by Joey Garrison
Mohamud Suleiman, who is originally from Somalia, cleans a new Tenn-Cab model taxi in Nashville, Tenn., Monday, Jan. 28, 2013. (PHOTO BY JAE S. LEE / STAFF) Jae S. Lee / The Tennessean
Ahmed Omar and his fellow Somali cab-driver friends already have a company website, headquarters offices and vehicles painted red, white and blue that don the words, “TENN-CAB.”
The only thing they lack: authorization from city regulators to begin operating.
Six months after a Metro commission approved Nashville’s first-ever driver-owned taxi company – a group of Ethiopian-Americans that formed Volunteer Taxi – a coalition of dozens of Somalia-born drivers called TENN-CAB is looking to do the same. In doing so, they hope to free themselves from what some describe as a largely monopolized cab industry where drivers struggle to stay financially afloat.
“We are ready for business,” said the 36-year-old Omar, a driver for one of Nashville’s six existing taxi companies who has helped organize TENN-CAB. “All we want is to be given the permits so we can be on the move.”
Hundreds from Nashville’s oft-overlooked and culturally diverse taxi community will gather at the downtown courthouse Thursday to watch the Metro Transportation Licensing Commission divvy out 60 cab permits, which companies must obtain to accept passengers. Five of the existing companies, along with TENN-CAB and three other proposed start-ups, are fighting for a piece of the allotment.
For drivers, stakes are high. Jobs are at stake.
In August, the commission approved the allocation of 60 permits – which increased a long-standing previous cap of 585 cabs in Nashville to 645 – with the understanding that it would approve an additional 60 in January. The idea, supported by a Metro-commissioned study, is to add to the city’s fleet of taxis in advance of the May opening of Music City Center, which is expected to bring in more visitors who need taxi service.
Somali members of TENN-CAB, many whom immigrated here in the early 1990s, paint a picture of Nashville’s taxi scene that mirrors the accounts of Volunteer Taxi drivers.
Omar, a father of five who has driven cabs here for a decade, said workdays often add up to 18 hours to cover what drivers call “licks,” $150 - $200 weekly fees they must pay to companies regardless of the level of business they generate. Drivers lack access to health insurance, he said. Unionizing isn’t an option.
The commission denied TENN-CAB’s attempt to gain permits in August after the company applied late in the process. This time, armed with letters of support from several Metro Council members and the council’s Minority Caucus, the coalition hopes for a different fate.
“Owning our own company would be the ultimate in success for us,” Omar said, arguing drivers would be able to pay lower fees, work less hours and feel a greater sense of pride.
Yet after opening this fall, the Ethiopian immigrant-led Volunteer Taxi has discovered new financial burdens as owners, too.
“So far, so good,” Volunteer Taxi president Delelegn “Del” Ambaw said. “We’ve been doing alright. But overhead is killing us,” referring to the upkeep of the cars and maintaining employees.
Volunteer Taxi, which boasts 30 vehicles, is among the companies applying for additional permits. But as driver-owned companies, it still shares a bond with TENN-CAB. “If we don’t get the permits, I hope they get it,” Ambaw said.
Billy Fields, interim director of the city’s transportation licensing commission, said the feedback on Volunteer Taxi has been positive, not negative. “People have been very impressed with them,” he said. “Their appearance and operations have received compliments from folks that have contacted the office.”
He said working conditions for drivers – like those described by TENN-CAB -- are “outside what we look at” when considering permits. He called it a matter for the private business to handle.
Not all cab companies are thrilled about the prospects of an additional 60 permits.
Doug Trimble, president of Yellow Cab, the lone Nashville taxi company not seeking more permits, said additional cabs would stretch business thin among the companies. “We’ve got enough cabs in Davidson County to handle the population,” he said, even with the opening of the convention center.
Though none of the TENN-CAB drivers are employed with his company, he took issue with claims made by immigrant drivers. “My response to that is, hogwash,” Trimble said. He said drivers who “pass on this information to the media” fail to reveal that they’re supporting family members overseas as well.
Immigrant advocates, on the other hand, say TENN-CAB driver are simply pursuing the “American Dream.”
“That is what drives them,” said Mohamed Hassan, an immigrant organizer who has helped TENN-CAB’s efforts. “Being independent – pursuing that, and being a part of the market and competing.”
Joey Garrison can be reached at (615) 259-8236 [email protected]. Follow him on twitter at @joeygarrison.