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Taxis vs ride-share: How one cabbie views the industry's transformation

Frances Nazarian has been an L.A. taxicab driver for over a decade. She says it's a challenge to compete with ride-sharing services, but only in upscale neighborhoods.
Frances Nazarian has been an L.A. taxicab driver for over a decade. She says it's a challenge to compete with ride-sharing services, but only in upscale neighborhoods.
Ben Bergman/KPCC

Imagine 60-hour workweeks, waking up at 3 a.m. to spend your whole day navigating Los Angeles traffic, hoping to make $150, tops.

That’s what Frances Nazarian does. She’s driven a cab in L.A. for over a decade. She needs the money to help put her youngest daughter through Princeton. But she says she has the best job in the world.

“I’ve had days when I think I’m on 'Candid Camera,' because everyone who gets my cab is going on an $80 or $100 dollar ride,” Nazarian says with a laugh.

RELATEDUpdate: California becomes first state to regulate ride-sharing

As she drives me down the 110 freeway  downtown in her yellow minivan, I get the sense Nazarian might be the most cheerful cabbie I’ve ever met.

But then I ask her what she thinks about ride-sharing services, which allow you to summon a vehicle with a tap of your smartphone.

“Obviously, I think they suck,” she said. “To me, they are really shady.”

Nazarian says in her house, "Uber" has become a four-letter word.

“My sister called, and she’s like, ‘Have you heard of Uber?’” Nazarian recalled. “I was like, ‘Your sister drives a taxi ,and you’re calling and saying how great Uber is? Could you just shut-up?' I was so pissed."

Unfair competition

Nazarian says business is slower since ride-sharing came to town, but that’s not what bothers her. It’s what she sees as the unfair competition.

The likes of Uber don’t have nearly as many regulatory hoops to jump through. Unlike taxis, they can raise their prices during peak times, and they can pick and choose which rides they accept and which neighborhoods to serve.

“I guarantee I could get on the Uber app right now and call from where we are right now, South Central, and not one Uber driver would take that call, or Lyft or Sidecar,” said Nazarian. “Basically, they want to work in the most affluent areas of town."

Uber has been advertising for drivers in LA, promising they can make up to $60,000 a year.

That’s twice what Nazarian averages.

Wouldn't switch

So would she ever consider switching over?

“Oh, no,” said Nazarian. “I’m so happy. I’m content with what I do.”

But the taxi industry isn’t so content.

Ridership has been declining all over the country — anywhere from 10 to 30 percent — in cities where services such as Uber have entered the market, according to anecdotal reports compiled by the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association, an international trade group for the industry.

Yellow Cab of Los Angeles – by far the city’s largest taxi company – has 15 percent fewer calls coming in, after four years of double-digit growth.

“Does that mean we’re in dire straits? Absolutely not,” said William Rouse, General Manager of Yellow Cab of Los Angeles who just ended his term as president of the Taxicab Association. “But it is a cause for concern. We watch trends just like everybody else.”

When Uber came to town last year, Rouse focused his attention on trying to convince regulators to ban ride-sharing… what he calls “bandit taxis.”

It didn’t work. California became the first state to regulate the services in September.

"We still believe they are unlicensed taxi cabs," said Rouse. "But the regulatory battle seems to not be going our way."

RELATEDLos Angeles City Council's vote to appeal ride-sharing regulations falls short

With few legal options left, Rouse has now turned his focus inward.

“We’re committed to problem solving and improving the product and then going out and marketing like we never have before to rebuild the business,” said Rouse.

A quarter of Yellow Cab’s calls now come from a sleek mobile app called Taxi Magic that looks suspiciously like Uber’s.

But not all drivers are allowed to pick up customers who use the app. First, they have to go through classes to improve customer service skills.

It seems to be a direct response to the perception that, get in a taxi and you’ll be met by a scowl, but ride Uber and the driver will ask what you want on the radio and hand you a chilled bottle of water.

As difficult as it is for him to admit, Rouse says ride-sharing is making taxis better.

“I’m not going to go and say that companies that come in and break the law have helped us,” said Rouse. “But at the same time it is a good thing for companies to peel back the onion, look at their product, and improve their product. So if that’s the byproduct of this whole thing I guess that’s a positive effect.”

So would Rouse ever ride Uber, even just to better know what he’s up against?

He says he came close when he was away on a business trip recently.

Then he decided he’d better stick with the taxi.