Friday, September 2, 2016

The Perpetual Quest for Decent Fares

Most taxi fares are short trips. The taxi company's meter started at $2.95; some people's fares only got up to $3.20. The minimum for an insurance-paid trip was $6. It’s hard to make money with a bunch of $6 fares.

Every taxi driver has a strategy for getting large fares. Some drivers will spend hours in certain areas hoping for a 30-mile trip from a resort to the airport. Some will stick to the areas where they’ve gotten lucky before. There are good fares everywhere, so I went to the areas my passengers took me and listened to my intuition.

A friend of mine recently pulled up to a random house in the east valley. The passenger started to bring her bags out. He asked for her destination, so he'd be ready to depart. She was going to Snowflake. My friend was floored: “you know that’s a $300-400 trip, right?” The passenger had been quoted a price by the dispatcher, so she knew what to expect. My friend couldn’t take her because he would have been 2 hours late getting the cab to the night driver. But he transferred the passenger to his friend, who appreciated having a nearly $400 fare.

In my 3.5 years of driving, the best fare I ever had was a trade. It was a relatively short trip. I made out like an bandit.

An excellent end to a pretty-good shift

The shift started on Monday evening. There were 12 passengers before I took a break around 3am. Then I caught three airport runs in a row. Airport runs are desirable fares because they’re usually a bit longer than the short trips that make up the bulk of taxi traffic. Furthermore, people who are going to the airport almost always have money to pay their fare.

I was a little jazzed about having 3 good trips in a row. The sun was coming up as I left the airport. I headed west to turn the cab over to the day driver. As I approached downtown Phoenix on I-10, I kept my eye on the cab computer’s open fare screen. I noticed a fare in the zone just ahead of me.

The problem with taking “one more fare” at the end of your shift is that they might be going in the wrong direction, or might take a really long time, thereby making you late to return the cab. I didn’t have enough time for a long trip, but it was reasonable to think that this one would be relatively short.

I asked for the fare, and learned that “Mr. Smith” was waiting at the McDonald’s at 7th St & McDowell. No phone number was provided. I pulled into the parking lot, and soon saw a gray-haired African-American man looking at me waving his arms, like ‘here I am, here I am!’

I rolled down the window and the man said “I’m going to the Greyhound station.” I knew it was a short distance away, quite close to the airport.

Then he said something that didn’t make sense: “… and my bags are in the trunk of my car here.”

His car was a late-90’s Honda Civic, and seemed like a perfectly functional mode of transportation. I said to myself, ‘Why are you leaving your car in the McDonald’s parking lot? It won’t be here when you get back…

The man had had a rough night in the parking lot. There was lots of foot traffic, drug deals, etc. Then he said, “this thing is overheating, it cost me $300 to tow it off the freeway…” He sounded rather irritated.

‘Oh, it’s overheating. I wonder what you’re going to do with it…’

“I talked to my son, he said, ‘Dad, just get to the Greyhound station, just get to the Greyhound station.’”

I helped the passenger load his bags into the back of the taxi. Then my passenger opened the driver’s door of his car and says “I’m ditching this thing” as he throws his key on the seat. “It’s no good to me.” He then closed the door on his newly abandoned vehicle.


Proposing A Trade

“How about this, sir,” as I open the door, “I’m going to take this key… and I will give you a FREE ride to the Greyhound station.” It was a short trip, and I'd much rather have the passenger's abandoned car than $12 from someone who needed to conserve every dollar he had.

google maps route from McDonald's to the Greyhound Bus station
The route taken from McDonald's to Phoenix's Greyhound Bus Terminal (link)
At that moment the passenger’s coffee tipped over on the pavement. I said, “AND I will buy you a new coffee.” This let him know I was entirely serious about giving him a free ride.

Thenceforth my passenger started to have a much better day. He got in the cab, and we went to the drive through. He asked for a senior coffee, “with 3 Splendas”. This cost me about $1.

My passenger told me that he was diabetic, and was a bit hard of hearing. He’d also had a stroke, somewhat recently.

I always tried to find out how people found their way to the desert. This passenger was on a road trip from Salinas, California, which is known for its vegetable farms. He also said there’s a lot of gang violence - that the black gangs and the mexican gangs don’t get along very well.

He’d been having a stressful trip. His free taxi ride to the Greyhound station was the first good thing to have happened to him in quite a while.

Then he told me that I could get the title to his car. It was in his (estranged?) wife’s name. He said the car ran well, it was just overheating. It was clear that he’d cut his emotional ties to it already.  I'd figured that if a towing company could get titles to people's abandoned cars, so could I.

We arrived at the bus station and unloaded the passengers’ bags. The passenger set his coffee down next to a pillar. Before long the coffee tipped over again. I told my diabetic passenger, "Maybe God doesn't think you should be using Splenda,” and told him that sugar in fruit juice is perfectly acceptable, even for ‘diabetics’ like him. (Scientists in Australia just confirmed that splenda/sucralose is a diabetic trojan horse.)

When I departed from the bus station, I raced back to the McDonald’s in the cab. My new Civic started right up. I moved it to a different parking space at the edge of the lot. Then I got back in the cab to return it to the day driver.

1998 Honda Civic photo
The Trade
My father was in Phoenix that weekend. “Hey dad, check this out!” He rented a trailer and towed the car to his house, 100 miles away.

The passenger’s trip was 3.7 miles. The car is worth at least $1500, even after our expenses. For a 3.7 mile trip, that’s about $400/mile.

