A Green Cab driver asked for prepayment — which the company says only happens about five percent of the time — and then refused service to a Black teen in Madison Friday, prompting accusations of racism from the teen, while Green Cab management defended the driver by pointing out an increasing incidence of people skipping out on fares.
The teen, who Madison365 has chosen not to identify because he’s a minor, said he was at his girlfriend’s house and booked a ride home online at around 10:30 pm Friday night. The driver called to let the teen know he’d arrived and the teen then went to get into the cab. The teen said the driver did not mention requiring prepayment on the phone.
“I came out, got in and then he just started acting funny as soon as I got in,” the teen said in an interview Saturday. “He decided he couldn’t take me. He asked me how old I was and he tried to get me to prepay him and that’s when it became an issue, because I was like, ‘I don’t have to prepay, I can pay after.’”
The teen says the driver then called his dispatcher.
“I’m pretty sure they told him I didn’t have to prepay, because he told them to just send me another cab and that he wanted me out of his cab,” the teen said.
Soon thereafter, the teen began recording video on his phone. In the video, the driver can be heard saying that it has nothing to do with race, because his best friend is Black. The driver also says, in the video, that he doesn’t know whether the teen looks like someone who had skipped on a fare before, but that someone from that address had.
When the teen asked why he would even come to an address where he knows someone had skipped a fare before, the driver says he didn’t remember the address but recognized the house.
“But then in the car he told me he couldn’t even see the house,” the teen said.
“You’re lucky I don’t go off on you,” the teen says in the video, which the driver says he took as a threat. The driver then says he will call police if the teen does not get out of the cab.
“I don’t know why he took it as a physical threat, because when he said, ‘Get out of my car before I call the police,’ I opened the car door and got out,” the teen said. “I didn’t mean it as a threat. I was gonna cuss him out because he was being racist and I don’t like that, but I (decided) I’m not even gonna cuss him out, because that will make me look worse.”
The teen said he then attempted twice more to book a cab from the same company, but none came. Two hours later, he called his mother who arranged for a Lyft.
“I scheduled it online and I gave them the same number. I gave them a different house that was just up the street, and they still didn’t come. I did it twice,” he said.
“I was feeling bad, because it was my last night in Wisconsin. I’m moving to Atlanta (Saturday),” he said. “And I never had issues with race here.”
The co-owners of Green Cab said they did not have records of the teen’s later attempts to book another cab online. On Saturday, co-owner Jodi Schmidt said she would review video from the security cameras that are required to be running in every cab, but Monday said the cameras in that cab happened to not be working Friday night. She said Green Cab technicians would be working to recover the video, if possible.
In interviews Saturday and Monday, Green Cab’s owners said it wasn’t about race.
On Monday, Jodi Schmidt said she had spoken with the driver, who told her that the teen looked like someone who had run on a fare before, despite saying to the teen that he didn’t know whether the teen looked like anyone who’d run before. The owners said they didn’t know the driver’s full name, but were able to speak to him and give him the opportunity to contact Madison365. He has not done so as of Monday afternoon.
Schmidt said there are several situations in which cab drivers are allowed by City ordinance to ask for prepayment.
She said that city ordinance allows drivers to ask for prepayment “if there is a reasonable suspicion that the rider has an unwillingness to pay, or has a history of dodged fares. The drivers do ask anybody if they have an idea that somebody has an inability to pay or if a driver has been dodged on fares.”
She couldn’t say exactly what gave this driver a reasonable suspicion that this passenger would not pay the fare, other than the driver’s statement that he looked like someone who had dodged a fare before.
Co-owner John Schmidt estimated that only five to seven percent of passengers are asked to prepay. The company’s prepayment policy is not displayed in cabs and is not outlined in the company’s terms of service.
“We just go by the city ordinance,” he said.
He said as many as 20 percent of rides on Friday and Saturday nights end with a passenger skipping out on a fare, and Madison police aren’t much help in running those down.
“I mean, the police department’s not going after anybody for a $9 fare,” said John Schmidt. “Their resources are not going to and chase down these people for a stupid cab fare. But … it’s just become the norm that you can take a cab and run and nothing’s going to happen to you. That’s why it’s getting out of hand.”
Both Schmidts noted that app-based rideshare services like Uber and Lyft, not to mention Madison Metro buses, always require prepayment, and that Green Cab is in discussions with the City of Madison to change local regulations to allow cab companies to do the same, in part to prevent people from skipping out on fares but also to increase driver safety. He cited an incident Saturday in which a driver asked two Black teens for prepayment because they were travelling outside of Madison, and one of them went back into the residence and returned with a gun. Police are still looking for those boys, according to a report on Channel3000.com.
“(Requiring prepayment) takes this whole thing out of play,” Schmidt says. “It takes the cash right out of the cab. Everything is prepaid. It’s fair to everybody. I mean, I know there’s gonna be certain people that don’t have credit cards. I don’t know if how many people in the world don’t have credit cards nowadays.”
In the meantime, though, it’s up to drivers — who the Schmidts stress are independent contractors — to decide when to require prepayment. And in this case, they say that judgment call wasn’t based on race.
“To turn this into a racial thing, it’s ridiculous,” John Schmidt said. “I mean it just doesn’t make any sense. I mean, one, we’re not that type of company. Two, as business owners, we’re not that type of people. Three, our cab drivers are not that type of people. It’s not that way at all. Our culture is not that way at all and I don’t think Madison has that culture either. I just think basically when things like this get brought up and it turns it into a racial thing … this has nothing to do with race. It’s just a simple of right and wrong, and suspicion of this is what happened at that same address.”
John Schmidt said he did understand where the teen is coming from.
“I can totally understand that young man’s feelings, but if somebody were to sit down and explain to this young man exactly what is going on in this industry, he would probably be appalled and just go, ‘oh, I can definitely see why this gentleman asked me, you know, it’s nothing to do with race,’” Schmidt said. “I mean obviously there’s black people, there’s white people. If the guy was white and he looked like the same guy (who had skipped on a fare before), he would ask the same thing.
“We don’t make everybody prepay because they’re black. That’s crazy,” he said. “That’s absolutely crazy. That would definitely be racist. That’s not what’s happening here.”
But, John Schmidt said, this wouldn’t be an issue at all if cab companies were allowed to require prepayment in all cases.
“The Ubers and the Lyfts of the world have put the cab industry into a situation that we’re having conversations like this right now. It is very unfair to the passengers and is very unfair to the cab driver and very unfair to the taxi cab companies,” he said.
“We have over 200 independent contractors,” he said. “For us to keep track of all these guys, it’s unbelievable. I’m not going to say we never get a bad apple in the bunch, but if we do, we weed them out. At the same time we have to look at that too, because if you have somebody that you just don’t like for umpteen reasons and you get rid of them, we might be doing something wrong or it might be discriminating against them. No matter which way we turn nowadays, you’ve got to look at what you’re doing to make sure you’re not offending somebody.”