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Time to Change How Austin Allocates Taxi Permits?

The cab queue at Austin Bergstrom International Airport.
Photo by I-Hwa Cheng for KUT News
The cab queue at Austin Bergstrom International Airport.

How should the city decide how many taxi permits to issue?

Believe it or not, Austin actually has a formula. And it’s not terribly arcane either, like the number of UT home games multiplied by number of South by Southwest venues divided by new Eastside dive bars.

Instead, there’s a longstanding equation, last revisited nearly a decade ago, that the city uses to assess how many cabs it should have on the streets. But that equation may change beginning this week.

As laid out in the city charter, the Ground Transportation Department sets the number of permits by multiplying the previous year’s number “by the average of the percent of annual change in: (1) the population of the City; and (2) the number of taxicab departures from Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.”

“We revised the formula in 2003 to acknowledge that a huge portion of taxi cab trips comes from the airport,” says Leah Fillion, public information officer with the Transportation Dept. Yellow Cab dominates the Austin market with 455 permits. Austin Cab has 162, and Lone Star has 58.

At its meeting this Thursday, the Austin City Council is posted to issue 45 new cab permits on third and final reading: 30 for Lone Star Cab Company, and 15 for Austin Cab. However, the language on each item also calls to “discuss the annual calculation of necessary franchise permits, also known as the ‘formula.’” Fillion notes that when the council approved the new permits on second reading, members voiced their desire to revisit the formula more broadly.

So what other factors may the council take into account? An outside study from last year may point the way. Transportation consultant Ray Mundy argued for more flexible permitting. As KUT News previously reported, “Mundy writes that the city needs to provide an extra 100 taxi permits that can only be used in peak demand times: Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights from 7pm to 3am during the calendar school year and SXSW, ACL, Halloween, New Years Eve, UT Football home games and the upcoming F1 Race weeks.”

City Council recently approved a peak hour surcharge for evening and late-night trips, in hopes the small fare increase would incentivize more drivers to work when needed most. But with recently concluded South by Southwest straining Austin’s streets and cab capacity, it looks like the city is considering additional measures.

Wells has been a part of KUT News since 2012, when he was hired as the station's first online reporter. He's currently the social media host and producer for Texas Standard, KUT's flagship news program. In between those gigs, he served as online editor for KUT, covering news in Austin, Central Texas and beyond.
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