New America Media, News Report, Aruna Lee
So what are bandit taxis? According to the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (DOT), the city operates nine licensed cab companies with roughly 2,300 taxis at any given time. In contrast, estimates put the number of bandit taxis—which operate without licenses and often cater to specific communities, with drivers speaking the language—at anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000.
A volunteer at a local Korean community center in Los Angeles, who declined to give his name, said he often uses bandit taxis due to the frustration he feels at not being able to communicate with licensed cabbies. “Even when I tell the driver my destination, most of the time they don’t understand what I’m saying.”
Korean parents, meanwhile, say they feel safer using bandit taxis to ferry their kids to and from school.
For others, particularly seniors, bandit taxis offer on-call mobility 24 hours a day. Soo Yang Kim says she often uses bandit cabs because she can get on her mobile phone any time and have a car at her door within minutes. The 60-year-old Orange County resident adds, “Korean seniors like myself who don’t speak a word of English prefer using bandit taxi cabs.”
Demand for these unlicensed cabs is so high, in fact, that local law enforcement officials says their numbers are continuing to grow despite the ongoing economic slump.
Sean Anderson with the DOT says a special task force has been set up in conjunction with the Los Angeles Police Department to crack down on unlicensed cabbies. He says the project has led to the arrest of about 1,200 bandit cab operators, with drivers fined up to $1,000 and their vehicles impounded for 30 days.
A spokesman with Bell Cab, one of the nine franchised taxi companies in Los Angeles, says that the loss of income to bandit cabs has had a tremendos financial impact on his company. Bandit cabs also “avoid the regulation requirements that licensed cabs have to pay, which can amount to $5,000 per cab,” he adds.
DOT's Anderson points out that Bell Cab has gone out of its way to hire Korean-speaking drivers to help ease the language barriers that contribute to the growing bandit cab industry.
Sung Hun Ku, a reporter with the Korea Times in Los Angeles, says authorities have begun to crack down on bandit cabs, with raids conducted three to four times a month in the city’s Koreatown. Police officers also patrol areas frequented by such taxis, including airports, or use elderly Koreans to call unlicensed drivers and wait for them to arrive before apprehending them.
Despite the crackdown, however, there are nearly 3,000 unlicensed cab drivers on the road every day. DOT statistics put the number of arrests of illegal drivers at 1,100 in 2007, 1,427 in 2008 and 1,144 in 2009. The number of impounded cars jumped from 388 in 2007 to 1,061 in 2009.
Rick Kim, who works at Angel Limo, one of the city’s licensed agencies, says most people working as bandit cabbies are either students who are ineligible to obtain work permits or people who’ve recently lost their jobs.
The Korea Times points out that bandit cabs are interwoven into the economic wellbeing of the community, with local Korean bars and restaurants dependent on these pick-up services to attract customers. The relationship is similar to that found in Korea, where private “pick-up drivers” have become one of that country’s largest private industries.
Despite the convenience of unlicensed cabs, Tom Drischler, who operates the website taxicabsla.org, warns people to exercise caution before stepping into a cab. “There is no restitution if you’re overcharged or receive poor service in a bandit taxi,” he notes.
Reports of mistreatment at the hands of drivers have also surfaced. One woman was apparently left standing in the middle of the night on an empty street after arguing with the driver over the fare. Others have complained about fares being raised after having agreed on a price, with drivers citing traffic conditions or being made to carry luggage. One elderly man told the Korea Times that his driver had threatened to “pull the money out of him” if he called the police.
Still, demand for bandit cabs continues to expand both within the Korean community and in other minority communities across the city.
“The same thing is happening in the Chinese community in L.A.,” notes Charles Ding, a reporter with Sing Tao Daily News in Los Angeles. “I’m often approached by Chinese-speaking drivers at the airport asking if I need a ride. Most of these drivers, though, rely on friends or neighbors for their businesses.”