AUSTIN -- An investigation by WFAA's sister station KVUE caught Austin cab drivers breaking the law by refusing to give customers rides.
From 2012 to 2013, city records show reports of taxi complaints increased 78 percent. Many of complaints involved taxi drivers refusing to pick up customers.
"I mean, if you’re just going a short distance, a lot of times I’ll just get left on the side of the street," said Dan Imken, who lives about two miles from downtown.
Over the past few months, viewers have emailed and called the KVUE Defenders to complain about cab drivers driving off from customers requesting a short ride, which typically means a small fare.
To find out what's happening, the KVUE Defenders went undercover and spent two nights downtown on West Sixth and Fifth Streets, requesting a ride to Rainey Street. It’s roughly a 1.5-mile drive.
While many cabs the Defenders hailed agreed to give a ride, it didn’t take long to catch a taxi refusing to give a lift.
On the first night, two cabs simply drove off as soon as the Defenders requested a ride to Rainey Street. The drivers offered no explanations. A third driver said he would only accept the Defenders as passengers if they paid at least a $10 fare.
At the end of the night, the Defenders witnessed a cab refuse to give an unidentified woman a ride who wanted a lift outside downtown.
"So basically he said, 'Where are you going?' and we told him, and he said, 'No, I’m not going to take you," she said.
KVUE has decided not to identify the cab drivers at this time.
On the second night, two cabs refused to provide the Defenders a ride within five minutes. They also witnessed another person, Alex Mathebet, trying to get a ride to North Austin for more than an hour.
He said he was denied multiple times.
"Three times, all on this street. Maybe they have a reason, I just don’t know what it is," said Mathebet.
The KVUE Defenders showed the video to Austin’s assistant transportation director Gordon Derr, in charge of regulating taxis.
"Under city code, that’s illegal," Derr said after viewing the video.
By city ordinance, there are a few reasons a taxi driver can refuse service. Fear for their safety and inability to pay are among those reasons.
Derr says he didn’t see that in the video captured by the Defenders.
"It certainly points out that we have more work to do with taxi drivers and the taxi franchises and the whole vehicle-for-hire community," said Derr.
The KVUE Defenders also took the video and the city’s concern to Austin Yellow Cab president Edward Kargbo.
"It is a very, very extreme concern for us," said Kargbo in reaction to the video.
Kargbo admitted it’s a big problem, not limited to his company, that needs to stop. He said Yellow Cab will take immediate action if it’s reported to them. That means potentially canceling contracts with drivers.
"So, if it’s one trip a night that’s not getting service for no good reason, we want to be able to enforce the ordinances to make sure that doesn’t happen," said Kargbo.
The city said it has conducted similar undercover operations to catch drive-offs, but admitted it needs to do a lot more. Both the city and the taxi companies want people to report drive-offs.
The best way to report taxi drive-offs is to get the taxi’s identification number painted on the vehicle so the city knows exactly which drivers are doing it the most. That ID number is typically printed on several sides of the vehicle (pictured above).
The city also suggests taking a picture or even video with your phone if you can.
If observed or verified, a taxi driver who refuses to transport someone could face a Class C misdemeanor. The actual fine would be determined by judge.
If you have a problem with a taxi in Austin, you can submit a complaint to the city by calling (512) 974-1551. You can also go here to submit an online complaint.
Local group ATX Safer Streets advocates for improved transportation options in Austin. If you'd like to give feedback on transportation options in Austin, go here for their survey.
Taxi permits by the numbers
Over the past three years, the number of taxi permits in Austin has remained the same.
- 2010: 669 permits
- 2011: 675 permits
- 2012: 756 permits
- 2013: 756 permits
- 2014: 756 permits