Adventures in a Car-Free Dallas: Cabbies Find Ways to Survive in a Tough Business

For all the complaints about taxi service in Dallas -- drivers often refuse to take credit cards, they dislike short hauls and sometimes they're slow to arrive -- making a living driving a cab in Dallas can be an iffy proposition. For our look at living car-free in Dallas, Amy Silvertstein talked to current and former cabbies to learn just how challenging the work can be.

Talk to many Dallas cab drivers (or better yet, try to pay them with a credit card) and you'll find they're often angry, laboring under the control of Irving Holdings, the company behind Yellow Cab, Executive Cab, Golden Cab and other local taxi services, which controls an estimated 75 percent of the market.

Then there's Henry's Cab Service. Its driver is a cheerful local man who gladly accepts credit cards and tells passengers stories about the drunken drivers who chose not to take a cab and then killed people.

"You've got these people going to clubs, and you've got a parking lot full of cars," he says, frustrated, as he points to a club he passes on the road. "Now when these guys go to these clubs, do they drink? Sure they do."

You may have come across his website at some point while searching for local taxi companies. "Are you looking for an experienced cab driver who is easy to understand, knows his way around the city, and will never attempt to overcharge you?" the site asks. "We, here at Henry's Cab Service, are committed to showing you that not all cab companies are the same."

See also: Adventures in a Car-Fee Dallas: I Want My Damn Car Back Adventures in a Car-Fee Dallas: Which Transportation Alternative Is Right for You? Adventures in a Car-Free Dallas: You Can Take DART to the Airport, but Beware the Coyotes Adventures in a Car-Fee Dallas: Catching a Ride Where Cabbies Fear to Tread

What isn't immediately clear is that Henry's Cab Service isn't a full-fledged taxi-service. It's just Henry Pendarvis, a former delivery driver who now, like most Dallas cabbies, is another independent contractor for Yellow Cab.

To be more accurate, Pendarvis and all the other contractors are really just Yellow Cab's customers. The drivers pay the company $265 a week in stand fees to cover the cost of city permits. The drivers also buy or lease their cars from Yellow. And, according to a 2007 contract we found in a lawsuit, the drivers are responsible for the first $1,000 in insurance deductibles if they get in a crash. (Yellow Cab owner Jack Bewley has repeatedly ignored our questions about the current insurance policy.) Being a driver for Yellow Cab clearly doesn't come with cushy employment benefits.

Pendarvis, taking advantage of the independence this situation affords, has become the rare cabbie who likes his job. He's been working with a friend on finessing his website for the past four years. It gets hits because he's funneled money into online advertising, using services like Google Places, Google AdWords and more recently, Pendarvis' site sends callers directly to his own cell phone, allowing new customers to avoid the notoriously unreliable Yellow Cab dispatch line and instead connect directly with their friendly driver. Pendarvis says the company doesn't mind that he does this. "All they care is about getting their $265 a week, as far as stand fees, and they don't want to hear about you getting in trouble."

And he's managed to pull off what Yellow Cab as a whole can't. People like him. His business has a 4.8 rating on Google and a perfect 5-star score on Yelp. "My customers would rather wait on me than put up with somebody else," he says. He claims to be on-call 24 hours, though he usually likes to be home before 2 a.m. to avoid the drunks.

"This job is not that hard," he says. "You put the people in the car, you take them where they want to go, you collect the money and they walk away." Except, it really is pretty hard.

After 11 p.m. on a Friday, what's supposed to be a prime money-making period, Pendarvis cruised nearly two hours before he finally got a fare. It was below 40 degrees, so pedestrians were scarce. The few bars on McKinney and Henderson avenues that looked busy were already clogged with taxis and limos waiting out in front. His first fare of the night was a mile-and-a-half trip, a guy who claimed to be a big-time Apple shareholder but didn't leave a tip.

The next customer called his cell phone shortly afterward. Her pickup location was at a cheap apartment far away from the nightlife, near Presbyterian Hospital, and she needed a ride there. It was a short run, the kind cabbies dislike, but Pendarvis went for the unprofitable trip anyway.

