How Come I Can Never Get A Cab In Boston?

Published February 16, 2011

Anyone who has stood outside a bar at 2 a.m., freezing cold, knows how hard it can be to find a taxi in Boston.

Man hailing taxicab

Taxi! (Andy Cross/Flickr)

At any given time, only 1,825 cabs are allowed to pick up fares. For a city of more than 600,000 people, that doesn’t seem like a lot of cabs.

According to at least one economist, it’s not. WBUR’s Adam Ragusea pointed me to a 2005 regression model of the number of cabs in major U.S. cities. In the abstract, author Bruce Schaller writes:

Licensing either too many or too few cabs can have serious deleterious effects on the availability and quality of service and the economic viability of the taxi business. Yet local officials often have difficulty quantifying the demand for taxi service or tracking changes in demand.

The model considers the number of no-car households, subway commuters and airport taxi trips and predicts that Boston’s cab supply is underserved by 73 to 128 percent.

So why not just allow more cabs to operate?

To operate a cab in Boston, you have to have a medallion — the square plate nailed to the back of the car. And you guessed it, there are 1,825 medallions in Boston. The government sets that number.

If you own a medallion, you’re rich. The last medallion that went up for auction sold for $400,000. Cab drivers lease medallions from the handful of bankers and investors who own the medallions. If you own one of those medallions, you don’t want more medallions in the market, because yours will be worth less. The city could flood the market with new medallions, but medallion owners could take the city to court and with a good case, at least as far as Adam’s reporting turned up.

People have suggested a regional taxi authority that would eliminate the patchwork of regulations throughout Greater Boston. “That will never in a million years happen,” said Universal Hub’s Adam Gaffin in our live chat earlier today. It’s a matter of “politicians not wanting to give up control over something. It’s 350 years of home rule,” he said.

My best advice: Leave the bar at 1:30.