By Sarah Rosten
At 10:45 on a Monday night, Steve Martin pulls up to a curb in his taxi, looking over the leather passenger seat and through the window expectantly.
A customer slides into the front seat and Martin radios in her destination; this trip isn’t far. It is in the same section they are already in. He rolls away from the well-lit parking lot in front of the Walgreens Pharmacy next to Duluth Plaza shopping center and heads toward 18 Avenue East.
Since April 1, a new program has been in effect in Duluth. Duluth police and local taxicab companies came together and agreed on a new system that should create less work for both of them: making some customers prepay. From 10 pm to 6 am taxicab drivers can request customers to prepay for a ride, or prove they have the cash, if the drivers are worried a passenger does not intend to pay their fare.
“Sometimes it offends people, but sometimes people don’t pay,” said Jesse Stevens, a former taxicab driver and current manager at Custom Cabs in Duluth.
According to Stevens, many of Custom Cabs' drivers are relieved to be able to ask for payment. He said there were more than 100 reported run-offs last year alone.
“Drivers feel more comfortable [with the laws],” Stevens said.
Run-off customers force the taxicab drivers to choose between covering the lost fare themselves and filing a police report.
“A lot of us never even call,” Stevens said. “It’s not worth it.”
According to Jesse, most offenders who are caught face a fine and minor charges, but the taxicab company rarely gets reimbursed. In most cases, runaways are long gone before a cop shows up.
“I never ask [to be prepaid],” said Martin, a taxicab driver who has been working for Allied Taxi in Duluth for about two months.
The customer Martin is driving home on the slow Monday night doesn’t have a bill smaller than a twenty. Martin says it is the second large bill he has had to break that night and doesn’t have enough change in his profits, so he reaches into his pocket to break it with his own money.
Martin began driving taxicab 18 years ago, the first time he lived in Duluth, and has since lived and driven a taxicab in Arizona as well. He doesn’t consider himself an “experienced” taxicab driver in Duluth though since he has only been back for two months.
“Only people who ran off on me were UMD students, and that was almost 20 years ago,” Martin said. “A few people are a buck or two off, but most at least try to pay.”
Martin works the 10 pm to 10 am shift, mostly during the weekdays. He said the run offs he hears about from other taxicab drivers are generally college students or other young people on the way home from a house party or the bar.
“I think either way [the prepay program] is a good idea,” Martin said, laughing. “If I was in college, I’d be the first person to run away.”