"What amazes me about a driver is, everybody wants the good runs, but you gotta take the bad runs to get the good runs," he says.

When he arrived, a nervous woman entered the car holding a sick baby. The baby sneezed loudly.

"Bless you. Presbyterian, correct?"

"Yes sir."

"So how'd you find me, off of Google?" Pendarvis asked.

"Yeah, I just put in cab and you were the first one that came up."

Pendarvis laughed. "Got to love that."

Pendarvis declines to speak ill of Yellow Cab. Other current and former drivers are not as charitable.

Like Pendarvis, Berhane Alemayoh was also attracted to the freedom the job brought. With a sick wife at home, he wanted work that allowed him to set his own hours and leave on a whim. But he soon found that it wasn't a consistent way to make a living. The short rides cost him more than he could make. That's why drivers are reluctant to take people distances less than a mile, Alemayoh says. "If the guy is working 18 hours and not getting paid, what do you expect?"

Credit card payments cost him yet more money. Drivers who use Yellow Cab's credit card machines then have to trek back to the Yellow Cab office to get paid, and the company deducts 5 percent off for the transaction.

"If you're going to make us take credit cards, why do you charge us?" asks another driver. "It doesn't make sense."

When drivers are collecting their credit card payments from the Yellow Cab office, some complain they are greeted by rude cashiers who sometimes go further, deducting other fees and snipping at the tired, overworked drivers. Alemayoh says that waiting for his money once made him so angry he got in a fist fight with one of the cashiers over not wanting to hear a joke.

(Bewley responds that Alemayoh's vehicle was repossessed in 2004 with unpaid leases and defends the credit card policy: "This is an administrative fee and helps cover the cost of processing and the cost of the equipment." He says extra fees are deducted only if the driver owes the company money.)

Alemayoh has since moved on. Now he owns an independent limo company and acts as the lobbyist in City Hall for a group of small limo operators, many of whom used to drive for Yellow Cab. They credit Uber with helping bring in business to their new companies. "Before, I had to hire a marketing person to do it," Alemayoh says.

Pendarvis, meanwhile, has adopted a business model that closely resembles a one-man, lower-tech version of Uber, minus the fancy app. He tries to avoid headaches by not using Yellow Cab's credit card machines. Instead, he runs cards through the Square App on his iPhone, a popular application that other drivers have begun picking up on, too. Pendarvis acknowledges that Yellow "might get a little bit mad about that" but argues that it hurts the company far more when drivers flatly refuse to take cards and take customers to the ATM machines to get cash instead.

His income mainly comes from his repeat clients, whose names and addresses he saves in his phone. One of his favorites is a guy who commutes to Boston every weekend for work and needs regular rides to and from the airport.

"He has me spoiled, because he pays me well," Pendarvis says. "He talks about getting another job and I tell him to hush up."

Getting hooked up with an individual cabbie and calling him on his direct line is a common and perfectly legal practice, but it can result in messy legal situations. For two years, Diane Lambert would get rides from the same taxi driver, a woman she befriended named Debra Epps. Sometimes, they'd go gambling together and the rides were free, Epps later testified in a sworn deposition.

In 2011, Epps was taking Lambert on one of those casino trips when she crashed the cab. Lambert sued Epps and Yellow for medical expenses; they recently settled. (Epps didn't return phone messages.)

Meanwhile, the pro-Yellow Cab City Council members often defend the company by portraying it as a public utility that must serve all of the city equally, including poor areas. Bewley writes to us that Yellow Cab performs "20k to 30k dispatch trips on a monthly basis south of I-30 in Dallas County." But given the conditions of drivers, it's not clear why they would have any incentive to serve all of the city equally, or go anywhere that isn't a guaranteed pay day.

Alemayoh challenges customers to go to South Dallas, call for a cab and see what happens. "Chances are there aren't cars around South Dallas," he says. "If you call a cab, it's hit and miss. They might show, they might not be there."

We took him up on that challenge.

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Amy Martyn
Contact: Amy Martyn