Applying for an abandoned vehicle title

A few mornings later I went to get in line at a DMV office. They had two forms for applying for an ‘Abandoned Vehicle title’: one for individuals and one for businesses. Some weeks later I went to the Department of Motor Vehicles’ Abandoned Vehicle office, told the employee my little story, and asked about abandoned vehicle titles.  She asked, “do you have the key?”. I thought for a moment, then said that I did. She said, “then it’s not abandoned. You need a bonded title…”

But the form didn’t say anything about keys, so I figured it’d be fine for my dad to apply for an abandoned vehicle title. (I couldn’t apply, as I don’t have any property for a vehicle to be abandoned on.)

I bought a solar panel to keep the battery charged and started the car regularly. It never overheated while idling in the driveway.

A letter arrived from the DMV about 45 days after applying for the abandoned vehicle title. It said I had to use the other form, and that a box was not properly checked. I filed the correct form. After another 10 months a letter authorizing title transfer arrived.

I got insurance, and started driving my 'new' car around town, while keeping an eye on the temperature gauge. When I arrived home the other night, I heard steam whistling from the radiator. This was curious, as the temperature gauge on the dashboard indicated the engine’s temperature was fine.

Internet mechanics said that overheating usually indicates problems with the water pump, thermostat, fan, or radiator cap. One way to diagnose the problem is to take the cap off, start the engine, watch for the flow of fluid through the radiator, and feel the hoses to see if they heat up.

I took the cap off, and noticed that there was a little metal ring in the neck of the radiator. ‘Hmm’. As the engine warmed, the coolant started to flow and both of the hoses heated up.

When I poked at the radiator cap, the rubber o-ring fell off. I figured that the overheating was certainly caused by a failed radiator cap…

old civic radiator cap
The failed radiator cap


For the past year and a half, while waiting for the title to arrive, I’ve been a little conflicted about my Best Fare Ever. There’s no joy for me in trading a $12 taxi ride for a financially-strapped diabetic stroke victim’s $1700 car. But it would cost me hundreds of dollars to return the car to the passenger. I’ve already given the title to my father, who’s always helped keep me in a car. He prefers to drive cars that are fully-depreciated (though he says the Civic is a little low to the ground).

I've decided I have no choice but to keep it.

My passenger must be halfway-mechanical. The belts and hoses are basically new, and all the little scratches have been painted with primer (to prevent rust). When I was first going through the car I found a new thermostat, gasket and gasket sealant. He apparently thought that his overheating problem was caused by this part. Replacing the thermostat is a relatively simple job, but he just couldn’t do this in the McDonald’s parking lot.

honda civic thermostat & gasket, found in the car
thermostat and gasket found in the car
The radiator cap should be the first thing to check when investigating the cause of overheating. That this mechanically-inclined person didn’t think to check the cheapest thing to fix is curious.

Perhaps he needed to end his road trip immediately. Or maybe he just needed to give up his keys, because of the stroke he’d suffered. A lot of times older people don’t realize that they aren’t safe on the road anymore.

If that was the case, it was certainly better for that passenger to abandon his car into my custody, than to wreck it himself.

Maybe I’ll send him $300. That’d be fair.

[Update 9/22/2015: I replaced the plugs & wires, and had been driving it around town. The fuel economy for the first tank was rather poor and the check engine light came on. Then it just died on a short trip around town. We used a tow strap to get it home. There was no spark, and we decided it was probably the ignition coil or the igniter. There were metal filings on the magnet, fwiw. I found a slightly-used aftermarket distributor on Ebay for $65+shipping... Ordered, installed, and the civic started right up.

Aftermarket Distributor for 90's Honda Civic
It sure would have been a problem for my diabetic passenger, if he'd gotten stranded on the side of the road...]

The Setup: An App fare and 3 Airport Runs

One of the things that always fascinated me was how one fare leads into the next. Being in the right place at the right time is very important for anyone who's working on anything.

The evening’s first dozen fares weren’t very special. At around 2am I got an App fare to 7th Ave an Indian School.

3am is a slow time for fares, so I took a break, and bought some snacks at the nearby 24-hour grocery store. On returning to the cab I announced my availability with the cab’s computer, waited in the parking lot for a bit, then puttered east on Indian School Rd. A quarter mile later I was offered a fare at 277 yards. I accepted, and learned the passenger was at the nearby hotel. I was there within two minutes, well before the passenger was ready to go. He was a Coast Guard veteran who’d come for an event marking the 1-year anniversary of the Phoenix VA Hospital scandal.

My next passenger was in downtown Phoenix. Her trip was rather short, as far as airport runs go. She doesn’t like taking our competitor’s cabs home from the airport when she returns. She told me how her last driver going home from the airport was a very, very angry man. As the trip progressed she wondered about not tipping him. She weighed the pros & cons of tipping that driver. Pro: self-preservation. Con: rewarding poor manners. When they got to her destination, the angry taxi driver threw her suitcase. This made up her mind: ‘no tip for you.’ That made him even angrier…

Next I went north on SR-51. It was getting towards the end of my shift, but I was hoping for another decent fare. Sometimes I’d park in just the right spot to catch something in the last hour of my shift. Sometimes I’d wait but wouldn’t be offered anything.

This morning I hit a little jackpot: a 14 mile mostly-freeway airport run, from the general vicinity of the Paradise Valley Mall. That fellow was flying to San Diego for his grandfather-in-law’s funeral. The newly deceased was 105, and was bedridden for most of the last year before he finally kicked the bucket. My notes say that I suggested the passenger drive a cab a few days a week, ‘for fun’.

1 comment:

  1. A good deal. Sometimes it cost less to fix up an old car than buy a new one. As a disabled man myself, I can't drive anymore so I let my son use my car. He is learning how to fix cars up to save money.