Daniel McDougall didn’t anticipate shouldering the entire demand for taxis in Tuolumne County five months ago when he purchased two broken down cars for $1,200 and started Frontier Cab.
McDougall, of Sonora, found his fledgling company thrust into that precarious position after City Cab went out of business last month, the third taxi service in the county to do so over the past year.
And while ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft have brought fierce competition for the taxi industry in many larger cities, there are still few drivers between the two that can regularly be found in the area.
The void has left people who depend on cabs for transportation literally stranded in some cases as McDougall scrambles to expand his fleet and bring on more drivers.
“At one point, our wait time was like five hours even in the middle of the day,” McDougall said. “I couldn’t accurately give out wait times because it was so absurd.”
McDougall said average wait times have shortened since they’ve started getting the hang of the nonstop pace, but he hopes to make them even shorter by purchasing two more cars in the coming weeks.
He also needs to find four more drivers, two each for the day and night shifts, though that could take some time due to the City of Sonora’s permitting process that can take weeks and sometimes months.
“I try to provide what people expect, but at the same time, reality versus expectations,” he said. “If I had more drivers, I think our wait times would be down to 20 minutes.”
Some people have been caught off guard by the sudden shortage of taxis — and they aren’t just people looking to avoid a DUI after a night of drinking.
Mary Stubblefield, 80, of Sonora, said she relied on taxis for more than eight years until a family member she lives with got a car about five months ago.
“That was my ride — the cab,” she said, adding that she would use them up to four times a week. “I’d go up to The Junction, to Walmart, just local shopping. I’d be gone four or five hours and, for the most part, they would know when I was done and sometimes even come into the store looking for me if I wasn’t there.”
Stubblefield said she would mostly use Forty Niner Cab and Golden State Cab, both of which went under within eight months of each other.
According to the Sonora Police Department, which regulates cab companies within the city limits, Forty Niner Cab went out of business in September last year followed by Golden State Cab in May.
The most recent owners of both companies could not be reached for comment.
Golden State Cab gained a reputation in recent years for a number of brushes with the law that made headlines, culminating with the 2016 arrest of driver Ronald Udell Paul after he allegedly hopped into one of the company’s cabs and ran down another man he claimed had stolen his SUV.
Paul was sentenced to 16 years in prison on Aug. 28 for attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon other than a firearm, according to the Tuolumne County District Attorney’s Office.
Stubblefield said the drivers she encountered over the years were mostly nice and would sometimes even help carry her groceries for her when they dropped her off at home, though she admits there were a few occasional exceptions.
Stubblefield said a number of neighbors in her housing complex still rely on cabs for transportation and recently told her about the long wait times.
“There are a lot of seniors where I live who have to walk over and up hills to get to the bus stop, and it’s hard for them,” she said.
Robert Parsons said he didn’t want to end City Cab’s eight-year run when he closed in September, but he was left with no other choice.
Parsons, of Jamestown, said he was looking at rising insurance premiums after a couple of recent accidents and couldn’t find a company that would cover him for what he could afford.
“I would say for the last year, I was doing it mainly because I had so many contractors working for me,” he said. “At the end, I kind of got forced out by insurance.”
Parsons said he had six cars and about 14 to 15 contractors working for him around the clock, usually in 12-hour shifts. He purchased the business about five years ago from the person who started it in 2010.
Parsons said the majority of business came during the daytime hours as opposed to when people come stumbling drunk out of bars at night.
“Even when I went into it, I thought it was just a bunch of bar stuff,” he said. “But during the day, what you’re really doing is running people to work and doctor’s appointments and stuff.”
Parsons said at one time he also had a contract with Adventist Health Sonora for picking up patients and taking them home, as well as taking people in assisted-living homes to regular dialysis treatments.
In addition, Parsons said the drivers who worked for him would also often provide rides for people who got off work at Walmart at odd hours when Tuolumne County Transit buses were not operating.
