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Downtown View: Customer Service

Have you been in a taxi this summer? In some cabs, you might have noticed the lack of air conditioning. Not that it was so good in any other summer, but with the window closed in the safety partition between the driver and the back seat passenger, you’ll be panting before you reach your destination.

It’s enough to make one walk.

You might remember why the window is closed. In March, a taxi driver was stabbed, so cab drivers were ordered to close the window.

That was fine in March. In the 90 degrees of July and August it is unbearable for the passengers.

Not every cab has problems. Some Toyota Camrys have air conditioning fans embedded in the back of the front seat. But not all of them do. And the Fords are hopeless. Not only are they less comfortable to get in and out of than the Toyotas, but you’ll swelter once you’re in.

What can be done, I intended to ask Mark Cohen, the articulate director of the Boston Police’s Hackney Carriage Unit, which deals with taxicabs. But journalists can no longer talk to Mark, I was told. Instead, a police officer spokesman said there had been some complaints about the lack of air conditioning and they were “looking into it.” That sounded to me like he was admitting that nothing was being done.

The spokesman also said the police receive more complaints about cab drivers who don’t want to turn on the air conditioning at all, rather than the partition that prevents the cool air from getting to the back seat.

Since the police weren’t much help, I decided to go directly to the cab drivers. This was a bit difficult since with the window closed it was hard to hear what they had to say.

Not that the taxi drivers could be believed anymore than the spokesman could. One taxi driver told me that all of Boston Cab’s vehicles are Toyotas so they don’t have the problem. Another taxi driver told me that drivers are now allowed to open the window during the daytime, but other cab drivers said they hadn’t heard that.

One driver said the drivers objected in March to closing the windows, since it cost each driver $25 to have a garage install the bolt that kept the windows open just a couple of inches. And maybe all of these statements are true.

After a few days of intense journalistic scrutiny, I was under the impression that most—but not all—of the drivers were opening the window in the partition. But without the fans embedded in the seat, cooling the passenger was difficult even while the driver was frosty.

Now, I’ll have to say that Boston taxis have improved immeasurably since the days when we’d land at Logan with our two little girls and the drivers headed fast for us, predicting that we were headed to Lexington and that a hefty fare was in the offing.

Instead when we got into the usually filthy cab and told the driver we were going to downtown Boston, we’d have to suffer cursing and a careening ride as he worked off his anger.

This past week, however, in all my taxi investigations, things were better in many ways. All but one driver knew where we were going. Except for that one, all were polite and pleasant and drove the cab for the comfort of the passenger.

While the drivers were good, the cabs still were not. They were cleaner than in years past. But nowhere was there a sign telling you the number of the cab you were in. Presumably you could find it on the annoying “Verifone Digital Network” that taxis were able to fix into the back of the seat. But in most of the cabs I was in, the network wasn’t working.

Comfort has improved in the back seat in the last 20 years due to the Toyotas, but Boston’s back seats are a big disappointment to anyone who has ever been in London, where getting in and out of the cabs is one of life’s little pleasures. Actually those cabs have many pleasures, including a way to shut off back seat conversations from the driver, and an always polite and professional driver who has studied hard and has “The Knowledge” to get you anywhere in greater London you need to go.

We’re not even up there on a par with New York City, where cabs spell out the passengers’ bill of rights. Instead in Boston, there is a sign: “A tip is appreciated.”

The quality of life has improved in Boston in many ways over the years. The streets are now cleaner due to towing cars parked in the way of the street cleaners. There is less doggy do on the sidewalks than there used to be, even though there are more dogs. Even the T, despite all its funding problems, works better and is more pleasant to ride.

So maybe at some point the taxis will catch up.

Downtown View is a regular column by Karen Cord Taylor who founded The Beacon Hill Times weekly newspaper in 1995 and served as its editor and publisher until late 2007. She also founded and served as editor and publisher of the Charlestown Patriot-Bridge and The Back Bay Sun weeklies. Her column appears in those newspapers as well as the Regional Review, which serves Boston’s North End. These weeklies are now owned by the Independent Newspaper Group. She is the author of “Blue Laws, Brahmins and Breakdown Lanes: An Alphabetic Guide to Boston and Bostonians” and the co-author of “The Lady Architects,” a book about three women who practiced architecture in New England and elsewhere in the early 20th century. She lives in downtown Boston and blogs at BostonColumn.com.

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One Reply to “Downtown View: Customer Service

  1. Why are you complaining to the taxi driver? Why not call the people who make the rules? The city of Boston police hackney carriage unit ordered this. Bitch to them.

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