I realize that my long experience in the taxi industry may have made esoteric details seem obvious to me, so I thought I would share some inside secrets on how to properly order a cab.
Or, to sum up: If you’re not actually ready to get in the cab, and sufficiently interested in a taxi to bother paying attention for its arrival, don’t call a cab [yet].
I think some of this stems from taking service and retail personnel, in general, for granted. But I think some of it also stems from not understanding how taxi companies work, or thinking that you’re not hurting anyone, or only hurting some faceless company.
Imagine, for a moment, that, whatever your job, you only got paid for actually doing the work—any time standing around, or waiting for others, or waiting to use a piece of equipment, or other interruptions that might be routine in your job, were unpaid time. So, you might show up for work at 8, and leave at 5, but only get paid for 6 hours of work, because you spent 10min in the bathroom and 25min unable to do any other work while you waited for your turn at the copier, and 40min in your boss’s outer office because she was running late on a review meeting, and so on. That’s sort of what it’s like for a taxi driver—they only get paid while they’re driving someone somewhere. There is no minimum wage guarantee. In fact, in a lot of taxi companies, the drivers lease the cab, and can actually make a negative wage, if they’re unlucky.
So, every minute that a taxi driver isn’t actively engaged by a passenger—every minute that the meter isn’t running—they aren’t making money. So, don’t ask the driver to stop the meter—that’s just plain rude. That’s saying, “I’d like your service, but I don’t want to pay you for it.” If you don’t want to pay for it—at the posted rate—don’t ask for the service. But I think most people realize that, even if they’re willing to go against it.
What I suspect most people don’t realize is that it costs the cabbie money when you order a cab, and then don’t get in it, or don’t get in it quickly. They are spending time not making money while they wait for you, rather than possibly making money giving a ride to someone who is actually ready. And, depending on the particular cab company, just driving over to pick you up might have cost them a couple bucks. Not the taxi company—the individual driver. It’s all a part of doing business, but it’s predicated on you then getting in the taxi and paying for a ride somewhere. The same holds true to a lesser extent when you cancel after you order, but before the taxi gets there—it might already have cost some poor cabbie, who is already en route to your door. And, to emphasize, I don’t just mean the opportunity cost—it might very well have cost him actual money. As in, they now owe the taxi company a couple more dollars.
So think of it like ordering a pizza: you wouldn’t order a pizza and then, when the delivery driver showed up, tell them you’ve changed your mind. You wouldn’t order from two pizza places, and then only pay for the pizza that got there first, sending the other one away. There are very real costs—both opportunity and actual—every time a taxi is sent to you, and most of those costs are borne by the taxi driver personally, not by the taxi company. And assume that the taxi company is going to immediately get to work on your taxi when you call, unless they say otherwise. It is highly likely that there will be a taxi en route to pick you up within a minute or so after you hang up the phone. And in many cities, it’s very realistic that the taxi could be there, waiting for you, in less than 5min—or less than a minute. So don’t assume that, since it’s “only” been 10min, no harm in canceling, or no need to be watching yet. If you’ve hung up the phone, you should be ready and watching for your taxi.
While it’s best to not even order a taxi until you’re ready, we understand that things come up. The faster you call back to cancel, the better. You know how you hate waiting a long time for your taxi? Well, a lot of that delay is because the last person that driver picked up wasn’t actually ready, and the driver had to spend 10min—or more—waiting for them. Or, worse, spent time driving somewhere to pick someone up, only to discover they had changed their mind. Trust me, if you’re worried about a black mark, the cabbie is gonna remember someone who wasted his time and didn’t bother to cancel a lot longer than someone who cancelled, even at the last minute.
And this applies even if you’re at a bar or other busy place—don’t assume “someone will take the cab, so no harm done”. Because until the cabbie knows you don’t want the cab, they’ll turn down other fares, looking for you.
One final thought: you may assume that the cabbie will just start the meter if you’re not ready, so it all works out in the end. In most cases, they can’t and won’t until you have made contact. Partly this is politeness—despite all my admonitions above, we know that it can take a couple minutes to notice the cab, and don’t want to be jerks about it. And we wouldn’t want to charge you waiting time if it’s because you’re on crutches, and moving as quickly as you can. But largely this is because the driver doesn’t know for certain that you’re going to get in the cab. The cabbie is responsible for the total on the meter. And, to prevent fraud, there’s no way to roll back the meter. So, if the driver starts the meter without making contact with a passenger, and then no one ends up getting in the cab, they’re now out not only the opportunity cost of whatever else they might’ve been doing, plus any direct costs incurred in driving to your location, but also the amount showing on the meter. It’s just too big a gamble to start the meter before you’re sure that someone is actually planning to take the cab.
To give you an idea of the magnitude of the problem: In a typical night, probably half the fares I eventually get into the cab take 10+ minutes to make themselves known, and that’s time I have no way of charging for—I’m effectively engaged, but can’t start the meter. And I’d say fully a third of calls to pick up at a bar don’t result in anyone getting in the cab within 15min of arrival [in most cases, that means I go away empty]. And, in a lot of these cases, the entire front of the bar is a wall of glass.