One of the challenges of running a business like a taxi service that Parsons encountered was the constant cost of maintaining the fleet of vehicles, some of which he said would put on 1,000 miles every couple of days.
Parsons said there were also the inevitable accidents that happen when a vehicle is being driven nearly 24 hours a day in all sorts of conditions, especially during winter.
On top of all that, Parsons said there are the costs associated with meeting all of the state and local regulations. Recently, a potential buyer of his business backed out after deciding he didn’t want to deal with the requirements.
The city requires cab companies to have $1 million liability insurance coverage.
Each driver also must have an operator permit that requires them to clear a background check and pay an $81 fee. Not having a permit can result in the company being suspended from doing business in the city limits.
Parsons said the length of time that it can take for the background check to be completed can take weeks to months and makes it difficult to keep potential drivers interested in the job.
One way the city could ease some of the burden would be by allowing the police to issue temporary permits for drivers while an application is pending, Parsons said.
He also believes the insurance requirement could be lowered, as some larger cities have opted to do in recent years.
For example, San Diego recently drastically reduced its insurance coverage requirement for cab companies from $1 million to $350,000 to help them survive against ride-sharing services that are largely unregulated.
Sonora Police Chief Turu VanderWiel said he would nr uncomfortable with issuing temporary permits for cab drivers because the purpose is to weed out people who could pose a danger to the community.
“The reason we approve or deny permits most of the time weighs upon whether there’s a criminal history that could possibly put the community at risk,” he said. “I don’t to do that for a temporary time while we find out if they should be driving.”
Crimes that would disqualify a driver include those with a sexual or violent nature, recent convictions for DUI or reckless driving, and any others that may indicate a pattern or history of crimes against other people.
VanderWiel said the normal turnaround for a permit application is about two weeks, but the ones that take longer are usually due to delays in obtaining physical records from the Department of Justice that aren’t available digitally.
As for the $1 million insurance requirement, VanderWiel said that’s the standard amount for all operating permits issued by the city, including for tow-truck companies and public events hosted by outside entities.
The amount is required by ordinance, so the only way to change it would be through the Sonora City Council.
VanderWiel said there hasn’t been any noticeable uptick in DUI arrests by his department since City Cab went under, though he wouldn’t be able to definitively determine a trend without at least a couple months of data.
Despite being the regulatory authority, VanderWiel said the department doesn’t have an adversarial relationship with cab companies and sees the value they can provide in helping people have an option to get home safe.
One group that has benefited in recent weeks are Uber drivers, whom VanderWiel said are not regulated by the city.
Ben Nelson, of Sonora, said he’s been able to get five to seven rides a day during the week since the closure of City Cab, whereas before he would maybe get one or two.
“Before, I wasn’t able to do much during the middle of the week,” he said.
Nelson said he works four jobs, including as an Uber driver in his spare time, a perioperative assistant at Adventist Health Sonora, a safety auditor for ACRT, and a snowboard instructor at Dodge Ridge Ski Area during the winters.
Being an Uber driver is one of the more lucrative of Nelson’s side gigs, he said, earning him as much as $20 hour on average.
“I found even in a full V8 SUV, I do pretty well,” he said. “It definitely does more than just cover my gas.”
Uber drivers typically use their own vehicles to transport riders who connect with them through the company’s digital smartphone app. Their vehicle must pass an inspection to appear on the app.
Nelson said he’s been an Uber driver for about two years and knows of only one other who is available on a regular basis, in addition to some who come from the valley to drop someone off at one of the casinos and stick around for awhile.
Some believe that the area’s mountainous terrain and lack of cell coverage are the reason more don’t attempt to earn some extra cash, though Nelson said he’s never had an issue.
He believes one of the main factors why there aren’t more Uber drivers in the area is that it’s simply not possible to do it full time with a population of about 54,000. Another reason he cited is a lack of public awareness.
“We have a lot of tourists, but it’s not consistent enough to be a full-time job,” he said. “On top of that, I don’t think Uber has a lot of public attention on it. A lot of people I pick up say they didn’t even know it’s up here.”
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.