First of three parts
This article was reported by the Globe Spotlight Team: reporters Bob Hohler, Marcella Bombardieri, and Jonathan Saltzman and editor Thomas Farragher. It was written by Farragher and Hohler.
In the belly of Boston’s biggest taxi garage, cabbies shuffle toward a scratched and grimy dispatcher’s window knowing the cost of doing business. If you want to drive, especially on a busy night, you often have to pay the man a little extra to get the keys.
One by one they troop to the window, and in an exchange witnessed repeatedly by a Globe reporter who was himself newly licensed to drive, pass along a bribe and are assigned a car for a 12-hour shift.
These payments, drivers said, commonly range from $5 to $20.
It’s a small-sounding sum unless you are a cabbie struggling to get by. Or until you do the math — hundreds of cabbies, thousands of shifts each year, adding up to hundreds of thousands in illegal tribute.
And it is just the beginning.
Cabbies are routinely forced to pay for gas from the company’s overpriced pumps for tanks they’ve already filled, and are squeezed to make up phantom shortfalls in the payments they make to the cab owner after every shift — shortfalls almost never documented with a receipt. They start each shift in the hole to the company and have to drive like, well, like Boston cabdrivers, hour after hour, to finish in the black.
In short, a nine-month Globe Spotlight Team investigation has found, the cab industry in Boston is a world of serial indignities that drivers, a largely immigrant workforce, endure while many cab owners walk off with huge and remarkably easy profits.
“They just do bribes left and right,’’ Nas Farah said of Boston Cab, the city’s biggest taxi company, for which he has driven since 2000. “That spot is not America, I’m telling you, man.’’
The city, which oversees the system, turns a blind eye to this climate of casual exploitation. Worse, city officials — in ways both subtle and obvious — enable it.
The greasing of palms in the basement of Boston Cab is a small snapshot of the corruption — petty and profound — that is marbled throughout the city’s taxicab business. It’s not every dispatcher in every garage, or every cab company, but the unseemly practices are widespread.
It is a picture instantly familiar to drivers, dozens of whom told the Globe of the payoffs and rip-offs they must put up with if they want to keep the keys and stay employed.
“It might be hard to get serious proof of this, but it’s commonly known that drivers are being illegally overcharged by [taxi] medallion owners,’’ said David Sandberg, an independent cab owner and operator.
Actually, the Globe found, serious proof is not that hard to obtain.
Just days after receiving his license to drive a city cab, a Spotlight Team reporter heard whispers of payoffs and then witnessed the bribes-for-keys scheme that is considered a common cost of daily commerce at Boston Cab, whose operator controls 372 — or 20 percent — of the city’s 1,825 taxi licenses, the city’s biggest fleet.
“This is like a Third World country,’’ one driver told the Globe reporter. “You need to give them money. That’s how they do business.’’
This profiteering surprises, at one level, because it seems so unnecessary: the cab business is almost effortlessly lucrative — for the owners. The owner of the largest fleet has plowed his many millions of dollars in profits into real estate such as Back Bay apartment buildings, parking garages near Fenway Park, and even Chilean vineyards.
All told, Boston cabbies last year opened their doors to nearly 14 million customers and rang up more than $250 million in fares. And those riders paid some of the highest rates among major US cities.
Medallions sold seven years ago for $325,000. Today, despite the remnants of a recession, these city taxi licenses are fetching as much as $625,000. If that appreciation continues unabated, every Boston taxicab would be worth $1 million by the end of this decade.
But the troubles in Boston’s one-sided, $1 billion taxi industry go well beyond the money, the Spotlight Team investigation found:
■ The system’s 6,200 drivers are regularly held to account for myriad regulations governing their professional conduct — from acceptable garb to limits on cellphone use — even to the point of losing their licenses and livelihood. But medallion owners are rarely taken to task, even for much more egregious violations. The city has never, in official memory, revoked a medallion.
■ Passengers in city cabs are put at direct financial risk because cab owners are allowed to buy the bare minimum bodily injury insurance — less than what 85 percent of motorists carry and not even half the coverage required of bike messengers. As a result, many passengers injured in cab accidents have had to struggle to win fair compensation for their injuries. The Legislature has repeatedly refused to address this insurance gap.Continued...