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Seeking the right to a smooth ride

A rattling roller coaster, loud pop music, a blast of unfamiliar smells. It's not a nauseating carnival ride, but the typical experience in a Boston taxi cab.

Fed up with the chronic problems of Boston cabs, members of the Boston City Council seized on a new strategy for improving the city's notorious fleet, proposing a "Taxicab Bill of Rights" that would be posted in all taxis to empower visitors and residents alike to demand better. Key elements of the Bill of Rights include:

A driver who knows and obeys all traffic laws; a clean trunk space and passenger area; a taxicab that is in safe working order; and a radio-free (silent) trip.

"Everyone has a bad story about what their worst cab ride was like," said Councilor Michael P. Ross, who is sponsoring the legislation. "These are some basic, fundamental courtesies that the average citizen should be entitled to."

Cabdrivers, meanwhile, are fighting back. They want a bill of rights of their own, one that addresses issues such as drunk students who vomit in cabs, rowdy passengers, or those who pile more than four people into the car. They also want the city to do more to block cabs from neighboring Cambridge, Somerville, and Malden from driving into Boston and raiding their passengers.

"The customer already has enough rights over the cab drivers," one cabdriver, Marckinson Charles, said yesterday during a City Council hearing, at which about a dozen taxi drivers wore lanyards inscribed with "Driving for Fairness." "When I'm treated badly by a customer, who do I report to?"

City Council president Maureen Feeney plans today to call for a hearing to look into a bill of rights for taxicab drivers.

Whether the competing lists of rights will promote better relations between cabbies and their fares, the two pieces of legislation would surely mean that the cabs, already crowded with literature about tolls and prices, will be pasted with dueling bills of rights, so that everyone knows their proper role.

Cab drivers in Boston have been the subject of scorn for years, driving with the music too loud, windows consistently down, and the heat and the air conditioning turned off. Legend has it that Ned Johnson, the Fidelity chairman, got so frustrated with taxi service in Boston that he founded his own company, The Boston Coach Co.

"Could we do better?" said Mark Cohen, director of licensing at the Boston Police Department's Hackney Division. "Yes, we can."

Cohen said that for the past two months they have been looking at requiring taxi drivers to have lights above the cab to tell potential passengers whether they are vacant or occupied.

Ross said his office for years has been inundated with complaints from constituents who say they had a bad experience with a cab driver, who took them on an indirect route to drive up the fare, refused to turn down the radio, or would not take them to a certain neighborhood.

Ross also said that several times he has been denied a cab ride because the driver did not think the distance was worth his while.

There are similar Bill of Rights requirements in several other cities, including New York, Washington, Chicago, and San Francisco.

"You are the first person people see when they come to the city of Boston," said Councilor Salvatore LaMattina, who is cosponsoring the legislation. "We need people to have a good experience."

Under the legislation, passengers could also request that the driver not talk on his cellphone while driving; tell the driver which route they want to take; and obtain a printed receipt for the cab ride.

Many of the requirements are not new, but are not posted inside the taxis, so passengers are more reluctant to assert their rights.

Passengers have "the right to a courteous, trained, professional driver familiar with the streets of Boston," it reads.

Toward the end of the hearing yesterday, a cabdriver sitting in the back of the room raised his hand to be heard.

"I have a suggestion," said the driver, Larry Meister. "How about, 'You have a right to treat the driver with respect'?"

Matt Viser can be reached at

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