Buffet came to my office recently to discuss a proposal they are trying to float to city hall: They want to create a medallion system, which they say will give drivers a bit of security they now lack, both in terms of insurance and retirement.

Problem is, once you mention "taxi medallion," people immediately think of the rotten system in New York City; in that city, every taxi on the road must have a medallion, and the medallions are traded on the open market, for millions of dollars each. The medallions are not owned by drivers, but rather by very wealthy people---doctors, lawyers, bankers, who treat them as investment vehicles. Deslaurier and Buffet will be the first to tell you that system stinks.

Instead, what the pair have done is investigate various forms of taxi medallion systems across North America, and have looked at the academic literature and political contexts in various cities, to see what kind of system works best.

In their proposal for Halifax, medallions would only be given to licensed full-time drivers, of which there are about 1,000 currently. Those drivers could then sell the medallions, but only to other licensed full-time drivers.

Why create a medallion system? As it is now, drivers make so little money that they can't afford insurance, and when they get shot or stabbed (a driver was stabbed just last week), they're basically shit out of luck; they have no income.

Same thing with retirement---full-time drivers burn out, reducing their working time as they get in their '60s and '70s until they can't drive anymore, and have nothing besides a car worth a few thousand dollars, if they're lucky.

The medallion would give them something of value. It's hard to say what the market price of a medallion would be---Deslaurier and Buffet guess it'd be in the $100,000-$200,000 range. That isn't a whole lot---price it out over a 20-year retirement, and they're still struggling. But it's better than what they have now, which is nothing. The purchase price would be negotiated through an exchange, where a bank would step in to provide loans, because the medallions will have resale value as collateral.

The drivers also say that having the medallion will give them the ability to borrow off it to install safety shields and cameras, reducing their personal risk.

Moreover, the drivers insist this will result in better service, because more people will want to be true full-time drivers, as opposed to part-timers who don't treat the job as a career.

More accountability, better service, safer drivers with retirement and insurance bennies. It's hard to see the downside of this, and yet, Deslaurier and Buffet are getting no response from city hall at all---councillors are completely ignoring them. Steve Adams is the default go-to councillor on taxi matters, which the drivers say is a real problem because Adams refuses to hear their proposal. I called Adams up to discuss Deslaurier and Buffet's proposal, but he wasn't interested. "They can buy insurance and retirement just like any small business person," he says.

But drivers can't get insurance and retirement plans; driving a cab is materially different from having an established storefront that can be sold. The medallion system would provide the equivalent of that storefront, and would bring stability, safety and dignity to a lot of hard working, decent people.

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