St. Louis taxis

A driver pulls out of the taxi stand across from the Renaissance Grand Hotel in St. Louis. (File photo by Laurie Skrivan, lskrivan@post-dispatch.com)

Back in 2007, members of the St. Louis Metropolitan Taxicab Commission suspected the region had too many cabs after years of limited and fragmented oversight.

A report conducted by Ray Mundy, director of the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and published the following year confirmed that observation. It led to changes in the local taxi industry that included tightening the permit process, which dropped the number of cabs in the region to roughly 1,400 today from about 2,000.

A new report, also conducted by Mundy, sheds light on what has happened since then. And its results could mean the rules on permits that went in place as a result of his previous study could be relaxed because of improved customer service and greater demand.

In general, the 85-page report found that “perceived service levels” of taxi service in St. Louis and St. Louis County improved from OK to good over the last seven years.

“While users would like to see more peak time service, better vehicles, and improved handling of complaints, there was the general feeling that the services looked better, accepted credit cards without hassle, and, for the most part were improving,” the report said.

That improvement, the report said, appeared to be from the use of technology — including vastly improved dispatching technologies, mandated use of credit cards and the use of smartphone apps — and consolidation within the industry.

About 50,000 people use taxi apps in the St. Louis market, the report said.

“I wasn’t surprised by anything,” Mundy said of the report’s findings. “I could tell the cabs were getting better.”

In the 2008 report, the biggest complaints were promptness and complaint resolution. These days, they’re affordability and still, complaint resolution.

The average wait time has dropped from 15-20 minutes to 10-15 minutes now.

Another problem highlighted in the 2008 report was the availability of taxis in the evening. So the commission mandated that 10 percent of on-call taxis be allowed to work only between 7 p.m and 9 a.m.

Missouri lawmakers in 2003 set up the taxi commission to regulate service in St. Louis and St. Louis County after resounding complaints that cabs were old and dirty and that service was often “abusive and expensive,” the report said.

Hotel managers and airport officials were particularly vocal about the need to clean up the image of taxis and to provide better service.

The commission has increased the standards for taxi vehicles, drivers and services, according to the report. But a criticism of the commission has been its reluctance to approve new applicants for additional taxi firms.

The report encouraged allowing current taxi companies to grow and said new companies should be allowed if they have a minimum of 50 vehicles in service.

Lou Hamilton, chairman of the commission for the last decade, said Friday that oversupply of cabs was a big reason the commission had issued virtually no new cab permits in recent years.

He said that policy could be loosened, although not before the issue of “transportation network companies” such as Uber was resolved. Such companies could add thousands of cars to the St. Louis market.

The future of ride-hailing services here remains unknown after the commission put off voting on changes to its code at a meeting Wednesday in hopes of finding a compromise that will satisfy commissioners who say Uber’s safety checks don’t go far enough, while including provisions to accommodate Uber’s business model.

A meeting is expected to include representatives of Mayor Francis Slay and County Executive Steve Stenger, as well as the taxi commission, cab companies and Uber. Attempts to meet Friday fell apart because of scheduling conflicts, and another meeting date has not been set, Hamilton said.

He said that in these days of Twitter, it was easy to make criticisms online. He said the study, for which the commission paid $50,000, showed that area cabs had made significant strides.

“Without any doubt, the taxi industry and service in St. Louis is light years better than it was 10 years ago,” Hamilton said. “Ten years from now, it will be light years better than it is today.”