In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Cabs? Time to hail a doctor

Why stop with taxicabs?

If the Miami-Dade County Commission figures it has done such a bang-up job regulating taxis and limos, why not intervene in other commercial ventures?

Imagine if, say, the commissioners decided to issue only 2,121 “medallions” for family physicians. Patients could experience the same famous amenities enjoyed by unwitting tourists who catch cabs at Miami International Airport:

Examining rooms would exude a certain malodorous amalgamation of perspiration, stale beer, vomit, and perhaps a touch of amour.

Just as taxicab drivers resist modern gadgetry like GPS navigation, the county’s doctors could refuse to shell out money for devices like magnetic resonance imaging or computed tomography. They’ll just guess at the whereabouts of that pesky tumor.

Instead of Muzak, the doctor’s musty office would resonate with angry, raving voices on AM talk radio, in a language patients are not likely to comprehend.

The physicians would accept only cash, of course, given that credit cards and insurance would be inconvenient and possibly cut down on their tips.

Docs, emulating Miami-Dade cabbies who famously refuse to make short hauls, wouldn’t bother with unprofitable procedures. No more flu shots.

But before Miami-Dade commissioners get around to meddling in the medical industry, they’ll meet Wednesday to consider what needs fixing in the county’s insanely regulated taxicab and limo industry.

The Miami Herald’s Patricia Mazzei reported there’s some chance that the commissioners might require cabbies to accept credit cards (something New York cabbies have been taking since 2007) install GPS navigation and SunPasses. Maybe even security cameras. None of this happens unless a commission majority stands up to hell-raising cab drivers and wheedling taxi company lobbyists.

No one’s very optimistic that the county’s taxi industry might be forced to enter the 21st Century. That notion took a beating last fall when commissioners veered off from talk about deregulating the taxi industry and initiated a serious discussion about the merits of adopting used Ford Crown Victorias, even discarded police cruisers, for use as Miami-Dade taxicabs.

Ford stopped manufacturing Crown Vics back in 2011. Ancient Crown Vics, with “check engine” lights permanently illuminated, make a peculiar first impression for a community that wants to convince visitors they’ve just entered a modern, hip, shiny, high-tech metropolis.

Apparently Crown Vic advocates have more clout than, say, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who, in a mighty bit of understatement, complained that taxi customers are “suffering and not getting the kind of services they deserve.”

Airport Director Emilio González has begged commissioners to fix the taxi mess, warning that the escalating number of complaints have him worried that dirty cabs and lousy service and the refusal to accept credit cards are sabotaging tourism.

But the county’s taxicab regulations weren’t designed to accommodate the needs and wants of passengers. Rather they’re an antiquated, anti-competitive rebuke to faith in market forces. The arbitrary limit on the number of cabbies allowed to operate in the county has wildly inflated the value of individual medallions. Mazzei reported that the market price for a single medallion is about $340,000. Most of those get snatched up by investors. Only 28 percent of the medallions are owned by actual drivers.

Big-money folks and their lobbyists have the clout to maintain the status quo, even if the status quo, quite literally, stinks. They’ve apparently convinced a majority of the commissioners that the county has some peculiar obligation to protect the inflated value of those medallions.

And taxi drivers have a bit of clout themselves. Angered by possible requirements to accept credit cards or install GPS devices, they showed up at County Hall in September to demonstrate against reform, waving protest signs, like, “COMMISSIONERS STOP MAKING CAB DRIVERS SUFFER.”

Suffering passengers, many of them out-of-towners, don’t seem to matter, although County Commissioner Audrey Edmonson has led a Quixotic effort to push through reforms.

Edmonson, apparently uncowed by futility, has also attempted to deregulate the county’s stifled limousine industry. The county now limits the number of limos to 626, sets fares that are substantially higher than taxicab rates and requires limo passengers to arrange their rides an hour or more in advance. None of these regulations do a thing to help consumers.

Miami-Dade has also rejected Uber, the company that uses smart phone apps to connect riders with independent drivers. The company operates in 31 American cities and another 25 nations around the globe. Guangzhou, China, allows Uber. Hyderabad, India, allows Uber. Cali, Colombia, allows Uber. Jacksonville, Tucson, Baltimore, Providence, Nashville all allow Uber. Not Miami.

Instead, Miami-Dade remains oblivious to that 21st Century high-tech stuff, happily ensconced in the rank back seat of a slightly smelly, bright yellow 2001 Crown Vic, taking a very long, very circuitous, very expensive route to Miami Beach.

Hey, Mac. No damn credit cards. Cash only. What? You think you’re in New York or Chicago or San Francisco or Dallas or Charlotte or Denver or Oklahoma City? Nope. You’re back in the 20th Century. Welcome to Miami-Dade County.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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