Bill’s Taxi Tour

It was a cold March morning when I hopped into the yellow Union Cab for the “ride-along” I had arranged to get ideas for this column. I particularly wanted to hear opinions about our city from a variety of folks and also learn a bit about the cab business.

I discovered that you meet the most interesting people riding around Madison in a taxicab.

My driver was Peter Hollister, a retired banker and former owner/publisher of the Viroqua weekly newspaper. Pete started driving a cab about a year ago, mainly because he wanted to keep in touch with people. He says he also gets satisfaction assisting passengers for the social service accounts the company handles.

Pete’s shift was 5 a.m. to 1 p.m., so he’d been on the road three hours before he picked me up. The first riders of the day for me were an American Family company retiree and his wife, returning from a month visiting in Hawaii.

Despite their overnight plane trip and the weather shock, they were cordial and curious about Madison news. “Did they solve the murder?” they asked.

After dropping the couple at their downtown condo, we went to “The Pyle” — the post at Lake and Langdon. (While waiting for fares, drivers generally go to the nearest “post,” as cab stands are called by the dispatcher. The former Ivy Inn motel will live forever in cab lingo as a designated post.) Soon a call came in for a pickup that turned out to be a student from New York City heading for the airport and a trip to New Orleans. After dropping her at the airport, we discovered that the post there had about 15 cabs ahead of us, so Pete punched a button on the meter to let the dispatcher know we were available to bid on the next fare, if no other cab was waiting at a closer post.

We were directed back downtown to pick up a mental health client and take her to an activity center. That was an “account ride” paid for with a voucher and little chance of a tip. However, the passenger was treated with the same respect as any other rider.

Later, Pete told me that he thought having empathy and being a good listener were the most important characteristics for success as a cab driver, even more important than knowing your way around the city. Our fare at the time, a UW psych major on her way to the airport, chimed in to our conversation, asking a few questions of her own. “How do they test you for empathy?” and “What’s the longest trip you’ve had?”

In reply, Pete told her he had recently taken a student, who’d missed a bus, to the Milwaukee airport for about $200. Runs to O’Hare ($300) aren’t uncommon. The Dells, Stoughton, and even Monroe are relatively routine destinations for Madison cabs.

Union Cab drivers get 36 percent of the fare, plus tips, at entry level. Union Cab is a cooperative and each driver, after probation, buys at least one share for $25.

They then participate in co-op governance — Pete is on the finance committee — and are eligible for annual dividends.

I was surprised that the vehicles don’t have GPS displays, but the meter gives the driver text messages and general directions to an address. The dispatcher does use GPS technology to follow each cab on a screen. A secret code and a panic button are available to summon police, and will most likely also draw a fleet of other cabs that come to the aid of a fellow driver with a problem, according to Pete.

The conversations with passengers reminded me of something that I had forgotten from my student days years ago: UW students spend nearly all of their time in the campus area and are generally oblivious to the existence of the rest of Madison.

But then…that morning I saw a slice of Madison that was all new to me, too.