Infrastructure & Environment

Value-Added Taxi

Sometimes transit operators' and cab drivers' personal beliefs conflict with their jobs and passengers.
by | January 2007
 

These days, air travel can be pretty stressful. So imagine the frustration you'd feel if, after you've landed and elbowed your way through baggage claim, you hail a cab, only to have the driver glance at you and speed off. It's a situation many travelers have found themselves in upon arrival at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

That's because many of the cab drivers there are Muslim, and they say the Koran prohibits them from transporting passengers who are toting bottles of alcohol purchased on a trip or in the duty-free shop. For the drivers, acting on such convictions means moving to the back of the line of cabs. For the passengers, it can be a startling inconvenience. One flight attendant reported last fall that five cabs in a row refused to pick her up because she was carrying two bottles of wine.

It's an issue that "began with just a couple drivers who had that interpretation of the Koran," says Pat Hogan of the Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan Airports Commission. But it's escalated over the past couple of years. By last fall, cab drivers were refusing passengers nearly 80 times a month. "It became a significant customer service problem for us," Hogan says.

The airports' commission worried that, if it continued to sanction the taxi drivers' actions, cabbies would start refusing service to more types of people. Other major cities, most notably London and Melbourne, had already reported Muslim cab drivers refusing to pick up blind passengers with seeing-eye dogs, which the Koran considers unclean. "Today it's alcohol," Hogan says. "But tomorrow it might be service dogs, or women who are not fully covered, or homosexuals-- anybody whose lifestyle is not in keeping with the beliefs of the drivers."

Officials in the public arena try to be respectful of workers' religious beliefs. But should they allow workers to pick and choose whom they serve, based on their personal values?

Interestingly, the Twin Cities area transit agency has been wrestling with the same question. A Minneapolis bus driver had complained about an advertisement running on some city buses. The ad was for Lavender, a gay magazine in Minnesota, and it showed a photo of a man and the slogan, "Unleash Your Inner Gay." The driver said she objected to the ad, and that it violated her religious beliefs. She requested that she not be assigned to any of the buses carrying the Lavender ad. Metro Transit decided to accommodate her, and officials made sure she was assigned to other buses until the end of the ad campaign.

"We're required to make religious accommodations under the Civil Rights Act," says Metro Transit spokesman Bob Gibbons. Officials weren't sure whether this situation qualified, but they decided to err on the side of the driver while they spent some time examining the issue. Their decision sparked a flurry of criticism--from the local transit union, from Lavender magazine, in calls from customers and on local talk radio. Now, after examining the issue, transit officials say they wouldn't make the same type of accommodation again. They worry about the kind of message it would send to their customers: that it would suggest the city shared the driver's values. "I'm not convinced it was the wrong thing to do at the time," says Gibbons. "You have to examine these types of things on a case-by-case basis. But if identical circumstances arose, we would be reluctant to make the same decision in the future."

Meanwhile, back at the airport, commissioners came up with a plan to install different-colored top-lights on the roofs of the cabs, indicating whether the driver would accept a passenger carrying alcohol. But the proposal drew instant--and intense--criticism from the public. And officials again worried about a slippery slope. "We were afraid it would just keep going," says Hogan. "You'd have different-colored lights for every religious belief." After less than two weeks, they scrapped the idea.

While the alcohol question still hasn't been resolved, outside events have mitigated the problem to some extent. The federal ban on carrying large amounts of liquids aboard a plane means far fewer passengers are traveling with wine or liquor. "But it's still a big issue for us," Hogan says.

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