By Nikki Volpicelli and Jonathan Viguers

Fairhill: Underground Transportation Above Ground

Fairhill: Underground Transportation Above Ground
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Medallion Cab

“Cab….cab…. cab…”

Looking around, you may not see a yellow sedan or hear the familiar screech and stop and hasty honk of a commercial cab company. There may no rooftop light or fare meter, perhaps only a simple four-door unmarked sedan.

But you will hear is the same word over and over.


This is the call of the “hack,” the black market taxi service of an underground economy.

Aside from SEPTA, bike and foot, hack cabs are a valuable form of transportation for people in lower-income areas like Fairhill.

Ron Blount, president of the Unified Taxi Workers of Pennsylvania says, “Illegal hacks mostly work the inner-city neighborhoods, such as North Philly, West Philly and Germantown. Most medallion cabs are isolated in Center City, [the] airport and [the] Amtrak station. They have different areas of work, except at the bus station [at 10th and Filbert streets]. That’s the only time in my 25 years of driving that [I’ve] see them clash.”

In 2004, The Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) handed regulation of medallion taxicabs and licensed limousines in Philadelphia city boundaries to the Philadelphia Parking Authority. A medallion is a metallic symbol attached to the cab that authorizes its operation.

The medallion system was put in effect to regulate the number of taxicabs hereby keeping the market fair for both drivers and passengers.

Philadelphia Taxicab Medallion

Philadelphia Taxicab Medallion

The PPA made it illegal to deny customers service based on location. Still, this legislation says nothing of the presence of roaming medallion taxicabs in areas like Fairhill and other North Philadelphia neighborhoods—which seems little to none. Prices are high and cab companies tend to neglect areas of low income and high crime.

Blount says, “Medallion cabs aren’t in the inner-city neighborhoods because there is no dispatch work. Most dispatch companies want medallion drivers to pick up their corporate work in Center City. This way they get an extra ten percent from the drivers.”

As for safery being a concern for medallion drivers in inner city neighborhoods,  “Between 2004 and 2005, we lost five taxi drivers.”

It is 8:30 p.m. on a Wednesday. I call for a dispatcher at the Crescent Cab Co. at 215-365-3500 and get no answer.

I call the Yellow Cab Company located at 8125 Frankford Ave. I ask for a cab from Harison’s Barbershop at 358 E. Indiana Ave. to Broad and South streets. I am given a wait time of anywhere between 15 to 90 minutes. If the cab is not there in 90 minutes, I am told to call back to make sure they are still coming. With this type of wait time it is understandable that someone on a schedule could not count on a call-in cab service for such daily chores as picking up groceries and taking them home.

While the Fine Fare Groceries at Fifth Street and Allegheny Avenue offer a delivery service, Cousins Food Market at Third Street and Lehigh Avenue, located at the other side of Fairhill does not provide courtesy drivers of any kind.

Michael Ellis, 38, works at the Lukoil gas station at 201 Lehigh Ave. He doesn’t tell me what he does there, but he carries around a big gulp filled with change and says that he’s working as we speak. As I ask the station attendant if he ever encounters any hacks in his lot—to which he says he knows nothing, Ellis speaks up from behind me.

“You wanna know about hacks?” he asks as he writes numbers on the Pennsylvania Lottery board in black ink.

“They don’t have meters or nothin’, you gotta go to a certain spot to pick them up. I’ll tell them if I want to go from Broad and Lehigh [streets] to Front and Lehigh [streets] and it’ll cost seven bucks”.

Ellis’s cousin, Terrance Penson, 45, of York and Reese streets backs him up.

Terrance Penson (left) and Michael Ellis (right)

Terrance Penson (left) and Michael Ellis (right)

A dispatcher from Liberty Cab Company says that same trip would cost an average of $25.

“The two guys I deal with will pick you up at your door. I got their numbers. They’re pleasant, respectful and their cars are clean and smell good. Mr. Earl, the oldest, has a 2003 Crown Victoria. The other guys got a 2007 Jeep Grand Cherokee”.

Still, this accessibility does nothing to prevent the PPA from hunting hack cabbies down. After all, it is still illegal.

A combination of legal cab company’s wait time and the sometimes unattainable prices and neighborhood neglect creates a void for quick and reliable door-to-door transportation for Fairhill residents.<

And there’s a comfort in knowing your neighborhood and the people in it. It’s not always just a simple transportation matter, but a matter of friendship and supporting the local community.

The Lorenzo Homar Gallery on Fifth Street in Fairhill is hosting an exhibition of artist Sofia Maldonado’s work which combines a variety of visual arts with the skateboarding community.  Maldonado and Visual Arts Curator Daniel De Jesus explain what visitors can expect and how the art relates to the local community.  The show runs through Nov. 6, with a reception scheduled for Oct. 16.

5 Responses to Fairhill: Underground Transportation Above Ground

  1. Pingback: “Hack” Cabs in Inner City Philadelphia « Nikki Volpicelli

  2. anonymous October 1, 2009 at 10:35 pm

    You can report illegal cabs at https://www.seeclickfix.com/

  3. Riche Niche March 19, 2011 at 12:55 am

    This problems exist in every country. Here even in Malaysia and Thailand we can see some taxi driver do not use meters. One should get proper taxi service company to book taxi. KLIA Taxi & LCCT Taxi – Taxi to Kuala Lumpur International Airports

  4. Graylin Sanders May 1, 2011 at 6:34 pm

    This is and has been a way of American life. Illegal or not the planet is based on supply and demand. If you go to the medallion cab company and they tell you 15 to 90 mins you should be looking for an alternative right then and there you have places to go and need a means of taxi transportation to get you there. I drive a cab here in San Carlos Ca. People need to make a living it is just the way it is

  5. Doris Jenkins, Matlack Leasing July 17, 2012 at 1:14 pm

    Underground taxi service is remote, so anyone can use it. Therefore, it is unfortunately a problem that persists and there is no way to avoid it. However, this type of black market won’t work on other types of vehicles, so underground transportation won’t work for tank trailers , simply because of its size.

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